Though some question genetic modification, consumers are likely to accept foods produced through marker-assisted breeding.
The difference between genetic modification and marker-assisted or enhanced breeding is big.
Genetic modification introduces genes from outside species into plants or animals, while marker-assisted selection simply uses gene information.
But given how advanced these technologies are and how fast they are being applied, it's hard to keep the terminology straight. And that raises questions about whether consumers will accept foods produced from either process.
The consensus seems to be that consumers are likely to accept foods produced through enhanced breeding like producing a larger, redder tomato. They are less likely to accept foods from more extreme reproductive technologies like cloning or transgenics, which result in genetically modified foods like square tomatoes.
Because of those differences in consumer acceptability, companies recognize the need to distinguish between the two technologies.
Ensuring that consumers thoroughly understand marker-assisted breeding is very important. But overall, she says, consumers are becoming more informed about the difference between gene information and gene manipulation.
A Safe Alternative
Scientifically, there's no reason to doubt the safety and quality of meat produced through enhanced breeding, Brabander says. In fact, she thinks opponents of genetic modification may actually see enhanced breeding as a way to improve the food supply without resorting to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or transgenics.
Besides enabling more informed decisions during breeding, genomic information gives processors, retailers and consumers another method of determining meat quality beyond visual selection, Brabander explains.
On the other hand, Ronnie Green, director of genetic operations at Future Beef, Parker, CO, doesn't think the general public or even most producers yet understand the difference between the technologies. And, using the wrong word in the wrong way can easily cause misconceptions in public perception of the technology.
That said, Green doesn't foresee enhanced breeding becoming a controversial issue. He points out that because of media coverage about human genome research, genomics is becoming a part of the public's everyday medical lingo.
Eventually, that may help the public understand why the livestock industry is using gene information and how it benefits the food supply. Green adds that the public may say, “Well, if it can help in human medicine, why can't it do the same in livestock agriculture?”
Public acceptance of genomics may even become paramount to the future of food production if the world population grows as projected.
“Food is at a crossroads,” says Charles Muscoplat, University of Minnesota vice president of agricultural policy. “The world population will grow two-fold by 2050. And today 800 million people are food insecure.
“In the last 35 years, we've increased fertilizer applications and converted more land to cropland to increase food production. In the future, we'll need to turn to genomics, not only to increase production, but also for environmental reasons, convenience and disease resistance,” he says.
Given consumer concerns, “It will take careful stewardship of this technology,” Muscoplat adds.
Education Is Key
Meanwhile, most companies involved in marker-assisted breeding are proceeding carefully and trying to increase awareness of the technology's benefits.
Dekalb Choice Genetics uses genomics technology to speed up genetic progress through traditional breeding practices.
“The use of this technology allows us to strengthen our current breeding programs, giving our customers a competitive advantage in the market due to enhanced animal performance,” says Jana Reilly, marketing director for the company.
Dekalb hasn't experienced any consumer-group opposition to genomics technology, she says. But it does have programs to educate employees, customers and general consumers about marker-assisted breeding.
“Education is the key link to creating this understanding with our customers,” Reilly says.
Dekalb sponsors customer and industry events such as veterinarian summits and media days to share information about genomics and demonstrate the technology, she explains.
In addition, Dekalb's parent company, Monsanto, is involved in several biotechnology education programs for the general public and key agricultural audiences.
Likewise, PIC USA which uses 14 DNA markers to assist in breeding decisions has not experienced consumer-group opposition to this genomics technology. But in Europe the company has seen some opposition to industrial farms and new technology in general.
Besides following the recommendations of local regulatory and law enforcement agencies, PIC's general plan to deal with this sort of opposition includes directly educating employees and stakeholders and indirectly educating the general public, says Anne Mann, marketing communications manager for PIC USA.
In addition to specifically educating employees about marker-assisted breeding, PIC participates in local and regional industry groups and alliances that are involved in broad educational efforts regarding new technologies, Mann says.
“Broad-based industry groups and alliances provide the best forum for general education,” she says.
For the record, neither Dekalb nor PIC currently plans to genetically modify animals.
Consumer Acceptance of Food Technology
Besides mastering complex science and educating producers on how to apply it, companies developing new technology in agriculture must leap another tricky hurdle consumer acceptance.
Acceptance of any new food technology, whether it's a microwave oven or hybrid corn, takes time, says Thomas Hoban, a North Carolina State University sociology and food science professor.
Food is an emotional and personal area for many people, yet most have a limited understanding of science and agriculture, says Hoban. He chairs a nationwide university task force on educating consumers about biotechnology.
Consumer acceptance of technology is a balance between benefits and risks, explains Bruce Chassy, food science professor at the University of Illinois. When it comes to food, consumers want zero risk. That makes it tough to ask consumers to accept an altered product that seems to benefit only the producer or the industry, he says.
Besides needing more education on a technology's benefits, consumers want more involvement in decisions that affect the food supply's quality and safety, says Abigail Salyers, a University of Illinois microbiologist.
“It is no longer enough for scientists and industrial representatives to say, ‘Trust me, everything is OK,’” she says.
Someday, acceptance of enhanced breeding techniques may lead to acceptance of genetically modified animals that not only advance human medicine but also produce better foods.
These foods may be more nutritious or offer cancer-fighting powers, says Charles Muscoplat, University of Minnesota vice president of agricultural policy.
Despite such potential, production of genetically modified animals likely will face much opposition.
Consumer concerns about animal biotechnology will be more serious than those about plant biotechnology. That's especially true in food products, Hoban says.
Hoban's research found that 53% of U.S. consumers find it morally wrong to modify animals with biotechnology.
“Animals add a new set of ethical and emotional issues that go beyond science and safety,” says Hoban, who has been studying the social impact of biotechnology for more than 10 years.
More than 60 consumer and environmental groups already are petitioning government regulators on this matter. In May, these groups demanded the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA conduct more tests on the environmental impact and safety of genetically modified animals before they are approved for human consumption.
Consumer concerns could stem not only from efforts of protest groups but also from a lack of government regulation, Hoban says.
“Current government policies state that any transgenic animals found to be safe and wholesome such as hogs that produce human organs could be allowed in the food supply,” Hoban says. He recommends keeping any such animals used for medical purposes out of the food supply.
To address these challenges, farm groups, food companies and retailers should form partnerships, Hoban advises. He also suggests developing a code of ethics and publicizing it.
“There should be limits to science and lines we won't cross,” he adds.
Additional consumer research about product acceptance should be conducted, and consumers should be educated about the benefits and safety of other animal applications, Hoban says.
Spokespersons for PIC USA and Dekalb Choice Genetics say the companies do not plan to genetically modify animals.
PIC's decision is based, in part, on specific criteria for new products, says Anne Mann, PIC USA marketing communications manager. New products must:
Show a tangible consumer benefit;
Be acceptable in the local market where they are sold;
Be safe as defined by the governing regulatory associations and supported by respected scientists, and
Provide consumer choice.
Dekalb bases its decision on current market research that defines what products its customers want and expect from a genetic supplier, says Jana Reilly, marketing director for the company.
— Diana Barto