Genetic improvement of food crops sometimes gets a bad rap, but University of Florida researchers plan to educate consumers so they can make more informed decisions at the grocery store.
To help combat misinformation, four UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences researchers are going to better inform the public about the nuances of how plants are genetically adjusted to control traits, such as drought and disease tolerance. UF/IFAS researchers already know that providing scientific information about the safety of genetically modified crops is not enough to win public trust.
Brandon McFadden, a UF/IFAS assistant professor of food and resource economics, has received a $466,000, three-year USDA grant to lead UF/IFAS research into consumer perceptions of genetically edited crops.
The team will use focus groups to learn consumers’ attitudes and knowledge of gene-edited crops. Results from focus groups will help them put together web-based national surveys, McFadden said. In the surveys, they will try to determine consumers’ preferences for regulation and consumption of gene-edited crops.
In turn, the surveys will help researchers focus on their communication strategies, he said.
Researchers are doing the gene-editing project because they need a starting point to assess how much consumers know about the issue, McFadden said. One reason McFadden knows the project is needed is that he said many consumers don’t understand the finer points of breeding techniques.
“Most consumers don’t understand genetic improvement techniques, and gene editing is remarkably precise compared to traditional plant breeding and does not require DNA from another organism like most classical ‘GMO’ techniques,” McFadden said. “Consumers may be more willing to accept gene-edited foods if the subtle differences between the genetic technologies are properly explained.”
Here are some definitions of breeding terminology to help consumers, courtesy of Kevin Folta, UF/IFAS professor and chair of horticultural sciences, and a member of McFadden’s research team:
- Traditional breeding: Random cross-pollination between different plant types with the hope of producing a type of plant that contains many favorable traits.
- Genetic engineering: The use of specific laboratory approaches to move the genetic code associated with specific traits to new organisms.
- Gene editing: A precise technology where small, targeted genetic changes are created that emulate natural mutation.
- GMO: An imprecise description given to any attempts to use DNA techniques techniques to improve crops.
Joining McFadden and Folta on the research grant are Joy Rumble and Katie Stofer, assistant professors in agricultural education and communication.