WASHINGTON — Supporters of gene-edited food face a major, but not impossible, challenge in persuading American consumers to buy it, a new survey finds.
The key to success will be helping consumers to understand the benefits of such food, rather than focusing on technical explanations of what gene editing is and how it's conducted, said Vincenzina Caputo, a Michigan State University professor who helped to conduct the survey.
The research found that "when we provide (information about) benefits to consumers, farmers and the environment, they (consumers) are more willing to pay for" genetically edited food, she said.
Caputo spoke Tuesday, March 10, in Washington, D.C., during a session hosted by the Farm Foundation, which was involved in the survey. The session was available online to the news media and others interested in it.
The Farm Foundation said it doesn't take a position on gene editing, seeking instead to foster nonpartisan dialogue and cooperation on what it considers an important issue.
Other organizations involved in the survey were FMI, the Food Industry Association; the American Seed Trade Association; and the American Farm Bureau Federation.
The research, which surveyed 4,400 consumers nationwide, examined U.S. consumers' beliefs, awareness and understanding of gene editing and their willingness to pay for gene-edited tomatoes, spinach and pork, all three in both fresh and processed form.
Caputo described gene editing "as the genetic modification technique that allows scientists to make precise changes in an organism's DNA." Unlike gene editing, better-known GMOs add in genes from other organisms — a difference that many customers don't seem to understand, she said.
The survey found that 53% of the 4,400 consumers said they have little or very little knowledge of gene editing, while their self-reported knowledge of GMOs was much higher. Perceptions of both GMOs and gene editing were negative overall, but the attitude toward gene editing wasn't as deep-seated, reflecting lesser knowledge of it and also indicating greater potential willingness to buy it, Caputo said.
David Fikes, executive director of FMI, the Food Industry Association, put the new survey in broader perspective.
Once, supermarket shoppers were primarily women who made their purchasing decisions on cost, convenience and taste, or "cost + EZ (ease) + taste = sales." Today, shoppers are both male and female whose purchasing decisions are made on many factors including whether a food product is considered safe, whether it's produced locally and whether it's organic, he said.
One recent study found that 27% of consumers, 4 percentage points higher than a year ago, don't want to buy food that's been bioengineered, Fikes said.
Making the case in favor of gene-edited food is difficult because it's scientifically complicated, shoppers are skeptical of scientific vernacular, especially in food, and the benefits can be hard to explain, among other reasons, he said.
Another problem: Hollywood is fond of making movies that play up potential dangers of gene editing, but never shows how gene editing can benefit the world, he said.
Supporters of gene editing in food need to make a science-based argument, but also must make it "relatable" to consumers, Fikes said.
For example, gene-edited crops can stand up better to drought or excess moisture, helping to prop up yields, and to help food last longer, reducing food waste, among other benefits, Fikes and other speakers said.
Courtney Weber, who breeds berries at Cornell University, spoke at the Farm Foundation event, too.
"Plant breeding is a slow process," he said, and "gene editing has the potential for efficiency, speeding things up."
Lance Atwater, a Nebraska farmer, also praised the value of gene editing.
"Gene editing really excites me," he said. "It's important to me to have this technology."