Amid GMO Strife, Food Industry Vies For Public Trust In CRISPR Technology

Oct 25, 2017
Originally published on October 25, 2017 1:05 pm

There's a genetic technology that scientists are eager to apply to food, touting its possibilities for things like mushrooms that don't brown and pigs that are resistant to deadly diseases.

And food industry groups, still reeling from widespread protests against genetically engineered corn and soybeans (aka GMOs) that have made it difficult to get genetically engineered food to grocery store shelves, are looking to influence public opinion.

The technology is called Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR. It's a technique that Alison Van Eenennaam, an animal genetics professor at University of California, Davis, says can de-activate a gene. Or, as she puts it: "It's editing. It's like going into a Word document and basically replacing one letter, maybe that instead of 'wind,' you want it to say 'wine,' " she says.

Skeptics, like Dana Perls with the environmental group Friends of the Earth, say food companies are trying to distance themselves from terms like GMO and genetic engineering that have caused them trouble with consumers.

"These new gene editing technologies like CRISPR are genetic engineering. And if this is genetic engineering, then call it that," says Perls. She says these producers are just trying to pull the wool over consumers' eyes with a strong public relations push.

Dozens of crops and livestock developed with CRISPR technology are years from the market, though the U.S. Department of Agriculture already said it won't regulate CRISPR-developed products like other genetically engineered food, since no foreign genetic material is introduced in the process. The Food and Drug Administration will decide which new products are safe.

To get ahead of any criticism, a group of heavyweights in the food industry have joined forces to form the Coalition for Responsible Gene Editing in Agriculture, which is funded by members like the U.S. Pork Board, Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer.

The board's CEO, Bill Even, says the food industry missed a chance to do this when the earlier wave of genetically engineered food made it to the market.

"There was never any conversation with consumers around what is this and what did it mean," he says. "Fast forward now today, there's a lot of debate around GMOs and food. The public rightly [is] ... interested in knowing what's in their food."

People don't often trust big companies, says Charlie Arnot, who leads the coalition and is the CEO of the Center for Food Integrity. But when it comes to CRISPR, there are three key strategies Arnot says will help get consumers on board.

First: CRISPR is not a secret.

"Those in technology have to be more transparent and be much more engaged in a public conversation and dialogue, in order to answer those questions, address the skepticism and ultimately result in earning consumer trust in what they're doing in gene editing," he says.

Second, the coalition wants to show that it shares the same values that shoppers do. So, its members are sponsoring and attending events like CRISPRcon to engage in public discussions about the technology and its potential animal welfare, societal and environmental benefits.

"If people trust you, science doesn't matter. If people don't trust you, science doesn't matter," Arnot says. "It only matters after you cross that trust threshold. So you really have to engage in that values-based dialogue to build trust, and then you're given the permission to introduce the science."

And that's the third strategy: These companies want consumers to know that CRISPR isn't like other forms of genetic engineering. CRISPR changes the way genes are expressed; it doesn't necessarily add genetic material from another species, although it can be used that way.

"That's going to be the path that will ultimately lead to greater trust," Arnot says. "If we shortcut that path, we run the risk of potentially having this significantly beneficial technology not be accepted."

But persuading consumers to buy into CRISPR will be an uphill battle for Arnot and other industry groups. Food and environmental advocacy groups already are asking questions about CRISPR, as well as raising concerns over tracing genetically edited food in the system and the potential lack of regulatory oversight.

This story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production. Kristofor Husted is based at member station KBIA in Columbia, Mo.

Copyright 2017 Harvest Public Media. To see more, visit Harvest Public Media.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now we have the story of genetic editing, changing the genes of living things. A genetic editing tool can create mushrooms that do not turn brown. It can make pigs resistant to a disease. Kristofor Husted of member station KBIA reports on why some people in the food industry do not want to use it.

KRISTOFOR HUSTED, BYLINE: The contentious fight over genetically modified food has put us in a place where we actually have junk food whose labels boast GMO free. Food producers got to this point because they didn't earn public trust before sending out the first wave of GMOs 20 years ago. In an attempt to not repeat that mistake, producers are on the offensive for round two of the great GMO debate. It involves genetic technology called - bear with me here - Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR for short. CRISPR can turn off a gene within an organism, like the one that makes mushrooms turn brown. Scientists call it gene editing.

DANA PERLS: These new gene editing technologies, like CRISPR, are genetic engineering. And if this is genetic engineering, then call it that.

HUSTED: Skeptics, like Dana Perls with the environmental group Friends of the Earth, say food companies are trying to distance themselves from words like GMO and genetic engineering that have caused them trouble with consumers. That's why a group including the Pork Board, Monsanto and Syngenta are joining forces to get ahead of the issue. Charlie Arnot leads the coalition and has three key strategies for getting consumers on board with CRISPR. No. 1 - it's not a secret.

CHARLIE ARNOT: Those involved in technology have to be willing to be much more transparent and much more engaged in a public conversation and dialogue in order to answer those questions, address the skepticism and ultimately, result in earning consumer trust in what they're doing in gene editing.

HUSTED: The coalition has members talking about the technology and its benefits related to animal welfare and the environment. They hope to build trust, which is No. 2.

ARNOT: If people trust you, science doesn't matter. And if people don't trust you, science doesn't matter. It only matters after you cross that trust threshold.

HUSTED: And that's the third strategy. These companies want consumers to know CRISPR is different from genetic engineering. CRISPR changes the way genes are expressed. It doesn't add genetic material from another species. Stop by the organic section of your local supermarket and you'll find the coalition has an uphill fight.

Hi. What's your name?

MADELEINE LEMIEUX: Madeleine Lemieux.

HUSTED: So you buy organic?

LEMIEUX: Most of the time.

HUSTED: And why?

LEMIEUX: I guess partially because I don't know what GMOs do (laughter).

HUSTED: So what if I told you there are mushrooms that don't turn brown? Is that something that you'd be interested in?

LEMIEUX: I would be leery (laughter). Things are supposed to decompose, right?

HUSTED: Those CRISPR-developed mushrooms already exist but are likely a few years away from grocery store shelves, which food producers hope is enough time to convince shoppers, like Lemieux, that CRISPR technology is both safe and beneficial. For NPR News, I'm Kristofor Husted in Columbia, Mo.

INSKEEP: And that story, which will never turn brown, comes to us from Harvest Public Media, which focuses on Ag and food production. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.