GLADSTONE, Mo. — Gene editing provides the potential to solve challenges the society is facing in human health, food production and agriculture.
“It’s clear that the full potential of gene editing can only be realized if we can earn public trust,” said Amy te Plate-Church, Center for Food Integrity Coalition for Responsible Gene Editing in Agriculture.
“The first gene-edited foods that are introduced in the market will set the stage for all the rest,” she said during a webinar. “The initial headlines that come out will be under considerable conversation.”
“Technology is advancing at a pace faster than humans can adapt, accept and embrace it,” added Charlie Arnot, CEO for CFI. “And we lack the social structures to keep pace with it.”
Disruption happens when a new technology is introduced that makes a company obsolete.
“One example is ride sharing and the impact on taxis,” Arnot said.
“Dislocation is when we begin to feel the entire environment moving away from us at a pace we can’t keep up, and it causes us to raise concerns of whether or not we need to do something else,” he said.
“We’re at a really interesting pace now as technology has outstripped our ability to continue to keep pace and as a result there’s a mismatch between the rate of change and our ability to develop learning systems, management systems, social safety nets and governmental regulations that allows society to maximize the positive impacts of the innovation and technology and cushion the worst impacts,” Arnot said.
“We find ourselves in a place where we have dislocation and as a result people begin to look for different solutions,” he said. “This creates greater challenge to develop support and find ways to generate support for responsible use of technology like gene editing.”
CFI has conducted consumer research for over a decade and tracks changes in attitudes and perceptions.
One statement the organization has tested is “I trust today’s food system.”
“For the last year of our research, only 25% of American consumers strongly agree, and that’s a drop from 37% in the previous year,” te Plate-Church said.
For the statement of “I am confident in the safety of the food I eat,” she said, 33% of the consumers strongly agreed, compared to 47% in the previous year.
“Some find these numbers alarming especially considering we are in the U.S. with an incredibly safe, affordable and healthy food supply,” she said.
In research during 2017 specific to gene editing, te Plate-Church said, less than half of the respondents said, “I understand how gene editing works.”
“But more than half said I want to learn more about how gene editing is used in agriculture and food production,” she said. “Consumers want to learn more, and that’s a tremendous opportunity for us.”
Te Plate-Church stressed the importance of embracing the power of shared values.
“Consumer trust research demonstrates that values are three to five times more important than facts,” she said. “Clearly science and data are important, but to be successful we need to lead with shared values.”
In addition, te Plate-Church said, to earn trust with consumers about gene editing those involved need to have an understanding of consumer perceptions.
The Coalition for Gene Editing analyzed more than 15 research and data sets and identified several findings.
“There is a considerable knowledge gap among consumers when it comes to science, genetics and modern plant and animal breeding,” te Plate-Church said.
“It is imperative to show the evolution of genetic improvement in plants and animals that’s been happening over the last century,” she said. “We need to communicate that before we describe gene editing.”
The public desires information from credentialed experts, te Plate-Church said; however, they do not want the information to be delivered as an academic explanation.
“Analogies and visuals are important to explain science, especially with the knowledge gap,” she said. “And these should be understandable without being oversimplified.”
Studies show that consumers have the strongest support for gene editing when it provides benefits related to environmental stewardship, healthier food, disease resistance and animal wellbeing.
“Consumers have additional questions about the use of science and technology in animals compared to plants,” te Plate-Church said.
In a survey of 1,600 people in 2017, te Plate-Church said, two-thirds of the people believe gene editing for human therapeutic purposes is acceptable.
“Most people know someone who’s impacted by cancer or another disease where gene editing is being done,” she said.
“Gene editing can be life saving, so human health is a shared value,” she said. “It is one that can be very helpful in introducing the conversation about gene editing use in food and agriculture.”