A nationwide survey supported by top ag and food groups released Tuesday shows over 50% of consumers haven’t heard of gene editing but are willing to pay premium prices once they understand its benefits to animal welfare and the environment.

The FMI Foundation, an organization supporting food retailers, partnered with the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Seed Trade Association, and Farm Foundation to commission a study conducted by Michigan State University and Purdue University.

That survey of nearly 4,487 grocery shoppers looked at how they choose between animal and vegetable products depicted to be organic, non-GMO, bioengineered, conventional, or gene edited including spinach, tomatoes, and pork products.

When it comes to choice, regardless of food product, presence of processing, or information, consumers were more willing to pay for organic products over other food labels because consumers thought organic was better for animal welfare and the environment.

“Information plays a big role in consumer acceptance of new food technology,” Vincenzina Caputo, assistant economics professor at MSU said during a Farm Foundation panel Tuesday.

She said more than 50% of respondents have poor knowledge about gene editing technology. Caputo said this is quite different when comparing the level of knowledge and understanding to GMOs.

Some 46 to 62% indicated they have a limited awareness of GMOs with 11 to 15% claiming to know a lot. In contrast, some 49 to 53% had never heard of gene editing, according to the report.

Breaking down even further on knowledge of gene editing, 38% of respondents considered themselves very unknowledgeable, 25% somewhat unknowledgeable, 21% neither unknowledgeable nor knowledgeable, 12% knowledgeable, and 4% very knowledgeable.

When respondents also answered word association tasks, the study found the term “gene editing” drove negative connotations like the word GMOs. When consumers were asked to use word association with the term organic reactions were more positive.

Reliving the GMO education battle brings back bad memories among food retailers and the ag community, but they argue the government can help by giving their stamp of approval for gene editing.

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“Consumers ... want the information, but they want the agencies because they trust the agencies and they want to hear it from them," FMI Foundation Executive Director David Fikes told Agri-Pulse.

Despite negative perceptions of gene editing the report found consumers are more willing to pay a price-premium for gene-edited products depending on the type of information provided to consumers.

“Again, informing consumers about the benefits implied by the technology, affects their willingness to pay for gene-edited food products,” Caputo said.

Consumers are more willing to purchase gene-edited foods when they know the specific benefits to the environment and animal health.

When provided with the environmental benefits of gene editing, respondents were placed in to three categories. Risk loving (a person willing to take more risks), risk neutral (people insensitive to risk), or risk adverse (someone who does not want to take more risks).

Almost 33% of respondents were grouped into the risk loving category compared to 16% in the risk adverse category when told about the environmental benefits of gene editing.

The risk loving number was even higher than 22.5% of respondents who said they would purchase gene-edited product because they benefited farmers.

Nebraska farmer Lance Atwater said consumers often forget farmers are consumers too and want the same environmental benefits as they do.

“We want what’s best for the environment. We want safe affordable food. We want to make sure no one goes hungry. We just have to do a better job of making sure we’re sharing that; we share the same values,” Atwater said.

Leslie Sarasin, president and CEO of FMI, the Food Industry Association, said gene editing in plants and animal breeding was a “relatively new food technology” so the organizations wanted to establish a baseline for consumer understanding.

Fikes said there are currently no gene-edited food products in grocery stores. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration approved AquaBounty, genetically engineered salmon, for sale in the U.S. after approving its production in 2018. The first U.S. harvest is expected to take place this fall.

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