Plant science startups, farmers’ perspectives, and food waste took center stage the 2016 Ag Innovation Showcase in St. Louis last month. Another major focus at the three-day event was CRISPR Cas9, the gene-editing technology that’s captured particular attention in recent months.
In agriculture, CRISPR Cas9 is currently being used to knock-out unwanted genes from crops to promote preferable traits such as drought tolerance. In a nutshell, CRISPR consists of two key molecules: Cas9, which is an enzyme that acts as a pair scissors able to cut DNA at specific locations; and guide RNA, which guides Cas9 to the right place on the DNA. It’s been lauded as the cheapest, fastest, and most precise gene-editing tool on the market, although that’s open to debate. But the most exciting and perhaps controversial part of gene-editing technology generally is that it’s not labeled as genetic modification — which usually implies the introduction of foreign DNA — and is therefore not currently subject to regulation.
An hour-long panel during the conference brought together speakers from diverse perspectives including Rachel Haurwitz, CEO and president of Caribou Biosciences, Neil Gutterson, VP of R&D at DuPont Pioneer, Roxi Beck, director of The Center for Food Integrity, and Deepti Kulkarni, an attorney at law firm Sidley Austin.
Instead of talking about the technology itself, its potential applications, or its scalability, the panel focused on how the industry can engage in an effective dialogue with consumers regarding CRISPR-produced food products. More specifically, what can the industry learn from the GMO experience and how can it gain what some refer to as the “social license” to apply gene-editing technologies to food production?
According to Beck, earning and maintaining a social license is the most important thing a business can do to both achieve and stay within its niche. A social license is what allows a company to access a marketplace and operate freely; it affords the holder the ability to operate with minimal-to-no constraints, whether they be regulatory or based on public acceptance.
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In light of the severe public backlash against GMO, how can startups, investors, and other proponents of gene-editing technologies earn this social license? Here are three ways to look at it.
Start with the Consumer
“Companies that are paying attention to the customer first are getting it right,” said Beck. “Listen to what consumers are saying they want and how we can deliver that unique value proposition for them. This may mean embracing the skepticism that some consumers have.”
Consumer engagement is particularly important considering the increasing reliance of federal agencies on public input to shape policy. As the White House undertakes its review of the Coordinated Framework, the existing platform used to regulate biotechnology products, the FDA, EPA, and USDA may decide it’s time to pass new regulations that better account for the diverse array of emerging technologies. According to Kulkarni, consumers will play a role in any formal rulemaking that comes from these agencies.
Not only does the dialogue need to start with the consumer, but it also needs to be conducted in a way that the consumer can understand and that shows the industry is listening.
“Looking back at GMO, there are situations where the public was asking, ‘Should we be doing this?” and we would answer it by saying, ‘We can—and here’s how,’” said Beck. “Can, how, and should are very different questions.”
“We need to be where the people are when they are looking for information and paying attention to the words they are using—even if they are words that we may not like.”
Although many advocates of gene editing technologies may be tempted to start by explaining the science, that’s not always the most effective route. According to Beck, feelings and beliefs are often a more important discussion point than biology and outcomes. This is especially critical when engaging with consumers who may lack a sophisticated science background.
“The fundamental knowledge base of our customers often isn’t deep,” Gutterson agreed. “In one of our outreach sessions, it became clear that some people consider things done in the lab to be GMOs, but if it’s done in the field, then it’s okay. That’s a pretty basic level of thinking.”
To address this language and knowledge gap, DuPont has been holding private engagements with small groups of people from academia, regulators, NGOs, and other outlets to learn more about how other people view new technologies like CRISPR.
“The last meeting we had in Europe, our leader said that it starts first with understanding rather than being understood,” said Gutterson.
Once the industry understands the consumers’ perspective, a more productive dialogue will likely follow.
Find Fresh Starts
There are certain major ag companies whose names have become associated with certain polarizing positions—Monsanto being a perfect example. Right now, as Bayer’s purchase of Monsanto awaits Department of Justice approval, some reports suggest that Bayer is considering dropping the Monsanto brand name to distance the newly-formed company from some consumers’ blanket disapproval of any product or service tied to the St. Louis-based seed company.
Although many companies aspire to one day becoming a household brand name, being slightly off the radar could bode well for startups using new gene editing techniques. Democratizing gene editing technologies will create new opportunities for various segments of the public to interface with the technology in new and different ways, perhaps free from pre-existing biases and assumptions.
“Putting this technology in the hands of many different breeders across a variety of crops and empowering them to speak with their stakeholders about what it is and isn’t, how products are made, and how they can provide benefits is key,” said Haurwitz.
DuPont is taking a similar tact and calling for the democratization of gene editing technologies.
“It’s not just about one or a couple of big companies, but many people with different approaches serving different customers, whether it’s international ag serving the developing world or small companies working with specialty crops,” said Gutterson. “The more democratized the use, the greater the chance we have of building trust.”
Of course, starting with consumers, choosing the right semantics, and finding fresh starts requires proponents to be proactive.
For Caribou Biosciences, local community engagement has been a priority, whether it be volunteering at local science museums, sitting on panels, or speaking at SXSW. And you can’t only invite the folks who like what you have to say, she warns.
“One of the challenges is how we start to translate the engagement into discussions that include not only people at a conference like Ag Innovation Showcase, but consumers who are afraid of these types of products, or organizations who have claims against them,” said Haurwitz. “And we have to be willing to engage with them in an open dialogue.”
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