Food, genetic engineering and public opinion: Do popular concerns matter?

Can scientists learn from listening to public reaction to the products they develop? And should they?

As a philosopher by training (and as a science journalist by profession) I am delving into ethical questions surrounding genetic modification. My reflections were triggered by an article by my friend Alle Bruggink, a professor in industrial chemistry at the University of Nijmegen in The Netherlands. He explored why the public remains suspicious about biotechnology – a surprise to many biotechnological researchers.

“Bringing new products or concepts to the market resembles running the gauntlet in many ways,” he wrote. “Invariably, there are many more obstacles than foreseen and they arise from unforeseen angles.” He made a case for considering the public reception of biotechnological innovations before bringing products to the market, or even before starting the research at all. “The psychology of innovation is unrelenting: researchers develop their product for the good of the public; it is their judgement that counts. Researchers will have to learn to listen: with their hearts, with their moral senses.” And they should look to social researchers, if possible, for guidance.

Alle Bruggink has quite a track record in genetic modification. Backed by a team of 80 researchers, both academic and corporate, he developed the first fully fermentative synthesis of an industrial product (cephalosporin, a semi-synthetic penicillin). The project established the corporation DSM as a player in the green chemical industry, and it still contributes to DSM’s balance sheet.

An innate wisdom in the public mind

Biotechnological researchers need to learn from the public’s views; it seems to me that there is a kind of innate wisdom in the public mind. Public judgments can steer us away from unfortunate genetic developments like Herman the bull, the first genetically modified cow (1990-2004) and embrace production of medicines by genetic engineering. That is to say: an unfavorable public reaction is not just a nuisance, but may well represent a genuine moral judgment.

“Without pressure from the public and NGOs, we might have seen meadows full of GMO bulls and sheep. Or we might have produced embryos on a large scale, in order to mine stem cells,” Bruggink wrote.

So in this commentary, I look into how the public forms its views in order to unravel the logic of the public mind. I submit that public judgment is largely determined by three dimensions: health, fashion and ethics. Researchers can better anticipate how the public receives their products if they take these three dimensions into account. This does not mean to say that the public is always ‘right’. On the contrary, the public’s judgment is often inconsistent. Nevertheless, my quest may provide researchers with some guidelines when developing new production pathways for food ingredients, nutraceuticals and other materials. I will restrict myself to genetic modification of microorganisms.

The difference between medicines and food

I was struck by the major difference in how the public has received genetically engineered drugs versus GE foods. In the medicine, almost anything goes. In general, science journalists write favorably about the role of synthetic biology in the development of new drugs, and nobody minds. In the race for a vaccine against Ebola, there has generally been just one criterion: the drug should work. (Although more recently, the Organic Consumers Association has begun criticizing the use of genetically engineered tobacco in developing GE drugs to fight Ebola). But when it comes to food, public criticism of pathways involving GE organisms may be severe.

The production of nutraceuticals and food ingredients by fermentation, using genetically engineered organisms, is growing fast. Public reception varies greatly. Isobionics, a daughter of DSM, produces valencene, the orange flavoring, nootkatone, the grapefruit flavoring and similar products using fermentation technology. Would orange juice, produced with this valencene, be equivalent to traditional orange juice? Is it somehow artificial or unnatural? These are questions to which we can directly apply the wisdom in the public mind by consulting our own emotions. Most of us will view the original as superior, even if industry could approach the natural composition of orange juice by adding vitamin C, fibers (e.g. from wood) and micronutrients. ‘Natural’ would imply ‘better’.

But this does not hold true in the case of genetically engineered drugs. Nobody would suggest that the natural artemisinin (the most powerful antimalarial drug now) made from Artemisia Annua is superior to industrially produced artemisinin, administered through a pill. The public long ago embraced the view that a cure could come from a pill, rather than from a vegetable extract. In fact, the proposed ‘natural’ cure might even be perceived as quackery. Many people view the industrial production of artemisinin as a major scientific breakthrough.

