Seed World

Gene Editing Excites the Minds — and Taste Buds — of Consumers

While gene editing and breeding technologies have not always been widely accepted by consumers, public opinions are changing — for the better.

There are many questions and misunderstandings that surround gene editing, especially as the world still works to understand the technology. In the past, the media and consumers have held a mistrust towards the technology, yet experts in the field have found that public perceptions have become significantly more positive.

A recent study by the Boyce Thompson Institute’s Alliance for Science and Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research set out to determine how a U.S. audience perceives gene editing’s use in agriculture. The study found that out of the 1,012 participants, there was a 95% confidence level towards gene editing in agriculture. Three-quarters of participants felt they had little to no understanding of gene editing.

“The biggest confusion is really around the language,” says Sarah Davidson Evanega, lead of stakeholder communication at Pairwise, on the Dec. 7 episode of Seed Speaks. “People have heard the term CRISPR and they’re excited about it. In contrast, the term gene editing sounds a lot like genetic engineering, and yet they are very different in terms of the process. It just points to how important it is to use the right language.”

The study reflected this, as around half of the respondents agreed that gene editing has positive benefits for agriculture when asked without any additional information, yet after reading brief introductory information, nearly two thirds felt positive.

“Most consumers don’t know much about gene editing,” continues Evanega. “But when they learn about it, they feel really positive. They’re especially excited about the role that gene editing can play in helping us both produce more nutritious food, as well as food that’s grown with fewer pesticides, or using fewer natural resources like water.”

It is clear that public perceptions of gene editing are shifting — but what has brought upon this change of heart?

“The combination of the war in Ukraine disrupting food supplies around the world and famines in Africa and elsewhere have dramatically changed the public and regulatory debate over the role that gene editing could play in producing sustainable agriculture,” explains Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project.

Advances in technology in areas outside of the U.S. have played a major role in increasing acceptance as well. One significant player in this movement is the Japanese company Sanatech Seed’s Sicilian Rouge High GABA tomato, the first direct consumption gene-edited tomato. The product possesses high-levels of an amino acid — gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) — that is known for its benefits of relaxation and ability to lower blood pressure.

Sanatech Seed made the tomato seeds available to home gardeners, allowing them to grow their own gene edited tomatoes. This tomato is believed to be a game changer and consumers are now beginning to see the benefits

“We are now developing foods that actually have tangible benefits in people’s lives. The first generation of GMOs were extremely important. They have had a huge impact on lowering pesticide use, for instance, but they were benefits felt by farmers” says Entine.

Now, consumers farther down the supply chain are beginning to see the direct benefits this technology can provide.

“The new generation of genetically modified crops are designed to improve nutrition, cut down on plant diseases and address the challenges created by climate changes — things people can really relate to,” he adds. “That changes the public perceptions around this issue. I don’t want to reduce this to a public relations effort, but when you’re producing products that everyday people can appreciate, the enthusiasm is going to grow.”

New Greens on the Market

Pairwise is set to bring a new gene edited product to the commercial market in 2023: flavorful, nutrient-dense salad greens. Evanega and her colleagues brought the greens to the streets of large cities including Austin, Texas and Seattle, Wash. to offer consumers the chance to taste the unreleased product. The team received overwhelmingly positive responses, as those who tried the product were intrigued by the technology, not indifferent, driving home the belief that the times are changing.

“They’re excited about having a new offering in the produce aisle. They’re not bothered by the technology. In fact, many people are excited about the fact that their food has been developed with an innovative technology. It’s a different generation, a different era, and people are excited about the role that technology can play in helping us produce healthy, nutritious foods,” she shares.

Despite positive opinions towards gene editing, there is still work to be done — and that responsibility falls on each person in the industry.

“It’s on all of us to get good, science-based information out there to consumers so that they can make informed choices,” concludes Evanega.

Read more Seed Speaks at:

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