Innovation is the Key to Sustainable Food Production

Food security is once again in the spotlight. With a rise in conflict, displacement, climate disasters, and a global pandemic that has spread across the world, hunger is on the rise again after years of progress in the global fight. Our food production has also been challenged. Farmers and ranchers continue to face difficulties resulting from erratic weather patterns and global competition.

New advancements in technology are the keys to sustainably supporting and growing our food supply and driving our economy forward. While we have already made significant strides in the fight against hunger, to meet growing demand for food worldwide, the global community will need to find new ways to feed the population using fewer resources. There is always a need for continued improvement. One of those ways is through gene editing, which is an emerging plant and animal breeding method with promising implications for sustainable food production. This year, gene editing received new and well-deserved attention. The 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was recently awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna for the development of a method of gene editing.

Although gene editing received high praise from a high place, the ultimate test of approval will be with consumers. New research released by The FMI Foundation in partnership with the American Seed Trade Association, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and the Farm Foundation found that consumers are largely unaware of the benefits of this groundbreaking technology.

This month’s edition of Inside Story takes a deep dive into the promise of gene editing and the many benefits it holds for us and the importance of communicating these benefits to consumers early and often.

The U.S. continues to lead the way in modernizing the future of the agricultural industry, including through the advancement and adoption of new technology in agriculture – setting a standard for the world to follow. We must continue to invest in innovation like gene editing to help us grow our food and fiber in an efficient and sustainable way.

Gloria Story Dittus, Chairman, Story Partners

Consumer Acceptance Holds the Key to Unlocking the Potential for Gene-Edited Foods

Mankind has been discovering innovative ways to grow food since the dawning of agriculture; gene editing is the next frontier in this long history of developing and advancing innovative breeding techniques. Scientists and breeders are still in the early stages of gene editing, but this technology holds great promise in improving crop productivity and resilience, improving animal health, reducing food waste, enhancing the nutritional value of our food, and reducing the carbon footprint of production agriculture.

Indeed, last month when the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to two scientists for the development of a method of gene editing, they described the innovation as “genetic scissors” that “are bringing the greatest benefit to humankind.”

However, the ultimate measure of success for gene editing is consumer acceptance.

That’s why the FMI Foundation partnered with the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA), the American Farm Bureau Federation, and the Farm Foundation on a research effort to establish a baseline for consumer understanding of gene editing and how that level of understanding impacts purchasing decisions.

The nationwide survey examined U.S. consumer beliefs, awareness, and understanding of gene editing in food and agriculture, and their willingness-to-pay for gene-edited foods as it pertains to fresh and processed vegetables and meat.

The research findings, which were released earlier this year, demonstrated that consumers are largely unaware of gene editing and specifically the promise it holds in addressing some of our most pressing challenges. Some of the key findings include:

  • More than half of consumers have never heard of gene editing
  • Despite limited awareness of gene editing, most consumers still value having the option to buy gene-edited foods
  • Consumers are more willing to purchase gene-edited foods when they know the specific benefits to the consumer, the environment and animal health.
  • When consumers are informed of the benefits of gene editing, market potential exceeds 15 percent for gene-edited products.

Clearly, there are opportunities for the food and agriculture industries to communicate early and often to consumers about the benefits of gene editing and avoid some of the challenges and setbacks that hampered the GMO discussion. We know from experience that new technologies can initially cause consumer confusion. It is our hope that these research results serve as a path forward for us to collaborate and facilitate a better understanding and a common language around gene-edited products.

– David Fikes, Executive Director, FMI Foundation

Findings from National Consumer Research Study Measuring Market Potential for Gene-Edited Products

Gene-editing is a type of genetic modification through which scientists make precise changes in an organism’s DNA. Changes of the DNA are more targeted and controlled compared to what is known as GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). This facilitates a plethora of applications allowing for different benefits, particularly for food products. Benefits include improving the nutritional value of food, minimizing the environmental impacts of food production, and reducing incidences of plant and animal diseases. Yet, the future of gene-editing in agriculture depends on how consumers perceive the technology, understand the benefits implied by its use, and whether they are willing to purchase gene-edited foods.

