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Over half of consumers know nothing of gene editing

New research finds consumers more open to gene editing when educated on benefits to consumers and environment.

Consumers generally think about gene editing in a negative light, although there is room for improvement with improved communication and explanation of the technology’s benefits. More than half of respondents indicate having never heard of the technology, according to new research released by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), in partnership with the American Seed Trade Assn., American Farm Bureau Federation and Farm Foundation.

Simply informing consumers about the technology has trivial effects on "willingness to pay," but specific information about the benefits of gene editing can significantly improve consumer acceptance of gene editing, according to the research released Tuesday and presented during a Farm Foundation Forum. 

Dr. Vincenzina Caputo, assistant professor at the department of agricultural, food and resource economics at Michigan State University, in collaboration with Valerie Kilders, research assistant at Michigan State University, and Dr. Jayson Lusk, distinguished professor and head of the department of agricultural economics at Purdue University, surveyed nearly 5,000 U.S. food shoppers who completed simulated purchasing scenarios. Respondents chose between products depicted to be organic, non-genetically modified organism (GMO), bio-engineered, conventional or gene edited.

The discovery of CRISPR DNA sequences in the mid-1990s heralded a new era for genetic engineering of agricultural products through the introduction of gene editing. Unlike the first generation of genetic engineering, which uses random insertions of DNA segments into the genome of a new species (usually referred to as genetic modifications), gene editing technologies make precise changes at specific locations in the DNA. Moreover, gene editing does not necessarily require the insertion of foreign DNA. As such, gene editing technologies represent an evolution of traditional breeding and have the potential to revolutionize the food industry, the report notes.

When consumers are informed of the benefits of gene editing, market potential for gene-edited products exceeds 15%, the survey found.

“Gene editing, as a plant and animal breeding technique, is a relatively new food technology, so we believed it was important to establish a baseline for consumer understanding and how that level of understanding impacts purchasing decisions,” stated Leslie Sarasin, president and chief executive officer of FMI, the Food Industry Assn. “We know from experience that new technologies can initially cause consumer confusion, so it is our hope that these research results serve as a path forward for the food and agriculture industries to collaborate and facilitate a better understanding and a common language around gene-edited products.”

Caputo explained that consumers are more willing to purchase gene-edited foods when they know the specific benefits to the consumer, the environment and animal health. “We found that willingness to pay for consumers goes up when benefits are communicated,” she said, adding that acceptance improved with messaging such as the use of technology to reduce animal diseases or gene-edited tomatoes being more nutritious or the environmental benefits of using less water.

Animal welfare is becoming one of the most important food attributes, and consumers are willing to pay high-priced premiums for products displaying animal welfare claims, Caputo continued. The research found that as people heard about swine flu virus and the value of the technology and were able to link the use of technology with improved animal welfare, acceptance increased.

Consumers are willing to pay relatively more for fresh gene-edited vegetables (tomatoes and spinach) compared to fresh meat when information is provided to them. For fresh plant products, the willingness to pay is higher compared to their processed counterpart. On the other hand, the willingness to pay for gene-edited meat is higher for bacon than for pork chops.

Avoiding another GMO repeat

With the wide array of applications of the technology, gene editing has the potential to become more common in the agriculture sector, and any effort to avoid the mistakes made in consumer acceptance of GMOs repeating itself in gene editing acceptance is evident.

When consumers heard “GMO,” they typically associated this word with attributes such as “not healthy,” “unnatural,” “fake” or “bad.” These responses indicate that consumers generally know about GMOs but may have an unfavorable opinion of them. On the other hand, when asked what comes to mind when consumers hear “gene edited,” the most popular answers were “I don’t know,” “bad,” “fake,” “scary,” “science” and “modified.” These answers indicate that consumers aren’t entirely informed about gene editing, the report said.

On the Farm Foundation panel, Lance Atwater, a Nebraska farmer, said it is important to figure out how to educate farmers and the next generation of consumers. “If we don’t, gene editing won’t be successful and will end up the same as GMOs, with consumers fearful of what we’re doing. We have to figure out how to simplify communication so consumers can understand what we’re doing,” Atwater said.

Atwater compared gene editing to the latest Lego sets bought today. Each set offers a basic template, but builders also can make small changes without significantly altering the integrity of the structure. In Nebraska, a lot of forage corn goes into silage, so there’s a need for corn hybrids to be taller. With gene editing, crop breeders can add whatever the gene needs to make that crop taller.

Caputo said gene editing is used in other fields, most notably in medicine, which receives higher consumer acceptance because of its perceived benefits to society. When it comes to food, consumers don’t understand why farmers need to use technologies to produce something provided in nature. She said it is important for farmers to talk the same language of consumers and offer insight into how things are done in nature, emphasizing the lengthened time without the use of the technology.

Dustin Madison, who offers agronomic advice for the 20,000 acres farmed by Engel Family Farms in Virginia, said gene editing takes many concerns and challenges for farmers off the table and opens up doors not known to exist right now. All in all, gene editing is a cool science, but it does more than just offer higher yields for producers. “It touches so many other parts of our business that it allows us to stay in business. Staying in business is what we’re all about. Eventually, people are going to have to eat something, and it’s probably going to have to come from us,” he said.

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