FSA study shows need to educate the public on GE technology

By Jane Byrne contact

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/Bill Oxford
© GettyImages/Bill Oxford

Related tags: genome editing

Research published by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) highlights low consumer awareness of genome edited food.

The FSA conducted the project as part of wider efforts to increase its evidence base in the field of genetic technologies, seeking feedback the public on their perceptions of genome edited (GE) food and its potential future labelling.  

The work, carried out by Ipsos MORI, involved members of the public across England, Wales and Northern Ireland in online workshops and activities, followed by a representative survey of over 2,000 consumers.

In January 2021, the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) launched a consultation into the future regulation of genetic technologies in England, including inviting responses on a proposal to remove GE regulation from wider GM regulation.

GE is a rapidly-growing technology within the global food system. GE, said the FSA, is the term given to a wide range of techniques used to alter the DNA of organisms, including plants and animals – adding, deleting or replacing DNA sections: “However, this research particularly focused on one specific sub-set of GE foods, where outcomes may otherwise have been produced using traditional breeding.”

Using such GE techniques mean changes to plants, for example, can be made more quickly and precisely, continued the FSA. “Potential uses include making small changes to DNA to improve traits in an organism, like the nutritional content of crops or their resistance to disease.”

Key findings of the FSA research with consumers

  • Consumers tended to have very low awareness and very low knowledge of GE food.
  • More informed consumers were, or became, more accepting of GE food.
  • Consumers tended to find GE food more acceptable than GM food. However, consumers found GM or GE applied to plants more acceptable than applications to animals, for example, due to human safety and animal welfare concerns.
  • Most consumers felt it would be appropriate to regulate GE foods separately from GM foods. At the same time, many felt regulation should be just as thorough as for GM.
  • Most consumers felt labelling should always inform the consumer of the presence of GE ingredients using the full term ‘genome edited’. 
  • Overall, consumers wanted thorough regulation and transparent labelling if GE foods reach the UK market, and they suggested social media information campaigns and TV documentaries would help educate the public on GE food.

Commenting on the results, Professor Robin May, FSA chief scientific adviser, said: “We will continue to work closely with a wide range of partners to develop our future regulatory approach in this area in response to these views and the forthcoming publication of findings from the consultation led by Defra.”

Divisive issue 

Groups like Beyond GM and Slow Food UK are campaigning against any deregulation of genetic engineering techniques, which they say must be considered and regulated, as the European Court of Justice ruled in 2018, in the same way as other GMOs because to date there is "no evidence that these new GMOs do not present a risk to agriculture, the environment and biodiversity."

UK feed and agri-supply industry representatives, the Agriculture Industries Confederation (AIC),  commenting earlier this year, said there are a great number of challenges facing agriculture and food production in the UK that more efficient breeding technologies could help address.

“We should by no means consider GE and GMO applications as the only answer to challenges in our climate and food systems; however we cannot, and should not, overlook the possible opportunities that could be achieved across a variety of sectors. With pressures across a variety of systems, we must be prepared to consider the risks of failure to act upon these technologies, as opposed to continuing to adopt an over-precautionary approach that serves to stifle innovation.”

And the AIC believes that GE plant breeding techniques provide “significant scope”​ for innovation in terms of new sources of feed for livestock sectors.

It said that GE works with the genetic potential of an organism, and changes could therefore have happened naturally. "Through the use of gene editing, many of the changes that can take a number of years to achieve through conventional methods can be achieved more efficiently and new traits with their associated advantages (such as pest and disease control, improvement of input efficiency and human health and nutritional benefits) be brought to the market more quickly. By comparison, GMOs involve insertion of ‘foreign’ DNA to bring in traits from other species, or significant changes to the organism that could not have occurred through conventional breeding. Gene editing is therefore clearly different in our opinion."

Related topics: Europe, Regulation, Oilseeds, Grains

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