How can farmers encourage consumers to accept agricultural genetically engineered products? Communication has proved the wisest and most effective way to encourage change in buying and eating habits.

Food producers “must be transparent, listen to consumers’ questions and answer their questions, not overload them with information they haven’t asked for,” said David Fikes, director of the Food Marketing Institute Foundation.

The topic of discussion at the March 11 Farm Foundation Forum was how to prepare America’s consumers for bio-engineered, also called gene edited, food products.

On the panel with Fikes were Dr. Vincenzina Caputo from Michigan State University, Dr. Courtney Weber from Cornell University, and Lance Atwater from KDA Farms in Nebraska, and Dustin Madison from Engel Family Farms in Virginia.

Fikes reminded the audience of the public’s rejection of genetically modified organisms. He pointed out that a lack of a clear, direct message left the public to draw its own conclusions, which were and remain negative. The FMI urges its member distributors and markets to take the initiative and prepare the consumers with labeling and messages that explain the advantages of gene edited agricultural products. The message and the labels must be reliable, accurate and honest, as well as relatable, using vocabulary familiar to consumers.

Maintaining consumers’ trust in their sources of food is vital. FMI is working to get relevant government agencies to speak out to encourage the acceptance of gene edited food products.

Caputo picked up on the issue of the well-informed consumer as she discussed her research survey of 4,400 consumers and their attitudes toward GMOs and gene editing. Her research and the research collected by the FMI indicate that the consumer is interested in ethical and sustainable food sources, not the details of the scientific processes. If changes to the fruit, vegetable or meat product improve the safety, sustainability or the humane treatment of plants or animals, then the public will accept the interventions of science. If the pig can be spared contracting swine flu, or the apple can more readily resist drought conditions, consumers will overlook the interventions of science.

Weber, whose specialty is berry production, pointed out the necessity of addressing the changing climate conditions. Whatever the causes might be, weather conditions are changing, and farmers are having to deal with the extremes of droughts, floods, heat and storm conditions. If gene-editing can help strengthen the crops, everyone benefits — consumer and farmer. Weber said that farmers are consumers too. If farmers can communicate with their buyers, they can help consumers understand that gene editing helps speed-up improvements that would come naturally but far more slowly, lowers food prices and helps farmers and food distributers keep products available throughout the year — strawberries in November and apples in July.

Atwater pointed out that on Nebraska farms, gene editing has helped farmers produce more with less waste of water, land and fossil fuel to run farm equipment. With the changing weather patterns, Atwater sees how gene editing helps agriculture adapt more quickly, combat disease and open the possibilities of farmers raising different crops on their land than they could previously have considered.

Madison shared Atwater’s enthusiasm for genetic engineering. He manages 20,000 acres in Virginia and sees a great advantage in the reliability that gene editing can afford plants and livestock.

“Get us farmers to talk to people; let us talk about our problems and how gene editing can help us stay in business and make good food,” Madison said.

He is sure that if farmers can talk to consumers, they will have more confidence in the product. “We’re consumers too, as well as farmers,” Madison reminded the audience.

The Q&A session underscored the message that Fikes had introduced at the outset, “Get the message out to consumers. Answer the questions they have; don’t talk science, talk food.”

If the public is concerned about the ethical treatment of animals, they want to know how gene editing protects livestock from disease. If the public wants cherries in March, let them know how gene editing helps cherries retain their freshness longer.

Fikes and Caputo reiterated the necessity of linking gene editing with what consumers care about. Caputo reminded everyone that information on benefits clearly improves the consumer’s attitude toward a product and his or her willingness to pay a bit extra for that product. When asked how labeling could be used more effectively, Fikes pointed out that FMI’s research indicates that while 90% of consumers want all the information on labels, they really only want to know that information is there, available should they wish to read it. Only 10% of consumers actually want to read that information. The tipping point seems to be getting enough information on the label, but not too much.

An interesting discussion arose on the question of what can be learned from the popularity of the Impossible Burger. Since it is a highly processed product containing GMOs, how was it marketed so successfully? According to Fikes, it’s the message. The advertising roll-out was transparent, honest and thorough. The consumers got the information they were looking for, and they liked the resulting product.

“We’re definitely trying to learn from their success,” Fikes said.

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