Consumers hungry for information on new ways of producing food


Two offspring of a gene edited hornless bull with a horned control (middle). Image: Alison Van Eenennaam/University of California, Davis.

Consumers want to learn more about new ways of producing food, even if the technologies used to produce those foods are broadly acceptable to the public.

That’s one of the key findings of a new study from the University of Adelaide, conducted for Food Standards Australian and New Zealand (FSANZ).

The study – involving a group of people representative of the diverse demographics of Australia and New Zealand populations – aimed to gain an understanding of consumers’ awareness of and attitudes towards new breeding techniques such as gene editing, and whether consumers viewed these techniques differently to older techniques such as genetic modification (GM).

“Although our consumer participants had relatively low levels of knowledge of the new techniques, they were extremely interested in their possible uses in organisms destined for food supply.” Professor Rachel Ankeny

FSANZ has now published a report of the study’s findings.

Lead author Professor Rachel Ankeny from the University of Adelaide’s School of Humanities said: While in Australia and New Zealand we don’t currently have any foods resulting from the new breeding techniques, gaining a deeper understanding of consumers’ attitudes will help regulators to develop future policies and communications about these technologies.”

The scenarios presented to the focus groups to illustrate potential applications of the new breeding techniques and benefits included cosmetic, health or nutritional, environmental, or animal-welfare related benefits, as well as benefits for producers. One example used was gene editing (modifying genes already in an organism) to develop more drought tolerant crops or heat tolerant cattle.

“Although our consumer participants had relatively low levels of knowledge of the new techniques, they were extremely interested in their possible uses in organisms destined for food supply,” Professor Ankeny said.

“Once they were given basic information, they had diverse views. While participants were more generally supportive of the new techniques, they had concerns about some types of applications, particularly depending on who stood to benefit.”

Participants wanted clarity on longer-term effects on the crops or animals on which the new techniques were used, the environment, humans, and the resulting food products. There were frequent requests for more evidence of safety and long-term testing. There was also a desire for conventional varieties to be maintained in parallel to new applications, as an insurance policy in case something was to go wrong and to maintain biodiversity. There were also some concerns about whether these applications would result in increased costs for farmers or consumers.

“Many participants were keen for more information about various aspects of the new techniques. This is in contrast to views in some scientific circles that they are less invasive, more precise and therefore less likely to be problematic for the public than genetic modification,” said Professor Ankeny.

“It is also worth noting that some felt that the new techniques did not address the ‘real problems facing society and food supply,’ including climate change, and what they view as overly industrialised approaches to agriculture.”

The research was designed to help inform the current review of definitions in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code for ‘food produced using gene technology’ and ‘gene technology,’ being undertaken by FSANZ.

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