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Consumer Demand for Genome-Edited Crops: Implications for Farmers’ Adoption Decisions

Updated November 15, 2021
Professional headshot of Heather Gessner

Heather Gessner

SDSU Extension Livestock Business Management Field Specialist

Rows of corn growing inside a research facility.
Courtesy: Canva

Written by Deepthi Koladi, South Dakota State University (SDSU) Associate Professor of Agricultural Economics, Natural Resource Economics and Economic Development. Reviewed by Heather Gessner, SDSU Extension Livestock Business Management Field Specialist.

Genome-editing is a breakthrough technology for crop improvement that makes site-specific modifications in the genomes of cells and organisms. Unlike genetically modified (GM) crops, which are produced by mixing genes from two distinct species (transgenic) or between two closely related species (cisgenic), genome-edited crops do not involve the transfer of genes between species. Due to this difference, genome editing is more straightforward, cheaper and faster than developing GM crops (Doudna and Charpentier 2014). As a result, genome editing could revolutionize plant breeding with positive implications for food and nutritional security.

However, since genome editing makes permanent changes in a plant's genome and is passed on through genes, there are concerns about food safety, human, animal and environmental health. If public acceptance is low or regulations are burdensome, genome editing will have a fate similar to GM technology. It will be restricted to a narrow set of crops and applications developed by multi-national companies. This said, consumer demand and regulations are two crucial factors deciding the commercial success (i.e., large-scale adoption of technology by farmers) of genome-editing technology.

Unlike GM crops, many start-up ag-biotech firms, large multi-national companies and public universities are investing in the research and development of genome-edited foods. For example, anti-browning white button mushroom, high-oleic acid soybean, alfalfa with improved digestibility, herbicide-resistant canola are some of the genome-edited crops currently available in the United States. Many crops, such as herbicide-resistant canola, disease-tolerant rice, flax, potato, wheat, corn, and soybean, flaxseed with increased omega-3 content, cacao with resistance to fungal and viral diseases, sweeter strawberries with better shelf storage, etc. are some of the products in the pipeline at private firms and public universities in the United States.

Food or food products developed using genome-editing technology are treated equivalent to those produced using conventional plant breeding in the United States (Van Eenennaam, Wells, and Murray 2019). Regulations in trading partner countries, such as Canada and Argentina, are similar to U.S. regulations. However, genome-edited foods are subject to the same stringent rules for GM technology in the European Union, implying high regulatory costs and delay/unpredictability in regulatory approval (Callaway 2018). This divergence in regulation of genome-edited foods can potentially disrupt the trade of agricultural products between the United States and the European Union, as in GM foods.

 

    "In addition to the regulations, consumer preferences and willingness to pay for genome-edited foods also will influence the commercial success of genome-edited technology in agriculture."

    — Deepthi Koladi, South Dakota State University
    Bottles of soybean oil and bag of soybeans on a wood surface.
    Courtesy: Canva

    In addition to the regulations, consumer preferences and willingness to pay for genome-edited foods also will influence the commercial success of genome-edited technology in agriculture. To estimate consumers' willingness to pay for genome-edited foods relative to GM foods and conventionally bred foods, we conducted a national survey of U.S. consumers in April 2020. All the respondents who participated in the survey were randomly assigned to the survey's information or control treatments.

    The study had a sample size of 1,573 respondents in total, out of which 527 received the control treatment, 523 received information on technologies used in the production and the remaining 523 received information on technologies used in the production and information on the health and environmental benefits of the GM and genome-editing technologies. We chose these information treatments to see whether providing information via market and outreach efforts will affect the preference and willingness to pay for genome-edited foods in relation to GM and conventionally bred foods. The study used soybean oil and apple as focus products. We selected these two food products, as soybean oil is highly processed compared to an apple, which is not processed.

    Results from the study showed that overall, consumers prefer conventional foods over GM and genome-edited foods. The result implies that GM and genome-edited foods have price discounts relative to conventionally bred foods. However, our study shows that the price discount for genome-edited foods is lower than that for GM foods. We also find that consumers' willingness to pay for genome-edited foods varies based on the food types. For example, consumers favor using genome-editing technologies for processed foods, such as soybean oil, than fresh produce, such as apples. In addition, as per the study, providing information on technology and health and environmental benefits of genome-editing technology increases the willingness to pay for genome-edited foods. And consumers trust domestic start-up firms and universities as technology developers more than multi-national corporations. This said, start-up firms and universities investing in the research and development of genome-edited foods need to engage in science-based market and outreach efforts to build consumer trust in genome-editing technology for agricultural use.

    Farmers interested in adopting genome-edited crops should pay attention to the emerging data on consumer preferences and acceptance of genome-edited foods. Additionally, due to the regulatory divergence between the United States and many trading partners, the potential for trade disruptions and loss of the export market exists. Because of this, farmers have to assess the market risk (e.g., loss of market, price discount) associated with adopting the genome-editing technology at the farm level for the crops they grow. If a farmer currently grows GM crops, there is less market risk in switching to genome-edited technology for the same crops. However, if the current research and development trends in genome-edited crops continue, there will be many more crops with genome-edited traits for farmers to choose from. In that scenario, the market risk for crops with genome-edited traits depends heavily on whether the crop is primarily export-oriented and whether the European Union is a main export destination. If the European Union is the primary export market, the farmer must develop strategies to manage the downside risk of losing a target market. Some firms in the United States are promoting contract growing of genome-edited crops, such as soybean oil to reduce such market risks by ensuring a demand for genome-edited foods that farmers grow.

    Given that genome-edited foods are exempt from regulations in the United States, it is likely that there will be many crops with genome-edited traits targeting consumer-oriented attributes and agronomic attributes. The commercial success of the genome-edited technology for use in agriculture will depend heavily on consumer acceptance. Overall, our study shows that U.S. consumers view genome-edited foods more favorably than GM foods and less favorable than conventionally bred products. It is too early to say whether consumer attitudes and preferences towards genome-edited technology will shift and whether the current exemptions from regulations will hold over time. However, proactive public engagement and market outreach by consumer-trusted technology developers, such as universities, and transparency from farmers on production processes might help to increase consumer confidence in the technology. Increased consumer confidence implies increased consumer demand for genome-edited technology and reduced market risk for farmers.

    References

    • Callaway, E. 2018. "CRISPR plants now subject to tough GM laws in European Union." Nature 560 (7716):16. doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05814-6.
    • Doudna, J. A., and E. Charpentier. 2014. "Genome editing. The new frontier of genome engineering with CRISPR-Cas9." Science 346 (6213):1258096. doi: 10.1126/science.1258096.
    • Van Eenennaam, Alison L., Kevin D. Wells, and James D. Murray. 2019. "Proposed U.S. regulation of gene-edited food animals is not fit for purpose." npj Science of Food 3 (1):3. doi: 10.1038/s41538-019-0035-y.