There have been several recent cases where there is an apparent disconnect between the way people vote on food issues and how they shop for food. Examples include votes on GMO labeling or bans (which are more popular with voters than non-GMO products are with shoppers) and animal welfare issues (voters in several states have banned cages/crates employed in the vast majority of purchased retail products). The issue is of importance to agricultural producers, who must adopt costly new practices that consumers haven't been fully willing pay a premium for in the marketplace.
There has been a lot of academic speculations about the causes of this vote-buy gap, but we still aren't sure why it exists. I'm now working on a research project with Bailey Norwood here at OSU, Kate Brooks at University of Nebraska, and Glynn Tonsor at K-State to delve a bit deeper into the issue.
In the most recent Food Demand Survey (FooDS), I thought I'd ask every day people why they think the vote-buy gap exists. Here's the question I asked:
The question was open-ended and respondents could type anything they wanted in an empty box.
I went through the answers and tried to categorize them into competing explanations for the gap. Not all answers were mutually exclusive, so I put some of them in more than one category.
Here were the common responses (note that 46% of responses responded with some form of "I don't know" or did not provide a cogent response).
The information hypothesis (mentioned by 27% of all respondents and 59% who provided an answer). The gap is caused by a lack of information: people did not know they were buying cage eggs in the grocery store, and they wouldn't have bought them if they knew more. Example responses include things like "Because they did not realize what they were purchasing" and "shoppers didn't know that eggs were coming from small caged hens" and "Most people don't understand where their food comes from."
The price hypothesis (mentioned by 14% of all respondents and 29% who provided an answer). The gap is a result of the high price of cage free eggs in the grocery store: prices are more salient in the store than when voting. Example responses include "price is everything, people buy what is available at a cheap price" and "Because people do not have money to pay for more expensive eggs."
The consumer vs. citizen hypothesis (mentioned by 8% of all respondents and 17% who provided an answer). People have two selves: the citizen who wants to do the "right thing" in the voting booth and the consumer who pays more attention to themselves and prices when shopping. Example responses include, "sometimes people say what they think is politically correct but don't act in the same manner" and "People voted with their hearts/ethics" and "I don't think they considered how they bought the products. They voted as they did because they know it is the right thing to do."
The availability hypothesis (mentioned by 5% of all respondents and 11% who provided an answer). More consumers don't buy cage free eggs because they aren't available (or aren't convenient) in the stores in which they shop. Example responses include, "cage free are less available and cost more" and "There wasn't many choices available for eggs in the supermarket. You purchase what you can see" and "Consumers want cruelty free eggs but are frustrated that they aren't available at convenient stores where they already shop."
The apathy hypothesis (mentioned by 4% of all respondents and 9% who provided an answer). Consumers don't care (or don't think) about animal welfare when shopping, but they might vote for an animal welfare policy when confronted. Examples include, "i don't think they cared much" and "I don't think about it when buying my eggs. I'm sure most people don't think about it."
Selection hypothesis (mentioned by 2% of all respondents and 1% who provided an answer). A sample of voters is not the same as the sample of shoppers. The types of people who vote have a stronger preference for cage free eggs than the population of people who shop. An example includes, "I think in general people who are passionate about an issue such as animal welfare are more likely to vote and participate in "get out the vote" campaigns to encourage voting. So in elections when many people choose not to vote (or are unable to for economic reasons), it is easier for groups who feel strongly about an issue to pass such bans."
Induced innovation hypothesis (mentioned by 2% of all responses, and 1% who provided an answer). People don't buy cage free eggs now because they're too expensive, but voting for the policy will force producers and retailers to price them lower at a point consumers are willing to pay. An example response includes, "Some cannot afford the higher price eggs, but if all producers were forced to have better living arrangements the prices would then drop."
A number of hypotheses that I often hear mentioned among academics were rarely if ever mentioned by the respondents. For example, the free riding/public good hypothesis (that even though my individual purchase doesn't much affect animal welfare my vote might matter because more animals are affected) or the commitment hypothesis (I really want to buy cage free eggs but I keep backsliding; a ban can force me to behave as I really want to).
There were a number of mentions of food safety and health. It wasn't clear to me precisely how these translated into a vote-buy gap, but I thought it was worth mentioning nonetheless.