Comment: Gene editing a risk communication fiasco in the making

There are powerful arguments for this technology, but the industry isn’t making them

We are hearing more about gene-edited foods. It’s an intriguing concept for some but perhaps a scary one for others.

We don’t know whether Canadian consumers will want to eat gene-edited food. There’s a lot of excitement in agriculture about the introduction of gene-edited food products into the Canadian food system over the next few years, but a lot of apprehension as well.

Simply put, gene editing is about tweaking a plant’s genome by turning off certain genetic traits. By using a technology called CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat), almost anyone with some molecular biology training can cut and paste certain genes of a plant, without going through a cost-prohibitive process.

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For example, a tomato grower can gene edit plants in order to get shorter stems, so the tomatoes become more clustered. Mushrooms that don’t turn brown, which in turn can extend shelf life and reduce waste, would be another example.

Some gene-edited, low-gluten and high-fibre wheat has already been developed in the United States. Gene-edited soybeans, which can be cooked at high temperatures without producing trans fats, have already been planted.

Gene-editing experts claim that the technology has the potential to make some foods more nutritious without increasing costs and can also reduce food waste. Unlike GMOs, which involve crossing species that would not normally cross in nature, gene editing is about fine tuning what nature has given us.

Glyphosate-tolerant canola, for example, is a GMO and was entirely created by humans. Gene editing, on the other hand, does not add anything to the genome.

As it stands, public oversight for gene editing would be minimal, if not non-existent. If the process does not introduce any novel traits to the plant’s genome, Health Canada does not require safety testing for new products.

In other words, certification or approvals would likely not be necessary. Therefore, monitoring and traceability of gene-edited crops will be challenging. Furthermore, as with genetically modified content in foods, there are no plans to require mandatory labelling of gene-edited foods, either.

This is truly a recipe for another risk communication disaster.

Genetically modified crops took the world by storm in the early ’90s without anyone knowing about it, other than farmers and the biotechnology industry, of course. Today, almost 90 per cent of the corn, soybeans and canola grown in Canada comes from genetically modified seeds, and almost 80 per cent of all processed foods in any given grocery store in Canada today will contain at least one genetically modified ingredient. Since GMO labelling is not mandatory in Canada, most consumers are grossly unaware of their presence in food products.

Most major health authorities from around the world, including our very own Health Canada, have concluded that consuming GMO ingredients in food does not pose either short- or long-term health risks. But most of this doesn’t matter in the eyes of the average consumer.

The food industry’s last venture into genetic engineering, more than 30 years ago, was a commercial success for agriculture. Global agriculture has benefited from the technology, which has made crop growing more efficient, without a doubt. But it also became a risk communication disaster over the years when consumers started to fear what was happening to their food, without knowing about genetic engineering.

“Frankenfoods” was one well-used label to describe GMOs and reflects how misunderstood the technology was. The biotechnology sector never bothered connecting with the public as it was promoting its newly crafted products to farmers. So, it’s difficult to blame consumers for being fearful about what’s happening out there in our farmers’ fields.

The political opposition from interest groups was fierce. Vocalizing concerns has made the biotechnology industry mindful of how social licensing is critical to the nature of its business. What biotechnology companies are doing is important, but it remains exceptionally misunderstood.

Most Canadians know of the existence of GMOs but cannot accurately explain what they are. In order to allow Canadians to befriend the science, mandatory labelling for genetically modified and edited content would be a logical starting point.

Gene editing is now a reality, and it’s only a matter of time before the technology reaches grocery store shelves. Our food systems are evolving, as we try to figure out a way to feed our growing population.

Gene-edited crops can help farmers produce safe and affordable food, feed, fibres, and energy in the 21st century, but the technology needs to make a legitimate case to consumers themselves.

Given the GMO risk communication fiasco we have all witnessed over the last 30 years, let’s hope we can learn from past mistakes by making sure consumers are on board with this. Regrettably though, the effort to educate the public is close to non-existent at this stage, which suggests that we have not learned a darn thing.

About the author

Contributor

Sylvain Charlebois is senior director, Agri-Food Analytics Lab, and professor in food distribution policy, Dalhousie University.

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