The acceptance of genetically engineered food is a divisive topic that is deeply embedded in the ongoing debate around climate change, sustainability and food security. Despite studies finding that genetically engineered crops do not pose health risks to humans and revealing that they instead provide economic and health benefits such as enhanced nutrition and yield, these foods are still subject to intense scrutiny. Furthermore, in many places of the world that need it most, they are rejected due to unfounded public concern and a lack of understanding.
The agricultural industry is already strained from climate change with the UN IPCC noting that increasing temperatures, varying precipitation patterns and greater frequency of extreme events are making it difficult to meet consumer food demands. In addition to the stressors from climate change, global demand for healthier, more nutritional food options also brings to light a need for enhanced crop innovation. According to a report from the Food and Agricultural Organization from the United Nations, over 820 Million people do not have enough to eat.
Genetically engineered foods including CRISPR genome-edited and genetically modified crops, are a necessity for sustainable agricultural practices that address climate change and food security concerns alike. Some countries are acknowledging this and are paving the way by incorporating new innovations, technologies and tools for precision breeding in staple crops. Others, however, are maintaining a firm anti-genetic engineering stance that will result in severe consequences, which will leave them in a difficult position in the future. Policy, educational efforts and consumer perspectives need an overhaul, both in countries that are and are not currently at risk for food shortages in order to best leverage these innovations and position themselves as an agriculturally secure country in the coming years.
The Global Fight Against Genetically Engineered Foods
Consumer perception and acceptance of genetically engineered food, despite seeing a shift in recent years, have been shaped by mis-information campaigns from NGOs since the inception of this technology in the 1990s and negative advertising campaigns by some food product manufacturers. As a result, the public has little real understanding of how genetic engineering tools work and their importance in agriculture. Furthermore, their perceptions and acceptance appear to still be heavily tied to where a consumer lives and what policies exist within that country around genetic engineering in crops.
A recently released study observed public acceptance of and willingness to consumer CRISPR genome-editing and GMOs in five different countries, some of which were progressive in their policies while some were not. The study found that over 50 percent of respondents in countries that did support GMO and CRISPR-edited foods (the U.S. and Australia) would consume these foods. Countries that did not have support, streamline and educate consumers on the benefits (Canada, Belgium and France) saw less than 50 percent of respondents claim they would consume these foods.
Belgium and France, as two countries representing the EU, spotlight the political influence on consumer perceptions and acceptance. The EU is known to have some of the most stringent regulations on GMOs and, after a 2019 court ruling blocking the initial regulatory body position, CRISPR genome-editing, CRISPR genome edited crops alike, and in some countries such as Germany, France, Greece, Austria, Hungary and Luxembourg, the cultivation and production crops have been outright banned. The tedious processes and continued objection to proposals has made innovation in the agricultural space increasingly difficult but scientists are not giving up.
A letter from a collective of scientists to the EU noted that in order “to address challenges like this and meet food production goals efficiently, we will need to use all knowledge and technical means available and thus also new technologies, specifically biotechnology.” Additionally, in March 2020, the EASAC called for radical reform of EU legislation around GMOs, noting that the EU needs to capitalize on these new plant breeding techniques to create climate-resilient crops that are designed to address concerns around food security and nutrition. The scientific community is pushing back hard to shift the opinion and has pressured the European Parliament Council has requested a study from the European Commission on the status of new genomic techniques under EU law.
It’s not just agriculturally secure countries that are facing internal regulatory challenges and shifting mindsets around genetically engineered food, many countries where land, water and pest challenges make it difficult to meet production goals are also caught up with regulatory hurdles. In late 2019 and early 2020, the threat of starvation from climate change-related agricultural shortages forced Kenya to reconsider its ban on GMO foods.
While the ban has yet to be lifted, groups like Kenya’s National Biosafety Authority have pushed for the ban to be eliminated to give Kenyans access to the full benefits of genetic engineering technologies. The ban was partially lifted in December 2019 for the planting of BT cotton, an important first step in establishing more sustainable agriculture. However, more action is needed to introduce genetically engineered food and feedstock to the economy, including consumer education and acceptance of these foods among major importers including those within the EU.
Driving regulatory support and public education
Due to the increased urgency of food security and needing to feed over 10 billion people by 2050, changes are being made across the globe, with some countries driving the charge and creating a framework for regulatory reform, sweeping changes and consumer education.
The U.S., for example, has set the stage for the proactive support crop innovation using GMO and CRISPR genome-editing.
To streamline innovation and approvals, the U.S. has taken a unique approach by creating two separate regulatory processes for GMOs and CRISPR genome-edited foods. While both techniques are designed to manipulate a plant’s DNA to emphasize desirable traits for yield, resiliency and nutrition, GMOs introduce foreign DNA to achieve these traits while CRISPR genome-edited crops utilize a plant’s existing DNA and traits.
Since they introduce new DNA sequences, GMOs still have to go through a stringent evaluation process performed by the FDA, EPA and USDA, which evaluates the health, safety and environmental effects of these crops. This process takes time and often delays getting GMO crops to market when they are most needed.
The separated approvals process most benefits CRISPR-edited foods. The USDA now offers a simplified “am I regulated?” process to confirm that the genome-edited food is not a regulated article. The new plant trait may be subject to regulation by the EPA or FDA, but this approach can drastically speed up the approvals process and get these crops to market faster.
Streamlining innovation around genetically engineered food is just one part of fostering adoption and acceptance of these foods. Education around the safety, health and sustainability benefits is also critical which is why the U.S. FDA, EPA and USDA recently launched the “Feed Your Mind” initiative educate the public about genetically engineered foods and eliminate misinformation. Consumers today are driven by their social interests, from preserving the environment to eating healthier. Once they understand the benefits, they are more likely to consume and accept these foods, as we’ve seen with the hype around the Impossible burger, made with GMO soy.
To overcome the inevitable food security concerns arising from climate change and a growing population, we need to start considering the incorporation of genetically engineered foods on a global scale. Governments in countries that have been hesitant to introduce GMO and CRISPR genome-edited crops into their agricultural practices need to reconsider the benefits that these new tools and technologies can offer and use the examples set forth in countries like the U.S. to build the new framework.