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Next-generation genetic engineering must address public fears

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.

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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.

17 thoughts on “Next-generation genetic engineering must address public fears”

  1. The GM industry’s spin factory is spinning its wheels over new GM techniques and their products. Last time it tried to dupe the public, its credibility was in tatters. False claims for the speed, accuracy, reliability and safety of GM techniques were a sham. The same 4 broadacre crops – soy, corn, canola and cotton – with two single gene traits – Roundup tolerance and Bt insect toxins – launched in 1996 are still most of GM seed sold now.
    Attempts to avoid precautionary regulation over the newest crop of organisms, manipulated with new GM techniques, must also fail. New research by HealthFocus International finds 87% of shoppers worldwide say non-GM foods are healthier than GM ones, and we are buying our food accordingly – labelled or not.
    From 1988 on, Monsanto and their fellow travelers insisted on calling GMOs ‘genetically modified’, not manipulated, mutilated or mangled organisms. The spurious claim was that humans have modified plants, animals and micro-organisms for 10,000 years through selective breeding, transgenic organisms are just an extension of what had been done for centuries and were nothing new.
    But most people realized you cannot get a fish’s cold tolerance trait into a tomato without a lab and GM techniques. The ‘nothing new’ lie also unraveled when patents were granted over organisms that had to be new to qualify.
    Gung ho spin will get new GM products nowhere, anymore, whatever you call them!

    • Good grief, Bob. I’m happy to educate you on some points here.
      You’re welcome.

      1. GE foods have been subject to thousands of tests for safety and efficacy.
      2. Unless you have conspiracy theories about gub’mint, then you will have some reasonable confidence about the oversight of EPA and other organizations re the safety of GE foods.
      3. Farmers willingly pay premium prices for GE seeds, year after year.
      4. Shoppers buy GE foods with confidence, and are just as healthy.
      5. You refer to “manipulated, mutilated, or mangled” organisms. First of all, genetic engineering is a process, not an “organism.” Second, you entirely overlook the thousands of foods produced through mutagenesis — chemical and irradiation bllllalsting — with absolutely no predictability in outcome and zero testing and zero oversight.
      6. There is no fish / tomato GE food, so get off of that lazy old meme.
      7. You are ignorant of the fact that seeds — conventional, organic, hybrid – have been patented since 1930.

      Yup, you need to revise your tired old spin and educate yourself. I expect that any education about new biotech will continue to elicit the same sneering conspiracy theories, scientific inaccuracy, and misinformation from you, but many others are genuinely interested in biotech and will continue to farm and consume biotech foods.

      • Excellent response agscienceliterate!! But the anti-science crowd will continue. They are not constrained by facts. They just want to increase the market share of their potentially fecal laden produce.

        • Larkin – thanks. You are right about the rigid theology of the conspiracy theorists and anti-science crowd. Just as they will continue to refuse vaccinations for their kids, they will continue to oppose the science and research of ag biotech and farming.

          They could just quietly eat all the fecal-laden organic they want, without interfering in the lives of others who grow and eat GE crops, but this isn’t enough for them. The sad (but amusing) part is the continuous repitition of the same ole arguments against GE, which have long been shown to be false.

          They are going to need to up their game if they are going to remain effective shills for the organic industry. (I mean, fish/ tomato; really? That old myth is so 1990.)

          • True. But the saddest part is that people like this block the use of this technology in developing countries, where people are starving. I am really curious how these anti-science types sleep at night. Their strength is that they continue to frighten people who know nothing about agriculture and biology. I am sure you are familiar with the pole that showed that 80% of those polled wanted their food labeled if it contained DNA!! People like us must continue to speak out. Kevin Folta is my colleague and I am very proud of what he does.

          • Yes, it’s totally a me-me-me mentality, and they probably sleep perfectly well at night, deluded with their presumptions about how other people should live.
            Yes, I’ve read those 80% people want DNA labeled studies! Food Babe mentality doesn’t help.
            And the old falsity that 95% (numbers often change) of people “want” gmos labeled in foods are the result of push-polls, not actual valid polling without bias. The voters rejected the last two initiatives on labeling in Oregon and Colorado, showing that old statistic is worthless.
            I admire Kevin greatly. I am proud and grateful for you both. Heard and met him at a presentation and he is one of my heroes. Kudos to both of you for continuing to do what you do, researching good science and promoting rational education about genetic engineering. You two have my utmost respect. Thanks for taking the time to comment here – I’m sure you have other things to do!

          • Thanks for the kind words. Kevin though has taken things to a whole new level. He is very effective (has infinitely more patience than I do, young and excellent on a computer). It is a damned shame what the anti crowd has done to him. But he continues, thank goodness.

      • Hi “agscienceliterate”
        Can you please post a link to any of the thousands of safety studies you speak of? One important caveat, the study needs to be longer than 90 days (“sub-chronic”).

        I assume when you say “tests for safety” you mean studies which actually examine the health of the animal. That is what people are curious to see.


        • Perhaps if you were able to demonstrate what you mean by providing similar links to similar studies done on all the crops that are currently on the market that were derived from radiation and chemical mutagenic processes as examples of what you’d like to see, it would help. Given the fact that there are many, many hundreds of crops with those characteristics it shouldn’t be that difficult for you to find a few appropriate studies. There are people curious about that as well. Thanks!

