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Apparently we are what we eat. But do we really know what we’re eating? And what effect do our increasingly informed choices have on Australia’s food industries? With ethical consumerism on the rise, business needs to examine the economics of ethical eating.

We might think we’re doing the right thing for our health and the environment by selecting pricey organic products and free-range eggs, but with a raft of new products – from functional foods to genetically modified everything – inevitably coming to suburban supermarkets, business analyst group IBISWorld’s General Manager (Australia) Mr Jason Baker believes plenty of shoppers will forget their principles and succumb to the lure of the latest products with big promises.

"Genetically modified crops are a prime example," explains Mr Baker. "Currently the public is relatively resistant to the idea of GM foods, with a report last year suggesting more than 50% of the population wouldn’t eat them, but that’s likely to change. As the benefits of GM foods are further established we expect shoppers will slowly come around to the idea, with an enormous economic benefit for growers of GM crops and other food manufacturers."

Currently all Australian states except for Queensland and the Northern Territory have imposed bans on genetically modified crops, but that’s set to change. IBISWorld believes GM crops are set to become a huge market in Australia, with Victoria allowing crop planting from next year, with other states likely to follow.

"While Australia currently only has GM cotton and carnations, research is well underway for GM grains as well as GM fruits and while it might seem like a new concept for Australian shoppers, the truth is it’s probably already on our supermarket shelves to some extent through imported, processed food products, without many of us even noticing."

With the obesity epidemic gaining momentum and mass media coverage, the appeal of products such as GM cooking oils with less cholesterol or GM soy will increase, and it remains to be seen whether consumers will hold tight to their ethical stance, or cave in the face of attractive and potentially healthy new choices.

So-called "functional foods" are a huge growth market for supermarkets, such as products with added vitamins or nutrients, from fortified water to margarine promising to lower cholesterol absorption.

"The next step in making food healthier will be through genetic modification," explains Mr Baker. "In the US, for instance, special breeding programmes have managed to reduce the fat content in pork. Ideologically a lot of Australians may be opposed to this kind of manipulation, yet their expanding waistlines may eventually trump their ethical ideals."

Other crops in development and trial stage include drought-resistant rice, bigger trees with better yields, cancer-fighting tomatoes, non-allergenic soybeans, fresher fruit and vegetables, healthier potatoes, safer fish and decaffeinated coffee bean plants. Will we be able to resist?

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