Agriculture has done a better job of creating advanced genetics than of gaining public acceptance for them. Ever since the arrival of Bt corn and RR soybeans, growers have seen yield increases and simplified weed and pest management spread across crops and across the country.
Yet in 2020, a segment of society still opposes those innovations, in spite of the wealth of scientific evidence that supports their use and safety records.
Another branch of agri-science — gene editing —has also been advancing for much of the past decade. Again, though, it faces tough questions, both in terms of whether it can produce enough return on investment, and also in terms of exactly what regulatory hurdles it will have to clear.
Now, CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat) technology is also preparing to hit the market with a variety of developments, some from larger corporations, others from smaller, more agile interests, with major releases planned as soon as the next three to five years.
As a technology, CRISPR is a mere eight years old, but many growers who measure success in higher yields and lower operating costs, already wonder whether it will ever reach the farm.
When will row-crop farmers see more from the technology? What’s the next horizon for such scientific endeavours? Will CRISPR solve issues revolving around climate change or insect pests?
Some stakeholders look upon CRISPR and other forms of gene editing and wonder if they might be a means for quelling consumer fears about genetic modifications. For Dr. Michael Pautler, CRISPR may provide an opportunity to reset the conversation on the use of science in agriculture. What’s needed, he believes, is for the discussion to change from simply focusing on safety to actually promoting direct benefits to consumers.
“Things like making food tastier, more convenient, seedless, more easily ‘snackable,’” says Pautler, a research scientist with the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre in Vineland, Ont. “If you can harness CRISPR and gene editing technologies to develop products that have obvious consumer-benefiting traits, that’s where I see the most potential for turning the conversation.”
Sometimes there might be a clear consumer benefit, but Pautler concedes that other times, it’s a little more nebulous for the consumer to grasp, with the benefit being more to the producer to make their operations more efficient or higher yielding.
There are environmental benefits that arise from healthier farms, but getting consumers to understand and value them is more challenging.
“When it comes to consumer messaging, one of the key take-homes is that there needs to be appropriate messaging of both benefits and risks,” says Pautler, also head of genomics with Platform Genetics, a spinoff company of the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre. “In the case of gene-edited products, the risks are going to be minor or non-existent, but there still needs to be an honest discussion and screening of the benefits and risks to the consumer.”
His view recalls an observation made in 1999 by John Oliver, president of Maple Leaf Bio-Concepts. He addressed the Ontario Corn Producers’ Association with his prediction that those who are reluctant to accept GMO corn or soybeans may be more accepting of a breakfast cereal that fights juvenile diabetes or a snack bar that combats heart disease.
The more the merrier
Pautler also refers to the history of GMO technology in the seed industry, noting that its development costs and often unwieldy regulatory processes have meant that only a few companies had the financial means to enter into that field. As a result, the benefits intended for growers weren’t widely shared among agribusinesses.
“With CRISPR, there’s more of a democratization of the technology and you have a wide and fair access to gene-editing tools,” Pautler says.
“Large companies and small companies and public sector breeders are all participating, and that tends to head off that ‘corporate interests’ type of fear. Hopefully, we can avoid those unreasonably high regulatory costs and use the technology to generate a wider spectrum of benefits.”
As for the progress of bringing products of CRISPR to market, Pautler maintains that it’s still early days. Science is advancing beyond the simple deletion of genes to study delivery methods, base-editing, template-directed repair and modifying gene expression, and that’s still just scratching the surface.
With the science, however, comes the need to define impacts to the regulatory process along with consumer acceptance.
Pautler refers to horticulture as one sector that stands to benefit early from CRISPR. Unlike transgenic corn or soybeans, horticulture crops have never had the market share to justify development costs of hundreds of millions of dollars or the wait times for regulatory processes. Products of transgenic research, like the Flavr-Savr tomato, haven’t resonated with consumers as benefits.
“That’s where I see more opportunity to communicate the benefits to consumers, because it gets a little more indirect and harder to grasp when new breeding technologies are applied to field crops,” says Pautler. “The final form of the product that the consumer sees is detached from the technology. The onus is on the seed companies and the marketers to clearly outline the benefits, whether that’s to the consumer or a trait that makes production more efficient.”
