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Bioengineered and Gene Edited Foods: Steps to Gaining Consumer Acceptance

Written by: Guest   |   June 9, 2022

By: Gracie Wagner, AFIA communications intern

Have you ever sat down to think about what gene-edited food means to you? What it is, if you would buy it, if you would trust the product itself? To answer questions like these and explore consumers’ preferences related to bioengineered and gene-edited products, Michigan State University assistant professor Dr. Vincenzina Caputo conducted a nationwide survey in September 2019 to 4,487 U.S. shoppers. I recently attended a webinar that discussed the findings of this research.

Background: Gene Editing versus GMOs

Personally, I have heard about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, more than I have heard about gene-edited foods. This begs the question of, is there a difference between them? Or are they terms used interchangeably?

There actually is a difference. Gene editing represents an evolution of traditional engineering technologies used in agriculture to improve the nutritional value of foods, minimize pesticide use and even reduce animal and/or plant diseases. To become gene-edited, an existing gene is cut and altered. These gene-edited foods are indistinguishable from foods that are not gene edited, as compared to GMOs, where genes are inserted and tests can distinguish the differences between the modified and non-modified products. Although the genetic make-up of GMOs and non-GMOs are distinguishable, this does not make them unsafe compared to gene-edited foods; gene-edited foods do however pose some advantages, such as a regulatory process allowing them to make it to market faster than GMO’s.

Research Takeaways

On May 31, the Food Industry Association (FMI) held a summit where Caputo discussed the recently released, “Consumer Acceptance Of Gene Edited Food” report. One of the big questions the research addressed was: how do consumers view gene-edited foods?

The researchers found that consumers’ acceptance of gene-edited food compared to their acceptance of organic, non-GMO and conventional food is low. In general, the research found that consumers have a very low understanding and awareness about gene-editing and associated predominantly negative feelings with the technology. Providing consumers with general product information is not enough to increase demand.

Another finding of particular interest is that consumers' willingness to pay for gene-edited foods is not only influenced by the general provision of information but needs to be supplemented with specific benefits messages if the technology is to be more widely accepted. For example, the description of “non-browning” gene-edited lettuce (yes, it is a real thing!) piques consumers’ interest because it provides a direct benefit to them.

In addition, FMI suggested future marketing efforts need to be directed and adapted to the specific foods in question and cannot be guided by a single, overall approach. Fresh or processed foods, plant- or meat-based foods; they all need specific marketing efforts and labeling in order to foster consumer acceptance, as they appeal to different demographics for varying reasons.

The report offers some practical findings for the food and agriculture industry that could be useful in understanding consumers’ thoughts and trends regarding these bioengineered foods. For the animal food industry, particularly in light of new research from the Institute for Feed Education and Research which found that increasing the use of non-GMO feed would not only increase the costs of feed and resulting animal-food products (i.e., meat, milk and eggs) for consumers, it would also have detrimental environmental outcomes, such as a net shift away from grassy habitats to crops. This should be a lesson that we need to do a better job explaining the benefits of these safe, proven technologies to our customers (i.e., farmers and ranchers), so that they can be advocates for them in the consumer marketplace.

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