We surveyed 4,400 US food shoppers to determine consumer’s understanding, knowledge and willingness to pay (WTP) for gene-edited plant and animal products, each in a fresh and processed stage. Results show that more than 50% of consumers have never heard of gene-editing and more than 60% evaluate their knowledge on it as very poor. Further, consumers discount gene-edited products relative to USDA organic, Non-GMO verified, and conventional alternatives, while they do not discriminate much between gene-edited and GMO products bearing the new USDA bioengineered label. Moreover, results show that information on gene-editing needs to be supplemented with benefit messages to significantly improve acceptance; general information on gene-editing technology has limited effects on consumer’s WTP for gene-edited products, while specific information about the technology’s ability to provide benefits to consumers, animals, and the environment improved the acceptance of gene-editing relative to GMOs. Finally, results reveal that consumer WTP for gene-edited food varies across product type and processing stage. Consumers value gene-edited fresh plant products (tomatoes and spinach) more than the processed option (pasta sauce and frozen spinach) and fresh meat (pork chops) from gene-edited animals. They also prefer processed meat (bacon) from gene-edited animals over the fresh alternative (pork chops).

Still, more research is needed to better predict the future of gene-editing and the market potential of gene-edited food alternatives. For example, future studies should focus on the role of trust in science on consumer acceptance of gene-editing or further explore the influence of labeling on consumer WTP.

Dr. Vincenzina Caputo, Assistant Professor at the Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics at Michigan State University; Dr. Jayson Lusk, Distinguished Professor and Head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University; and Valerie Kilders, Research Assistant at Michigan State University

Gene Editing: Building Consumer Trust

Emerging gene-editing technology can increase the nutrition of foods, help foods stay fresh longer, reduce plant and animal diseases and minimize environmental impact. Despite these benefits to consumers, farmers, and the environment, this technology is being met with mixed reactions from consumers. Most consumers simply do not have enough information or understanding to have an informed view of gene-editing.

Consumers have the right to safe and nutritional food and the right to accurate information about what they eat. Farm Foundation partnered with FMI, the Food Industry Association, American Seed Trade Association, and American Farm Bureau Federation to examine U.S. consumer beliefs, awareness and understanding of gene-editing and their willingness to pay for gene-edited foods. The survey results indicate that, when information about benefits is provided before the consumer chooses, there is more willingness to purchase gene-edited products.

Farm Foundation then hosted a forum at the National Press Club to share these survey results and explore what the findings mean for various sectors of the ag industry. Along with other experts, two farmers shared their excitement at how this technology can help them produce a better product in more environmentally sound ways. One explained, “This technology makes it easier to collect and use data, to produce better crops with better yields; it makes it easier for farmers to stay in business. Gene-editing offers reliability; if gene-editing can help protect against insects, mildew, and weather damage, it will change the way farmers do business.”

How to overcome consumer reluctance? Recognizing the potential bewilderment of shoppers when faced with food labels such as organic, GMO (now “bioengineered”), non-GMO, fresh, natural, and more, we in the food industry must build trust among consumers by answering their questions clearly and accurately. With the future of gene-editing technology dependent upon consumer understanding and support, Farm Foundation encourages ongoing objective dialogue in which consumer concerns and questions are answered and consumers are made aware of benefits. Consumer trust and understanding are key.

Shari Rogge-Fidler, President & CEO, Farm Foundation

The Promise of Gene Editing

When I look out on my farm in Georgia, I am amazed at how far we have come in just a few generations and, what’s more, the advances we have made to reduce our environmental footprint. I have seen firsthand how innovation has changed modern farming, helping us grow crops more safely and sustainably. That’s what makes the promise of new technology like gene editing so exciting: it’s an important tool that will help farmers like me address some of society’s greatest challenges, from preventing hunger and disease to better protecting our land and water.

That’s a bold promise for sure. But if we look at how scientists are breeding plants and animals to protect them from disease, to remove allergens, and to prevent spoiling, we see how this innovation can unlock tremendous benefits for us all. Take for example what our citrus growers in Florida are facing with citrus greening, which has already wiped out 75% of the citrus industry there. There’s no way to stop citrus greening once it hits a grove—until now that is. By using a citrus tree’s own DNA to create immunity, scientists can grow root stocks to graft onto live trees to protect them from this devastating disease.

Gene editing can also change the way we care for our animals, by helping to prevent diseases while cutting back the need for antibiotics. By removing a small part of one gene in pigs, scientists can breed them with a natural immunity to a deadly disease known as PRRS (Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome), all without impacting any other aspect of the pig’s health.

The promise of gene editing doesn’t stop there. From reducing food waste to conserving water, this new technology can help take agriculture to the next phase of sustainability. It’s time for us to share the story of what innovations like gene editing can do, not only to benefit crops, but to achieve our ultimate goal of feeding our families and yours.

Zippy Duvall, President, The American Farm Bureau Federation