Not a saviour
One of the key messages with CRISPR — and all gene-editing technologies — is simply that they’re valuable tools.
Dan Wright, head of seeds for Syngenta Canada, emphasizes that CRISPR is a vital part of an incredible branch of science that can help quicken the pace of innovation, but on its own, it can’t be regarded as miraculous.
But this raises a challenge of its own.
“How do we help people understand that there needs to be innovation and there needs to be an accelerated pace of innovation to help us address things like climate change?” asks Wright. “I believe CRISPR is an opportunity to do that. How we position this technology — and all new technology — is how we can get better food to the consumer and how that technology is reducing agriculture’s impact on the planet. If we could aim it towards those conversations, it’d be very helpful.”
Wright maintains there’s a benefit to agriculture that technology can be used to monitor sequestered carbon, to reduce climate change or enhance soil health and overall sustainability. Plant breeding technologies will also help with nutrition, but getting information into the hands of consumers and to ensure that it’s credible and science-based is of paramount importance.
“Consumers want to understand where their food comes from,” says Wright, even though he agrees there’s a disconnect between modern agricultural production and the consumer’s standpoint. “But there’s also an appetite for consumers to know more about innovation, and they’re adapting innovation in different areas.”
In the past, most of those innovations benefited larger companies and growers, with the perception that consumers didn’t benefit. That’s the challenge with gene editing: the message has a tendency to get lost among those who may not understand how it works or where it’s applied.
Gene editing helps accelerate the rate of innovation on plant hybrids and varieties, and getting those into the hands of growers faster will help with efficiencies, nutrition and other properties. But the job of getting that message to consumers has to fall to the companies involved in that research, along with the scientific community, government extension, growers — even the regulatory branch.
“The primary question becomes, ‘What’s in it for the consumer?’” says Wright. “If they can see what’s in it for them, they’ll be more accepting of it. From a consumer standpoint, what’s in it for them is understanding that this technology is helping a farmer be more sustainable. It’s an opportunity for the consumer to see that they’re supporting that grower to be better.”
Just getting started
For Ian Affleck, the communications job is just getting started. Like Pautler and Wright, Affleck believes more of the conversation about the use of gene technologies needs to shift to a consumer-benefit perspective.
The example he cites is Calyxt, a U.S. company with 40,000 acres of high-oleic, healthy-oil soybeans they’ve been growing for processing into oil. Affleck notes it isn’t an idea on some drawing board: the innovation is in production and in use in restaurants. Although he’s quick to add that the regulatory systems for these products have to be science-based, reasonable and predictable, what’s also vital to the technology’s advancement is consumer acceptance.
That path may be simpler, thanks to the many players involved in CRISPR and gene editing. Echoing Pautler’s statement about large and smaller interests, Affleck says there’s plenty of room for exploration and discovery in the gene-editing research sphere.
“There’s going to be a wide variety of innovators in that space,” says Affleck, vice-president of plant biotechnology with CropLife Canada. “We’re seeing that gene-editing trend is being led by consumer traits and when consumers see benefits on their plate — directly to them — they’re going to have more interest in understanding and accepting the technology.”
It’s the responsibility of the agri-food industry to do a better job of explaining it to the public. Affleck believes the information surrounding technology has to be consumable to the average person so they can read it, feel comfortable about the technology and believe they can purchase it safely for themselves and their family.
“In this space, it’s not about the science: the science is expected by the public, as is the safety,” says Affleck. “It’s about the emotion. We need to figure out and understand — and listen to the consumer about what matters to them — and then speak to them about those things.”
What’s important to farmers?
To drive that home, CropLife Canada has researched how to get communications materials to the farmer about managing resistance. Part of the puzzle is trying to determine what component generates the most interest in the conversation: Is it economics? Is it the science?
“The number one factor that got farmers interested was that they’re going to hand their farm down to their children, and if they don’t manage resistance, the gift to their children will be diminished,” Affleck says. “Even in the farming community, when you want to get information out, you have to connect with what the audience cares about, and farmers care about their families.”
Affleck adds that if public trust is lost, so is market access. And in agriculture today, market access is incredibly important.
Says Affleck: “We have to make sure that we’re driving the right information out there to retain public trust.”