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Experts Key to Communicating about Gene Editing

You don’t have to be a scientist to talk about gene editing, but it may help to know one.

Most people don’t know much about gene editing, which is a method of selective breeding that makes precise, intentional and beneficial changes to in the genetic material of plants and animals. In fact, 2020 research from the FMI Foundation shows that half of consumers have never heard of the technology. But there is opportunity to engage. More than half of consumers said they want to learn more about gene editing’s use in agriculture, according to consumer research.

Gene editing is expected to help farmers keep pace with the growing demand for more and better food, while using less water, land and other resources. There’s much promise, but in order to make use of gene editing, it’s crucial to ensure public support so the food system has the social license to responsibly develop the technology to its full potential.

Expert Advice

The CFI Coalition for Responsible Gene Editing in Agriculture developed a communication guide, updated in 2021 with new research, that shares tips and resources when it comes to talking about the technology. “Gene Editing: Engage in the Conversation” is based on research from various organizations and identifies five effective communication approaches.

One approach is leveraging the experts. Having spokespeople who are credentialed and relatable, and show integrity and share values, engage in the conversation is one of the most effective ways to help people understand and trust gene editing.

When consumers were asked who they trust most for information about technology in food, several studies revealed similar findings.

  • Scientists, science leaders and academic institutions garnered the highest levels of trust.
  • Regulatory authorities were highly trusted, indicating the important role they play in building trust for gene editing.
  • A lack of engagement by regulators may be perceived negatively.

What about farmers? Some consumers value hearing directly from those who use the technology, but others believe that familiarity can impact their impartiality. Farmers are an important voice in the gene editing conversation but should not be the only voice.

Trust in Action

The impact of trustworthy experts was demonstrated in a three-part video series about CRISPR, a specific kind of gene editing, on BestFoodFacts.org. The series is hosted by blogger Lynne Feifer of 365 Days of Baking and More who interviews human health and agriculture experts as part of her mission to learn more about the use of CRISPR.

More than half of the consumers who watched found the videos appealing, credible and understandable and they were interested in learning more. Acceptance of CRISPR grew significantly after watching the videos. For example, after viewing How Can CRISPR Improve Food?, consumer support for use of CRISPR went from 49 percent before to 62 percent after.

We’re not suggesting that only PhD scientists engage in the conversation; the research simply shows it can be beneficial. Anyone who wants to earn trust in this promising technology should engage. And we have resources that can help, like Best Food Facts, Genetic Literacy Project and CRISPRcon. For a list of more resources and tips, download the full communication guide.

Interested in helping your team effectively communicate about gene editing in a way that earns trust? Consider our gene editing communications training. Connect with us at learnmore@foodintegrity.org.

Originally published Nov. 11, 2019.