Why is there such a difference? There may be perceived health issues (natural orange juice might be thought of as healthier than the manufactured counterpart); natural produces may be thought of as more fashionable; or ethics might be in play. In general, I submit, public opinion will flow along these three dimensions. In this case of orange juice vs. medicines, we might learn that according to public opinion healing is more important than consuming (the ethical and health angles), leaving more room for genetic engineering in the field of medicines; and that as far as food is concerned, ‘natural’ has an extra (the fashionable angle, with a so far unproven bit of perceived health effects).

Fashion may change

But some of these conclusions are immediately challenged by our next example, the development of artificial, cow-free milk by Muufri, a start-up founded by vegans. “Our solution is to make real milk from the bottom up,’ wrote Muufri on its website. “It’s a fairly simple mixture: six key proteins for structure and function, eight key fatty acids for flavor and richness. In different ratios, these components give us cow’s milk, goat’s milk, or even buffalo milk – all suitable to become countless products, from toppings to cheeses to desserts.”

Muufri then elaborates the advantages of artificial milk, an argument that can be extended easily beyond milk. Synthetic milk conceivably could circumvent the environmental problems associated with milk production. Dairy cows produce so much methane gas in in their stomachs that they are major contributors to the greenhouse effect. Synthetic milk tackles that very serious problem. Questions of animal welfare also do not arise with synthetic milk. And less agricultural land may be needed. Muufri even suggests that its synthetic food might be better than the natural stuff. “We don’t just solve problems,” it says, “we add new value to dairy, too.

Because we choose what goes into our product, we can choose to leave out lactose, which is at least partially indigestible by 75 percent of adults; and we can choose to leave out bad cholesterol for a much healthier product. And because our products are made with the same precision as medicines, they’ll be free of all bacteria – meaning a great-tasting milk with unprecedentedly long shelf life, no pasteurization needed.” The takeaway: It’s healthy because it’s artificial!

Fashion may (and will) change. ‘Natural’ – quite a multi-faceted and scientifically imprecise term – is a fashionable marketing tool at the moment; the booming ‘natural’ cosmetics market and Ottolenghi’s cooking testify to that. But the next fashionable fling might well be ‘scientifically cutting-edge products’. These might even carry health claims, as the Muufri example illustrates. So, if the ethical dimension is absent (like in this case), public opinion may surprise us in the future. Or alternatively, Muufri’s milk might remain a fringe product.

Related article:  Video: What are the risks and benefits of animal gene editing?

Genetic modification in cheese

In other issues, matters may get complicated very much by a combination of marketing tools and public ignorance. Let us apply the three dimensions to deconstruct the public reaction to cheese and beer production. From time immemorial, cheese was produced using rennet extracted from the maw or fourth stomach of ruminant calves. But since the nineties, cheese has been increasingly produced from rennet obtained from genetically engineered microorganisms (except in France, where food laws prohibit their use). Researchers extract rennet-producing genes from animal stomachs and insert them into bacteria, fungi or yeasts to make them produce rennet by fermentation. The genetically modified microorganism is killed after fermentation, and rennet is isolated from the fermentation broth. The final product does not contain any GE component or ingredient. And lo and behold, public opinion does not seem to mind. The Vermont legislature, very strict on labelling GE foods, has exempted cheese from this obligation – although almost all cheese sold in Vermont is produced in this way.

The difference may be that cheese has always been looked upon as processed foods anyway, whereas orange juice was not. Isn’t the difference that most of us never saw beer or cheese being produced from scratch, unlike orange juice? In other words: most consumers are just ignorant about how beer and cheese are produced. They value the proliferation of unique varieties made possible by special kinds of rennet. They have no idea that those unique qualities are linked, in part to genetic engineering. The next premium cheese might proudly advertise and brand itself as being produced from cutting edge, science developed, sustainable rennet.

