By: David Fikes, Vice President, Consumer and Community Affairs and Communications
Food retail venues tend to be the stage on which most food related dramas get played out. If there is controversy about a product, a production method or an ingredient, the questions often get raised at the point of retail – where the product meets the public – and not at the plant or farm where the product is made. For this reason, FMI is sometimes included in conversations when a new product or the exploration of a new production method is being introduced.
We have recently been involved in conversations about developments in CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology and its implications for food production. CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, and in genetic science circles is shorthand for a genome editing tool that targets specific parts of the genetic code making precise edits to the DNA strand. Now, if I’ve already lost you, then you understand the issue with introducing this new technology.
CRISPR is a scientifically sophisticated technology. Unfortunately, the majority of the population doesn’t speak science fluently and in an age of skepticism, tends to become more dubious as the language gets increasingly dense. This poses steep challenges for science-oriented technology, but choosing to not talk about it because it is so complicated, is not an option in the information age. Two food-related public relations tests of the recent past – GMO labeling and pink slime - have taught us some lessons about the need for early, open and honest public discourse. Not sharing with the public right out the gate that genetic modification food technology was being used has put GMO technology in a public-relations hole it is still trying to climb out of. Also, if you don’t get the proper vocabulary out into public conversation in a palatable way on the front-end, you risk getting stuck with a nickname not of your choosing. Which do you remember, Lean, finely textured beef (LFTB) or about “Pink Slime”? And as you learn in debate, the one who defines the terms often wins the argument.
Advocates for CRISPR technology want to avoid the public relations trap of having this process associated with GMO – claiming it is a totally different process. They have science – and for now the government - on their side. However, I’m not sure the food shopping public is ready to parse the difference between gene modification (inserting selected DNA from one organism into another) and gene editing (silencing particular genes). Afterall, both gene modification and gene editing fall under the general heading of genetic engineering.
CRISPR technology is progressing and its application in the food world is coming. That means food retailers will soon be a vital part of the public discourse regarding this technology. Now is the time for us to give shape to the narrative and ensure the vocabulary is of our choosing.
In that vein, I’d direct you to an excellent article entitled Gene Editing for Good, authored by Bill Gates for Foreign Affairs . In this piece, the philanthropist explores many of the possible social, medical and agricultural advances that CRISPR technology could offer the world. It is a good article because it leads with what CRISPR can do, while mixing in a bit of how it does it. In other words it seeks to connect with the readers values, before trying to convince them of the science.
Ultimately, food consumers want balanced, credible information regarding the products in the grocery store. A culture of transparency in the food system is a means of building consumer trust and promoting a deeper connection to food. If you’re interesting in furthering your transparency efforts, see FMI and The Center for Food Integrity’s recently released Transparency Roadmap for Food Retailers: Strategies to Build Consumer Trust, a white paper offering guidance for food retailers and their supplier partners to provide shoppers with clear information about their food.