Why don’t consumers trust gene edited foods?
A new study from Iowa State University has attempted to delve into the reasons consumers don’t trust gene-edited products as the technology moves ever further into the mainstream.
The Iowa State study is reportedly the first of its kind
Through CRISPR and other gene editing technologies, researchers and developers are poised to bring dozens – if not hundreds – of new products to grocery stores: mushrooms with longer shelf lives, drought-resistant corn and bananas impervious to a fungus threatening the global supply. A few, including a soybean variety that produces a healthier cooking oil, are already being sold commercially in the US.
Advocates say gene editing is faster and more precise than traditional crop breeding methods. It can address rapidly evolving challenges to produce food and benefit consumers. Critics argue this new technology could create unintended consequences and that government agencies must address the shortcomings of current regulation.
Given the backlash over transgenic engineering for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), there’s a lot of speculation over whether the public will accept gene-edited foods, even though the process to create them is different.
A new study from Iowa State University is reportedly the first to gauge public acceptance of gene-edited foods using a nationally representative sample of 2,000 US residents. The researchers surveyed participants to understand if they would eat or actively avoid gene-edited foods, and to understand the factors that shape their decisions. The researchers plan to repeat the survey every two years for the next decade to track how public attitudes on gene-edited foods will shift as more products come onto the market.
“Right now, there are a lot of people in the middle. They have not fully made up their mind about gene-edited foods, but as they learn more about the technologies and products, they will likely move to one side of the issue. I think it will depend on their consumer experience — what kind of messaging they trust and who sends it, as well as what products they encounter,” said Senior Research Fellow Christopher Cummings.
Social factors drive decisions
The researchers found a person’s likelihood of eating or avoiding gene-edited foods is primarily driven by their social values and how much they trust government, industry and environmental groups.
“Food industry experts tend to have the mindset that people make decisions about food based on the cost, appearance, taste and nutritional content. But our study shows that when you have a new technology that people are not familiar with, other factors play a much bigger role, especially people’s social and ethical values, and whether they trust government and industry to protect them,” said Peters.
The study reveals people who are more willing to eat raw or processed gene-edited foods generally view science and technology as a primary means to solve society’s problems. They place a high level of trust in government food regulators and the agriculture biotechnology industry and generally do not have strong beliefs about how food should be produced. They also tend to be younger (Generation Z and millennials under 30 years of age) with higher levels of education and household incomes.
By contrast, the people who are more likely to avoid eating raw or processed gene-edited foods are more sceptical of science and technology. They place greater value on the way their food is produced, saying ethics play an important role, and rely more on their own personal beliefs or environmental groups rather than government and industry. People in this group also tend to have lower incomes and be more religious, older and female.
Around 60 percent of the women in the survey said they would be unwilling to eat and purposely avoid gene-edited foods.
“We want to work with government regulators, environmental groups, consumer groups and the food industry to come to some common framework that doesn’t stifle innovation but still gives consumers the right to know how their food is made,” said Peters.
In another study expected to be published this year, Peters and Cummings found 75 percent of the American public agree there should be a federal labelling law for gene-edited foods, regardless of whether or not they plan on buying or avoiding them.
“The worry is that if more of these gene-edited foods move onto the marketplace and consumers don’t know, there will be a backlash when they find out,” said Peters. “Ag biotech companies who support voluntary labels want other companies to follow suit. The hope is that labels will improve transparency and instil trust among consumers, avoiding any potential backlash or opposition to the technology.”