The courage to face opposition

Still, I see no reason to diverge from my earlier conclusion that that in wisdom in the public mind, medicines are more important than food and that therefore, companies developing food ingredients with the intermediate of GE organisms will have to think twice. But public ignorance is a major factor producing uncertainty. Will people react favorably to biodegradable and biobased carpets, or will they be dismayed when they discover that they let their babies crawl on a substance produced by GE organisms? People might even refuse to know the truth because this could complicate life – this might be the case with beers and cheese. Companies make themselves vulnerable to unfavorable reactions in the future, not just by deceiving their customers, but also by hushing up uncomfortable truths. They might be better off proudly advertising their products as the result of cutting-edge technology, than sitting still waiting for the storm that might descend on them. For all it is worth, the acceptance of GE production methods in cheese and beer production shows that there is a certain basis for accepting this technology in the food industry.

A company that has understood this message is Ecover, a Belgian company that produces household and personal care products. Ecover is sold in the US under the name Method. Ecover is quite a remarkable company; it has conquered the niche of environmentally benign products and has the environmental community as the backbone of its customers. The company recently decided to substitute a vegetable oil produced by Solazyme by modified algae for palm kernel oil as the feedstock for its detergents (palm kernel oil being regarded by many environmentalists to have a poor sustainability record). And – this being the point here – it decided to announce this project before embarking upon it. This project too became the object of criticism of Friends of the Earth. As a result of that opposition, Ecover shelved its plans for the time being. Both parties agreed to engage in a mediation process, that still goes on at the time of writing.

What should Ecover do on the basis of the arguments developed in this article? Well, just carry through their project, as far as that is commercially advisable in view of the specific makeup of their customers. There are no ethics nor health issues here; and as people already accept food produced by the intermediate of genetic modification, why should they object to a similar product they apply to their floors?

Baby milk

So far, the ‘innate wisdom in the public mind’ appears to boil down to two ground rules: technology is questioned more in food production than in medicines, and: be careful about potentially misleading your customers. But reflections on the case of baby milk challenge that conceptual framework.

Scientists generally agree that breast-feeding, when possible, is best for the baby (with a few exceptions). And yet, we also have been feeding processed animal and soy milk to our babies for many decades. Fashion? To some degree yes. Prolonged breast-feeding is increasingly at odds with women’s role in society. Apparently, those economic and social demands are so powerful that many women push aside the maternal instinct.

Science might help alleviate the guilt of parents who are concerned that they might be hurting their child in some way by not raising him or her on breast milk. Researchers are narrowing the differences between breast milk and their processed cow milk. The Flemish company Inbiose recently developed special carbohydrates on demand as additives to (for instance) baby milk powder. Using GE organisms, to be sure. In production method, there is virtually no difference in with Evolva’s vanillin or Isobionics’ valencene. One would tend to expect resistance to mount, because it is not our own health but our baby’s that is at stake – and yet, no social upheaval here. Maybe even to the contrary: we will go the extra mile for the health of our baby!

So health and fashion lead the way to our emotions in the case of artificial baby milk, although the outcome is unexpected. Ethics: not an issue, otherwise than a general preference for sustainability. But here, if I am not mistaken, a fourth dimension comes into play: reputation. One of the strongest trademarks in this area is Nutricia, a subsidiary to Danone. Its baby milk powder is not an exceptional product, according to food experts; but once one has the reputation that one’s trade mark has an extra for the baby, and one succeeds in keeping that up throughout the years – then that appears to constitute a premium product to the consumer. Reputation, consumer confidence, premium product. Something worthwhile the premium price, no questions asked.


When it comes to medical biotechnology we accept each production method, provided the pill actually cures. But that does not hold true in the case of food. Producers of food ingredients will have to be very careful to account for their actions to themselves and to their customers. Today’s fashion appreciates the ‘natural’. But then, in the confusing example of baby milk that does not hold true. As long as there is no adverse health effect, fashion is the strongest factor. But do not neglect ethics. Ethical deceit can backfire on the entire industry.

Diederik van der Hoeven is a Dutch science journalist, specializing in energy, sustainability and the biobased economy.  He is the editor of Follow @biobasedpress on Twitter.

News on human & agricultural genetics and biotechnology delivered to your inbox.
Optional. Mail on special occasions.