GUEST ARTICLE: Can the food industry learn from the GMO story? Five ways to earn trust in gene editing

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If you care about GMO labeling, you only have a few more days to respond to USDA's 30 questions* about how to implement the new law. The looming deadline is both a stark reminder of the controversy around GMOs that brought the food industry to this point and a cue to learn valuable lessons that can be applied to the tremendous opportunity of gene editing. 

Despite the many benefits of GMOs, including life-saving traits like those in the recently announced vitamin A-rich banana that could save the lives of hundreds of thousands of children in developing countries, many consumers have a dim view of GMOs. Opinions vary as to why, but most have nothing directly to do with GMOs. Regardless of the reasons, food producers have spent years trying to rebuild trust.

So, what happened? A perfect storm that mixed a population disconnected from food production with changing consumer interests, a lack of transparency and a narrow focus on the benefits of GMOs to farmers and the bottom line instead of to the environment and society.

All the talk of increased productivity and efficiency fell flat with consumers who only heard, 'Farmers can make more money growing GM products.' In reality, the greatest benefits are much broader, but – among other communication breakdowns – the food system failed to communicate them well.

The same mistakes must be avoided to capture the enormous potential of gene editing to do good in the world. Trust research from The Center for Food Integrity shows us five keys to building consumer trust around gene editing technology, GMOs and all innovations adopted by the food system that make food healthier, and more affordable and accessible.  

1. Focus on benefits that consumers care about. The potential is almost limitless. Whether it's reducing food waste through potatoes less likely to brown or preventing animal suffering by helping pigs become resistant to one of the deadliest swine diseases in the world, there is no question gene editing could make the world a better place.

2. Listen to consumers. I mean really listen: not with the intent to formulate a response, but rather with the intent to understand the real source of concern. So often we talk past each other, especially in an era of tribal communication.

3. Pull back the curtain. That which consumers can see and understand is far less scary than some mystery taking place inside innovation labs. Give those interested a front row seat through pictures, videos, tours and any other means that increase transparency and build trust.

4. Don't treat consumers like they’re ignorant and don't talk over them. The food system should be thrilled that consumers are more interested than ever in how food is produced. In fact, the latest CFI research shows that 80% of consumers want to learn more about how food is produced and where it comes from.  

It presents a great opportunity to bring balance to the conversation. At a minimum, it sure beats a customer base that wants nothing to do with you. But, communicating in a language they don't understand can do more harm than good.

Alan Alda's new book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face? says it well. The key is to demonstrate that you share the values of consumers, which research shows to be far more powerful in building trust than conveying data or science.

5. Embrace skepticism. The food and ag sectors have a history of criticizing and belittling their critics. Food fights rarely end well. Dismissiveness only widens the gap when two sides disagree. Consumers are not a monolithic group. There are many views and preferences. That's okay. To build trust, food and ag must engage openly and respectfully in an honest dialogue.

Tens - maybe hundreds - of millions of dollars have been invested to try and hit the reset button when it comes to GMO understanding and acceptance. 'Do overs' are costly and more challenging than open, honest communication the first time around.

Round one is underway for gene editing. The Center for Food Integrity has formed a coalition to provide support and encourage alignment, but the leading role will be played by those using the technology. Their approach will have tremendous influence over its acceptance.

Charlie Arnot is the CEO of The Center for Food Integrity (CFI). The CFI is a not-for-profit organization with members and project partners representing farmers, ranchers and food manufacturers, universities, non-governmental organizations, restaurants, and retailers. It does not lobby or advocate for individual companies or brands.  Here is a full list of CFI members.

*Questions or comments on USDA's GMO questions (listed in full HERE) should be sent to GMOlabeling@ams.usda.gov. The deadline is July 17.

Will foods containing ingredients from gene edited crops be labeled under the new federal GMO labeling legislation?

It's not yet clear, but in a letter to Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) written in summer 2016, Jeffrey Prieto, general counsel at USDA, said the GMO labeling law gave the agency the authority to include (under its definition of ‘bioengineered’) “novel gene editing techniques such as CRISPR when they are used to produce plants or seeds with traits that could not be created with conventional breeding techniques."

"In addition," he said, "the definition provides authority to include RNAi techniques that have been used on products such as the non-browning apple and potato.”  

Read more from FoodNavigator-USA about the GMO labeling legislation HERE.

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