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Picture This: Gene Editing and Why Analogies Resonate

A picture is worth a thousand words. When communicating about gene editing, a visual image is a powerful way to describe a complex concept. But some analogies resonate better than others, according to research from The Center for Food Integrity Coalition for Responsible Gene Editing in Agriculture.

The Coalition developed a communication guide that shares tips for engaging in the conversation. Based on research from various organizations, the guide identified five effective communication approaches.

Surprising findings

In reviewing research to develop the guide, the Coalition found that analogies and visuals that explain science are excellent ways to communicate about gene editing, especially to those less familiar with science and genetics. Effective analogies are relatable, logical and safe.

We often hear gene editing compared to “genetic scissors” that cut DNA or a “find and replace function” in a word processing program. It was a bit surprising to learn from the research that most people did not relate to these descriptions or found them condescending.

The research shows that the best analogies are not over-simplified. More effective analogies refer to the improvements of gene editing within the framework of a larger, yet tangible, context. Two analogies that resonate are comparing the technology to an encyclopedia (younger audiences can relate to Wikipedia) and house blueprint:

“DNA is like a long encyclopedia of information. Increasingly scientists can identify the exact page, the exact paragraph and even the exact word they want to study. With this knowledge, they can use gene-editing tools to make corrections or improvements to specific areas of the genome.”

“DNA provides the information for building every living thing. Builders can make small changes to the blueprint – like moving a door or adding a window – to improve the house. These are small targeted changes relative to an entire house. In the same way, scientists can make small, targeted changes in DNA to improve an organism.”

Words that work

These phrases are perceived more favorably, as shown through consumer research:

  • Help farmers manage environmental challenges
  • Grow enough food with less water and fewer resources
  • Reduce pesticide use
  • Protect plants
  • Help plants and animals thrive
  • Improve plants and animals
  • Next iteration or next evolution (of plant improvement or animal genetics)
  • Based on a natural process
  • Includes no foreign DNA

Engaging in the conversation about gene editing and its uses in agriculture is essential to build public trust in the technology so that the promise to benefit people, animals, plants and our planet can be realized. To learn more about effectively communicating about gene editing, download the full resource.