A look back on GMOs and lessons learned
“Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” may sound like a bunch of random words thrown together, but they may represent the most promising technology yet to emerge in the field of biology – CRISPR.
By now, most people have heard of CRISPR technology and associate it with genetic manipulation, but few understand what it is and why it’s so important. Perhaps the easiest way to explain CRISPR is to put it into a context everyone can understand. CRISPR is essentially the “Find + Replace” function applied to genetic code. With CRISPR, we can efficiently remove an exact piece of genetic code and replace it with a desired piece of code. This means we can now edit genetic code quickly and accurately.
It’s almost impossible to overstate the potential of CRISPR in medicine, agriculture and even environmental remediation, assuming we manage to refute and silence the anti-science nay-sayers. From treating genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis to drastically reducing the environmental footprint of meat production. As we stand at the precipice of CRISPR progress, I can’t help but look back at the introduction of GMO technology in agriculture and wonder if we can do a better job of informing the public and bringing them along with us this time. Here are a few of the lessons learned with the benefit of hindsight.
Proactively engage the public and talk about the technology.
It was 1998, and I was visiting with a woman at her desk when she said, “I would never eat any of those GMO crops.” Then she took a swig of her soda to wash down the corn chips she had just eaten, and I realized we had a problem. Our perfectly safe corn and soybeans were on shelves across the country, and the public had never been brought into the conversation. The decades of research, government approvals and safety studies that thousands of dedicated professionals completed prior to launch exhaustively demonstrate the safety of the technology. Yet nobody had thought to inform the consumer on the what or why.
With CRISPR, we can get it right from the start. We need to proactively explain what the technology is, how it’s used and why it matters – to demystify CRISPR. We fear what we don’t understand. To this day, the average consumer still doesn’t know what a GMO is, how the technology works or why it’s needed, and so there is fear and rejection of a benign and beneficial tool.
Find independent experts in the scientific field and production agriculture to help educate the public.
When the public started pushing back and asking questions, it was the large agricultural corporations that had launched the initial GMO products that found themselves in the hot seat. And people are inherently distrustful of large corporations. It became easy for those looking to demonize the technology to unfairly tie GMOs to corporate greed of “large agricultural monopolies.” In the consumer’s eye, it quickly became the people vs. “Big Ag,” since those were the only voices in the debate.
Finding trusted scientific voices to explain the technology and why it’s good for our society will be critically important. It also will be important to keep the conversation on the technology platform, not the individual products, brands or companies. Involving university researchers, Nobel prize winners, technology journalists, farmers and ranchers and even groups like the Environmental Working Group can help provide a more credible and independent look at CRISPR. All of this will make it much more difficult to villainize the new technology.
Initial CRISPR products need to address consumers’ needs, not farmers or producers.
Perhaps the biggest regret of the modern GMO technology launch was which products launched first. Herbicide-tolerant traits were incredibly helpful in the production of crops, and farmers were quick to jump on board. Overnight, weed control had become drastically simplified and farmers were thrilled. But consumers didn’t share in this joy; they experienced no tangible benefit.
Imagine if the first GMO product had been Golden Rice or the Arctic Apple, helping to solve malnutrition or food waste. It’s a lot tougher to demonize a technology that is truly benefiting society as a whole.
If CRISPR comes out of the gate with allergen-free peanuts or reduced cholesterol beef, the public will be much more eager to embrace it. Enhancing food safety or reducing the environmental demands of food production are objectives that benefit everyone, not just producers and farmers.
As with any truly groundbreaking technology, the extremists are wasting no time in getting their dissenting message out. Depending on whom you ask, CRISPR will likely result in humans either living forever or our entire species will be dead by next Friday. But the public needs to hear a more moderated voice and discussion around CRISPR, one that can discuss the potential risks to manage but that can also make it clear how important this technology can be for our progress.
My hope is that we can learn from our previous experiences and protect this promising new technology for generations to come with open, proactive and transparent conversations about the potential it holds for the general public, farmers and ranchers.