Do we trust genetically modified foods?

Through CRISPR and other gene editing technologies, researchers and developers are ready to bring dozens – if not hundreds – of new products to grocery stores: longer-lasting mushrooms, drought-resistant corn and bananas that are not resistant to fungi threatening global supply. Several, including the soybean variety, which produces healthier cooking oil, are already on sale in the United States.

Proponents say that gene editing is faster and more accurate than traditional methods of growing crops. It can meet the rapidly evolving challenges of food production and for the benefit of consumers. Critics say the new technology could have unintended consequences and that government agencies must address the shortcomings of current regulation. Under current federal law, genetically modified foods must not be labeled.

Given the response of transgenic engineering to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), there is much speculation as to whether the public will accept genetically modified foods, although the process of creating them is different.

A new study from Iowa State University is the first to estimate public acceptance of genetically modified foods using a nationally representative sample of 2,000 U.S. residents. Researchers surveyed participants to find out if they would eat or actively avoid genetically modified foods; and understand the factors that shape their decisions. Researchers plan to repeat the study every two years over the next decade to see how public attitudes toward genetically modified foods will change with more products on the market.

“There are a lot of people in the middle right now. They have not fully opted for genetically modified foods, but when they learn more about technology and products, they are likely to turn to one side of the problem. I think it will depend on their user experience – what kind of messages they trust and who sends them, as well as what products they come across, “said Christopher Cummings, a senior researcher.

Cummings co-authored an article published in Frontiers in Food Science and Technology with David Peters, a professor of sociology and rural sociologist at ISU Extension and Outreach.

Social factors lead to decision making

Researchers have found that the likelihood of eating or avoiding genetically modified foods is determined primarily by their social values ​​and how much they trust government, industry and environmental groups.

“Experts in the food industry tend to have the attitude that people make food decisions based on price, appearance, taste and nutritional content. But our research shows that when you have new technology that people aren’t 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, “Peters said.

The study reveals that people who are more likely to eat raw or processed genetically modified foods typically view science and technology as the primary means of solving society’s problems. They have a high level of trust in government food regulators and the agricultural 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 the age of 30) with higher levels of education and household income.

In contrast, people who are more likely to avoid eating raw or processed genetically modified foods are more skeptical of science and technology. They place more value on the way their food is produced, saying that ethics play an important role and rely more on their own beliefs or environmental groups than on government and industry. People in this group also tend to have lower incomes and be more religious, older and women.

About 60% of the women in the study said they would not like to eat and deliberately avoid genetically modified foods.

Cisgenic engineering (genetically modified foods)

With cisgenic engineering, scientists use tools such as CRISPR-Cas, ZFN, or TALEN to tune a specific section of DNA into a plant or animal or replace it with sexually compatible genetic material. Genetic change is passed on to offspring, similar to traditional breeding.

The technology is newer than transgenic engineering; the first genetically modified food to enter the market, a soybean variety for cooking oil without trans fats, was March 2019. Under current federal law, genetically modified foods do not have to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and labeling is voluntary.

Transgenic Engineering (GMO)

With transgenic engineering, scientists insert genes of another species or genes that are made synthetically into the genome of a plant or animal.

The technology emerged in the 1990s and slowly hit the market in the early 2000s. Most of the GMO crops grown in the United States are for animal feed, but some fall directly into the human diet, mainly through cornstarch, corn syrup, corn oil, soybean oil, canola oil, and granulated sugar.

GMOs are regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration, the US Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Agriculture, and from January 2022, according to federal law, GMO foods must be labeled “Bioengineering” or “Derived from Bioengineering.” .

‘The current provisions state that genetically modified foods are analogous to traditional selective cultivation and therefore do not fall into the same review process as GMOs. But some consumer groups, trade organizations and environmental groups disagree, “said Cummings.

He added that several European Union countries have already made strong statements that they will not accept genetically modified foods.

“As academics and opinion researchers, we are well placed to be third-country arbiters and to report the facts on how the public understands – and comes to make decisions – about the foods they choose to eat or avoid.”

Gene Edited Food Project

Peters and Cummings are part of an interdisciplinary team of experts from ISU and the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at New York State University (SUNY-ESF), who are trying to answer:

  • What are the social and ethical considerations surrounding genetically modified foods?
  • How do stakeholders differ in their views on genetically modified foods?
  • How should genetically modified crops and foods be managed and regulated?
  • Which organizations does the public trust to manage genetically modified foods?
  • How are genetically modified foods presented in the media?

“We want to work with government regulators, environmental groups, consumer groups and the food industry to come up with a common framework that doesn’t stifle innovation, but still gives consumers the right to know how their food is made,” Peters said. .

In another study, expected to be published this year, Peters and Cummings found that 75 percent of the American public agrees that there should be a federal law on the labeling of genetically modified foods, whether they plan to buy them or avoid them.

Researchers hosted a consultative seminar earlier this year to bring together a variety of stakeholders to discuss public engagement and governance issues, as well as potential avenues for a voluntary certification and labeling process for genetically modified food developers.

“The concern is that if more of these genetically modified foods are put on the market and consumers don’t know, there will be a backlash when they find out,” Peters said. “Ag biotech companies that support voluntary labels want other companies to follow suit. It is hoped that the labels will improve transparency and inspire confidence among consumers, avoiding any potential reaction or opposition to the technology.

The research team for the Gene Edited Foods project is currently working on a set of recommendations for management tools and strategies to address public confidence gaps related to genetically modified foods.

reference: Cummings Sea, Peters DJ. Who trusts genetically modified foods? Analysis of a representative study predicting food cravings and targeted avoidance of genetically modified foods in the United States. In front. Food. Sci. Technol. 2022; 2. doi: 10.3389 / frfst.2022.858277

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