Bio-Bound: Austria Stays Down to Earth

News | Nick Zahariev | July 2007

Thus far, Austrian produce remains free of genetic manipulation

The recent debate over importing genetically engineered grain to Austria has revealed the nation’s pride in agriculture and animal farming.

In spite of heavy pressure, Austrians continue to resist the European Union and World Trade Organization directives to import gen-food, no matter its origin.

Thus, over the last few years, the demand for biologically produced foods has increased at an unprecedented pace and the market for so-called "organic foods" in Austria is booming.

The term "bio food" for food free of pesticides, additives and artificial processes of all kinds is now universally recognized. But it is, in fact, a very broad term containing sub-categories which require more in-depth analysis.

The three largest bio-sectors, milk products (including eggs), fresh fruits and vegetables, and meat products, is each a separate industry with specific production procedures.

A 2006 survey of consumer motivation revealed that 87% of Austrian residents reported "occasionally" buying organically grown, or free-range foods.

These results indicate the increased awareness of this issue and that price differences don’t influence buying behavior to the same extent as for other products.

In general, biologically manufactured food prices are up to a third higher (36%) than conventional products, yet the market is still booming.

Since most customers are price sensitive, how is it that so many of these people are still willing to pay more?

The answer is that there is no definite answer. But there are many speculations. Agrarmarkt Austria (AMA, The Austrian Agricultural Institute) believes that it is partially due to increased awareness of personal health issues and to Austrian consumers’ strong inclination to inform themselves about the source of their food.

Other experts suggest the boom is largely fueled by the media. On any particular evening, surfing through the TV channels will turn up a news program, a documentary or a talk show focused on being overweight or how the average European is getting heavier everyday.  Then,in the break, come advertisements for organic food.

This penetrating influx of health-related issues has taken hold of the mass media.

On May 7, 2004 a documentary called Super-Size Me opened in cinemas world-wide shaking peoples’ minds on how vital good nutrition is for the human body. The film’s producer and protagonist, Morgan Spurlock documented an experiment where he ate only McDonald’s for one month closely observing his health status with the help of various medical experts. After only 4 days, his overall health was going down the drain and the diet was doing serious harm to his liver. It seems that this kind of documentary caused people to look for alternatives and opened viewer’s eyes to how damaging the wrong nutrition can actually be for the human body.

Another important concern is pesticides, which farmers use to protect their crops from insects and disease. Consumers happily pay the price difference because they are receiving food which is not chemically poisoned, and this is worth every cent.

Another factor in the positive attitude of consumers towards organic foods may be the address of the farmer stamped on every package, allowing the consumer to actually trace the product back to its origin. This provides people with a sense of security, even subconsciously evoking comfort.

Nevertheless, it all comes down to how the individual perceives the importance of organic food.

While some people may thrive to an old age without giving a thought to the quality of their food, many may not. Therefore, it can be a matter of individual health and the ability to handle the differences in how food is produced.

Will Austria keep resisting the influx of genetically engineered food? Or will McDonald’s start bringing Austria’s finest cows into the restaurants to show their customers how organic their beef patties really are?

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