Bringing society along as ag tech moves forward

Bringing society along as ag tech moves forward

With researchers around the world pushing to develop gene editing technology, agriculture is on a cusp of another scientific-driven revolution. The editing technologies, like CRISPR, are allowing researchers to edit the genome by removing, replacing or adding to parts of the DNA sequence.

These tools promise to bring advances for farmers and consumers. They could be used to remove well-known allergens from crops, like peanuts and wheat. They could make corn, soybeans and other crops better adapted to fend off damaging disease, insects and drought. And they could be used to create improved lines of livestock that can also resist disease and convert feed more efficiently.

But will society ever let these advances leave the laboratory and get to the farm and the dinner table? That’s a difficult and hard to answer question, admitted a panel of experts during last week’s Borlaug CAST (Council for Agricultural Science and Technology) communication award ceremony at the World Food Prize in Des Moines.

The introduction of biotech crops two decades ago provides valuable lessons, the panelists said. While scientists and farmers readily accepted biotech crops or GMOs, consumers were often in the dark about biotech’s value and safety.

That left a void that was filled by anti-biotech activists who gladly sowed the seeds of distrust about biotech crops. It’s clear that the same group of activists are eager to do the same with gene editing.

Gaining acceptance

To counteract that, the panel members emphasized that it’s vital to highlight the benefits of the improved crops and animals that gene editing can bring to consumers. The technology has far greater chances of broad acceptance if consumers can see the value of foods created through gene editing, whether it’s better nutrition, reduced environmental impact or another attribute, they said.

It’s critical to be transparent and up front about the technology and food products created by using it, the panelists said. Consumer acceptance can’t get taken for granted, they said.

One panel member, Neal Gut­­terson of DuPont Pioneer, put it well when he said: "We need to make sure we continue to look back and make sure that we have consumer acceptance, not simply look for ways to push the technology forward."

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