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Next-generation genetic engineering must address public fears

| September 30, 2015

Next-generation biotechnologies like CRISPR-Cas9, RNAi and cis-gene are being introduced with much fanfare as newer, better ways to more precisely produce genetically engineered variants for crops, medicine, biofuels and other uses. But the opposition has already begun to mount.

Many anti-GMO activists are attempting to lump these technologies into the same bin as less precise prior genetic innovations, including transgenics, and they persist in in attempting to use the stigmatizing term “GMO” in describing them because of its power to demonize.

Activists and even some scientists have raised scare scenarios. They say the new technology, which they call “gene drives,” could generate “supercharged” genetically modified organisms that could spread rapidly in the wild. According to a breathless account in the UK Independent:

…scientists at the forefront of the development believe that in the wrong hands gene-drive technology poses a serious threat to the environment and human health if accidentally or deliberately released from a laboratory without adequate safeguards. Some believe it could even be used as a terrorist bio-weapon directed against people or livestock because gene drives – which enable GM genes to spread rapidly like a viral infection within a population – will eventually be easy and cheap to generate.

But most scientists say the concerns are overblown, that the new organisms will be developed with built-in kill switches to prevent such scenarios, and other safeguards. While many scientists are hailing the new techniques such as CRISPR as “the Next Magic Bullet,” like the headline of a story in Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News, introduction of these technologies has led to a warning call to scientists, startups, academic institutions and larger corporations interested in developing these technologies. As a precaution, the US National Academy of Sciences has initiated a wide-ranging review of gene-drive technology in “non-human organisms”.

That warning goes beyond the science: public acceptance isn’t about just the science and new technology; it’s also about addressing fears, benefits and the mental connections people make with certain scientific advances. It is, in short, about marketing and persuasion.

Science, particularly the science of food, hasn’t historically done well in this area. They’ve tended to avoid the business of sales and persuasion, even though the modern concept of marketing probably got its start in agribusiness and food. But a look back at how scientists, companies making science-based products, and public interest groups have handled public perceptions of their new inventions could help find more effective ways to gain acceptance of this latest “magic bullet.”

Lessons learned on GMO introduction

In 1992, a trade group called the International Food Information Council (IFIC) began looking at how Americans perceived the relatively new farming and food technologies arising from taking DNA from one organism and splicing it into another to achieve a certain effect.

The IFIC hired a marketing research expert named Clotaire Rapaille, who had worked with a number of large corporations to help them brand themselves or change their public image. Rapaille was known for applying the concepts developed by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, particularly the concept of archetype. An archetype is at once an ideal, symbol and even a person that all add up to how a person perceives him/herself and others. Today, many marketing firms use archetypes in their work, but at the time, this was something new.

To arrive at the types of perceptions provided by creating these archetypes, Rapaille interviewed groups of people to get a sense of how they perceived many issues, including biotechnology and food. What he found was:

Americans have powerful and vastly different forces shaping their attitudes and behavior toward food biotechnology. Our companies, processes and products have the possibility of being viewed in entirely different ways, depending on how we act and communicate with the public. In one case, we have tremendous public support – we can be viewed as farmers bringing new varieties and improved foods to consumers. But if we do not position ourselves and our products correctly, we can just as easily be viewed in the same class as Hitler and Frankenstein.

The interviews boiled down certain words to use — beauty, bounty, choices, crossbreeding, diversity, earth, farmer, future generations, heritage, improved, purity, “natural genetics” and even organic — to promote biotechnology.

Related article:  Talking Biotech: Roundup Ready GMO crops made weed management 'easy'—an agronomist's view

Words to avoid included — biotechnology, chemical, DNA, laboratory, pesticides,safety, and even scientists.

But marketing and public relations efforts from manufacturers, non-profits and yes,scientists, have tended to overlook these recommendations. Some of this is because — unlike the messages from anti-GMO activists — the marketing claims of food makers are regulated, and the traits of these products are tested and approved (or not) by the FDA, EPA and USDA. But that still has left room for some creativity.

Then there’s risk

What may have become a bigger driver behind IFIC’s and Rapaille’s findings is the difference between the public and expert perceptions of risk. Paul Slovic, President of Decision Research, psychology professor at the University of Oregon and an expert on risk analysis, showed that experts assess risks based on two factors: probability and magnitude of adverse consequences.

The public, on the other hand, has a much more complicated, emotively based assessment. For the public, Slovic showed it was important to show that exposure to the risk was voluntary, the risk itself was familiar to people, known both to scientists and those exposed, and was borne in equal measure by everyone. So, as Slovic wrote in a monograph by the National Academies of Science,

One would also expect that the benefits of many nonmedical applications would not be apparent to the public, no matter how obvious they appear to scientists and industrialists. When benefits are not perceived as significant, the public is intolerant of any risk, even a small one.

In other words, we’re not starving without GMOs, not right now. And until we are starving, somebody better find another reason to care.

Potential open market

Despite the heavy, fear-laden “it’s not proven safe!” rhetoric from such activists as the Food Babe, Natural News, Just Label It and Consumer Reports, most Americans don’t have a firm mindset on GMOs, and have probably not even heard of next-generation technologies like CRISPR, or RNAi. Polls from the IFIC, Pew and Rutgers University similarly show fertile ground for marketing and persuasion efforts. More than half of respondents to these polls indicated they knew nothing (or next to it) of genetically modified food. However, a similar majority had some negative perspectives of such foods in other surveys.

Since his 1992 work with IFIC, Rapaille in 2006 published what he called a “Culture Code,” a brand name-meets archetype concept that sums up what people perceive about a certain issue, product or person. For food (among Americans), Rapaille’s “culture code” was simply “fuel.” Like the poll responders, most Americans were not as concerned about the process of food making, where their food was made or grown, or whether or not it was natural, organic or genetically modified. What they wanted most was a full meal. Whether those findings, now nine years later, hold up today in the face of activist campaigns and an emerging ‘foodie’ movement is an open question.

The findings do suggest that the public may well be less resistant to these new generation technologies, which could bode well for the future of biotech (at least agriculture). There remains a potentially large group of people who have not made up their minds about early generation GMOs, and might be able to accept genetic engineering that does not involve splicing of so-called “foreign” DNA into an organism, or even involve direct expression of a new gene, and so far are not subject to the same regulations as early versions of genetic engineering. Words, emotions and qualitative perceptions will matter as much as, and perhaps more than, data or “getting the science right.”

Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow @AMPorterfield on Twitter.

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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