          • Hi Bill,
            Even Karl Haro von Mogel couldn’t find the alleged long term GMO safety studies, but he didn’t demand safety studies for the techniques you mention. I guess your point is that past stupidity somehow justifies present? That’s an unusual perspective. Turtles all the way down, I’d say.

            Thanks for helping prove my point.

          • I assumed you’d either be able to provide links or answer as you did. Thanks for the response. There appears to be a dearth of long-term safety studies for crops developed from mutagenesis. It seems short-sighted to focus solely on the safety of crops developed from precision genetic engineering while crops arrived at through a much less precise method of genetic mutation get what, in essence, seems to be a free pass. Perhaps you could enlighten us.

          • It would be interesting to study how the primitive forms of mutagenisis affected crop safety and health, unfortunately that was done long before my time and before we had testing protocols as were in place during the 1990’s when 1st gen GMOs were developed. Without proper controls science is extremely limited.

            The issue I am working on is that the proponents of modern GM techniques (such as “agscienceliterate”) speak as though “thousands” of safety studies are available, but I am unable to locate many >90 day studies. Like most people I do not believe that <90 day studies can prove long term safety. The GENERA database doesn't allow the user to search by study duration (yet) there may be quite a few long term safety studies I am missing, and I wish to see what they all say.

          • Mutagenesis is still considered a viable option in plant breeding by any number of research scientists and agencies worldwide. The entire genome is subjected to exposure to radiation or chemicals to induce mutation. The crops arrived at by this method have been consumed and fed for at least 40 years longer than GMO’S and are continuing to be consumed and fed simultaneously with them.

            Another post of yours alluded to what appears to be a number of increases in health issues that correspond with the growth in foods derived from GE crops. That time line coincides with the consumption of foods derived at from mutagenesis as well. There’s the rub for me.

            Your approach seems much more measured and nuanced than many. It’s appreciated.

          • Hi Bill,
            I agree that chemical and radiation induced mutations may also have introduced toxins into our food supply, and it is likely that natural mutations also did so.

            Acknowledging the dearth of safety data for our latest experiments is the first step towards planning the next steps. GMO proponents who say that there is plenty of long term safety data are simply not being honest. All you have to do is ask for study data and follow up on what they present to see this is the case. There is some, but not much.

  2. Lots of food for thought. Whether you call it PR or issue framing or whatever, I do think there is a lot of truth in the need to frame any technology as it relates to human values and widely held societal goals. I think it is also important to both develop and present ge not as a replacement for sound resource stewardship and agronomic wisdom, but as a means to reinforce them.

  3. “Next-generation genetic engineering must address public fears”

    The GLP headline is fairly accurate for once, but the article is predictably wrong-headed. This is not a marketing problem, 2nd gen GM techniques are so different that they require new toxicity testing regimes:

    American Institute of Biological Sciences, 16 Jul 2013:
    “Standard toxicity testing is inadequate to assess the safety of a new technology with potential for creating pesticides and genetically modifying crops”

    (Many would say that standard toxicity testing is inadequate for FIRST generation GMOs. But I digress.)

    The USDA scientists explain their concerns: “recent experience with RNAi in functional genomics has revealed that siRNAs often silence unintended genes. Moreover, the process of RNAi can affect organisms in ways that transcend the effects of gene silencing.”

    “off-target binding in nontarget organisms is a real hazard posed by RNAi if the nontargets are sufficiently exposed to the RNAi.”

    “The persistence of dsRNAs and siRNAs in the environment and the movement of these molecules throughout the landscape are largely unknown”

    The full report is here:

    Porterfield thinks the problem is “fear mongering” in a textbook example of hubris. Completely failing to acknowledge legitimate scientific concerns about mutagenic chain reactions, he goes straight for the sales pitch; Call in Clotaire Rapaille and the guys from Ketchum, we need some propaganda to overcome the dreaded Food Babe Terrorists.

    MAYBE Mr Porterfield should resist the urge to market GMOs before toxicity testing is adequate? Nope. He rolls out the cheerleader misinformation and doubles down:

    “…heavy, fear-laden “it’s not proven safe!” rhetoric…”
    “the traits of (GMOs) are tested and approved (or not) by the FDA, EPA and USDA.”

    In classic form, he implies that the US government actually tests GMOs for safety. I wish. Various agencies even help hide “trade secret” toxicology data, making it nearly impossible for anyone to learn if it supports the published conclusions. For example; after 30 yrs Monsanto’s glyphosate test data has been released, but only to Dr Anthony Samsel, who says it clearly shows both high toxicity and gross data manipulation. This is horrifying but not terribly surprising, given Monsanto’s criminal record.

    If GMO proponents truly wish to allay the concerns about GMOs, they will help the “Food Terrorists” petition the government to unseal more industry data, especially the older toxicology studies. This would not only help prove that they actually care about the science, it could save millions of dollars, and years of research..

    Porterfield ends his piece: “Words, emotions and qualitative perceptions will matter as much as, and perhaps more than, data or ‘getting the science right.'”

    In your dreams. Let’s see some long term data for the 1st gen GMOs. If you cannot provide any, then your “qualitative perceptions” about 2nd gen GMOs are just another, even more dangerous con job.

  4. The “fears” that in the human case that successful genetic editing will result in irreversible germ-line consequences (oh dear, BLUE eyes & FAIR hair, deja vu!)….

    As I said in a letter shortened by The Times, so long as there are humanitarian laws to prevent the “extremes of a Dr Mengele or Dr Moreau”, what is wrong in principle with improving the health and even intelligence of future generations?

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