By Kerry Tucker and Teresa Siles
Science and technology are on a roll.
High impact discoveries seem to be advancing at an increasing rate, at times outstripping our knowledge and sending scientists scurrying to investigate the potential impact of these new developments on how we live, the foods we grow and eat, and the general health of people and the planet.
CRISPR, TALEN and zinc finger nucleases are just a few innovations on a fast track and likely to have profound implications for the agri-food chain. At the same time, like many other traditional institutions, science and scientists are increasingly vulnerable to issues of public trust.
Perceived flaws in the peer review models commonly used in many scientific disciplines, difficulties in replicating published results, and the seemingly increased privatization of science for competitive advantage, are but a few of the issues threatening the credibility of scientists in the broad areas of agriculture, food and health. In addition, there is concern by some that “science” in many cases is pushing defined political and cultural agendas. Illustrative of this, nutrition researchers have recently been hit particularly hard for relationships with food industries that critics say are too cozy. What’s more, some consumers don’t believe scientists truly understand the diverse risks that may be associated with things like GMOs, climate change, or the genetic profiling for disease.
Public confidence in science and scientists is a relatively new challenge. While trust in science remains high when compared to other institutions, science and scientists, whether in the academic, government or corporate context, no longer get a free hall pass when trust issues arise. Any signal of diminished credibility, even with some of our most time-honored professions, reflects a growing change in the context surrounding many issues related to food and agriculture. Science should be the very foundation upon which food recommendations are made, and new foods and agricultural practices are developed. Trust is everything.
CRISPR is but one example of a scientific discovery reaching a defining moment. Named “breakthrough of the year” by the journal “Science,” CRISPR is fundamentally changing scientists’ approach to genetic engineering, allowing genomes to be edited with unprecedented precision, efficiency and flexibility. CRISPR technology has the potential to open the door to all kinds of human health and environmental improvements, with some saying the technology is closer to transforming agricultural markets than human medical markets.
CRISPR brings new tools to agriculture and food production with potential benefits, including higher yields with less pressure on inputs (e.g., water and land), increasing crop resistance to pests and reducing the toll of livestock diseases, to name a few.
The USDA recently said it would not regulate mushrooms edited with CRISPR in the same way it regulates other products labeled as “GMO” because the mushrooms contain no foreign DNA. Typical techniques for editing genes include the introduction of DNA from other species or plant pests such as bacteria or viruses. The mushroom is the first CRISPR modified food to get the green light to pursue commercialization without being regulated as a GMO. Critics are characterizing the move by USDA as a “loophole” to side-step GMO regulations, and say it threatens the concept of what constitutes “organic.” Nonetheless, more CRISPR modified foods and crops are expected to follow.
Even with benefits evident, can a new pragmatic path to optimal health for everyday Americans overcome political battles over ideology? While the “purists” will continue to argue that a CRISPR answer is just another form of GMO, can we expect greater public acceptance if CRISPR is perceived to be both a benefit to the agri-food sector and a significant benefit to the health of people, and potentially the planet? What if CRISPR is used to develop a cure or vaccine for Zika or Ebola? What if the costs of some relatively common but expensive drugs drop significantly? Would that be enough to turn the tide of public resistance? Or will CRISPR technology continue to evoke the negative public sentiment around GMOs that has caused outright bans in some countries and GMO-related initiatives to appear in at least 30 states across the nation?
On the nutrition science front, knowledge of food and health continues to change profoundly and rapidly. Driven by a greater understanding of the genetic and behavioral drivers of disease, some foods traditionally classified as nutritious will see their health portfolio improve, while others may lose their perceived health halo, according to Carl Keen, professor of nutrition and internal medicine at University of California, Davis.
The personalization of health and nutrition is at our doorstep. An individual’s DNA can help guide dietary recommendations on specifically which foods a person should eat more, or less of, to foster optimal health and lower the risk of genetically predisposed diseases. It can be argued that keeping “one size fits all” nutrition advice, like the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, may be an example of policy not fully keeping up with the science. Agricultural commodities or companies would be wise to do their homework now on the nutrition profile of their products and gain an understanding of their evolving role in increasingly personalized nutrition recommendations. A review of the trends from the Food Foresight 2016 report underscores this.
Food Foresight, a collaboration between Nuffer, Smith, Tucker Inc. and the California Institute of Food and Agricultural Research, identified four trends in this year’s report. One looks specifically at scientific discoveries and the trust issues surrounding them. But the others – dealing with labor shortages, intelligent agents providing health recommendations and global demographic shifts – also demonstrate trust issues at numerous points. The world is shifting under our feet and the responses and solutions from the agriculture sector are often elusive.
Transparency and a strategic public positioning strategy can go a long way toward building public confidence. Credibility is everything and any signal of complications with trust must be taken seriously, and acted on with alacrity.
Related to science, agriculture and university scientists must continue to advocate for credible, consensus science rooted in sound scientific process. Scientific research should also be done with transparency related to methodology, results and funding sources. We also must engage in a dialogue with stakeholders about science that improves food production and health. It’s critical for those in agriculture and research to be sensitive and not dismissive to public concerns.
There are common principles that help begin conversations with the greatest odds for garnering trust. Being open and transparent is a good place to start. A few other observations for scientists and farmers:
- Begin a stakeholder conversation with sensitivity to other perspectives on a particular issue (vs. “educating” or selling a point of view)
- Share your aspirations as a scientist (or a farmer growing all kinds of safe and nutritious foods)
- Acknowledge and respect public concerns about science or agri-food production
- Share best practices and efforts toward continuous improvement
- Share what’s difficult to change about what you do and why
- Share progress in resolving public concerns
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