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The introduction of GMO crops in the 1990s was a moment of opportunity for international agriculture—yet communications with consumers went wrong.
GMO crops have been called frankenfoods, mutants, and carcinogens. According to the Pew Research Center, roughly half of U.S. adults believe that GMO foods are less healthy than GMO-free foods. The Non-GMO Project reports that its butterfly graphic is “the fastest-growing label in the natural products industry.”
Now Chief Scientific Officer and Co-Founder at Synthesis Capital, an investment management firm focused on food system transformation, David Welch has a researcher’s outlook on the rollout of GMO crops. He spent his undergraduate years studying plant biology at UC Berkeley. In his later experience as a research assistant, some of his work focused on genetically modified crops like barley and maize.
Last week, I got on Zoom with Welch to unpack the parallels between the launch of GMO crops and the advent of cell-cultured meats today.
Avoiding a communication breakdown
Around the time when GM crops were first introduced to the public, the scientific community was still debating the safety implications of modified foods. Welch believes that some of that early discourse sowed the seeds of public uncertainty about the safety of GMO foods. Even once the scientific community had reached a consensus, it was difficult to clear up the confusion that had already been created.
“I’m not suggesting that you should stop negative discussions from taking place, and I think it’s fine to have some dissenting views,” says Welch. Yet the lack of clear communication regarding the underlying science of GMOs likely had an impact on public acceptance, an important lesson for the cell-cultured meat industry: “There’s an opportunity for the industry to work closely together to make sure that the science is communicated in a non-confusing way.”
Welch hopes to see companies, governments, and academics work together to develop a common language for describing cell cultivation concepts. That language could help to smooth out issues in the regulation and labeling arena, which has already proven to be a contentious zone for plant-based products.
Importantly, that common language would also help to standardize communications with the public—“so that you don’t have 20 companies talking about the science in 20 different ways, which then creates confusion,” says Welch.
Regulation and mistrust
Even in the U.S., where some GM ingredients have been widely adopted, the regulation of modified crops is notoriously arduous.
“It’s a very expensive and multi-year process to get a GMO crop approved in basically any country,” says Welch. “And I think there’s some evidence through consumer research that that leads to distrust in the technology. People think, if they have to regulate this so stringently, then it must be dangerous.”
Here, he says, lies a potential parallel between GM and cell-cultured meat technologies. In the U.S. and most other countries, the alternative meat industry is still awaiting a regulatory framework. That framework could ultimately affect consumers’ views of cell-cultured meats.
“I’m not suggesting that we should have no regulation,” says Welch. “I think that the regulatory authorities and the companies need to work together to create a regulatory pathway that is safe, but not so onerous that the public perceives the technology as very risky because there’s so much regulation attached to it.”
The future of food work
“One of the other tensions that existed with GM crops was how they were rolled out into the market and the impact that had on some farming communities,” says Welch. From the beginning, seeds for GMO commodity crops were controlled by a few large companies, a trend that has only intensified since the technology was first introduced. “Those companies ended up with a lot of control over the farmers, and I think that’s had negative effects on some farmers.”
There’s another lesson there for cell-cultured meat companies: Many consumers’ perceptions of alternative meat products could well be affected by the industry’s impact on their own communities.
“I think it’s important for the entire food industry to start talking about this,” says Welch. “I believe there’s going to be a future where there are far more alternative meats than conventional meats on the market. And we need to think about what that means for all of the people who are employed through the conventional meat and seafood industries, and what the future looks like for them in terms of new jobs.”
As cell-cultured meat makes its first forays into the U.S. market, producers are sure to face communications challenges. However, Welch notes that there are also opportunities to build trust with consumers by being transparent about the cell cultivation process.
“The way we currently produce meat and seafood, there’s that hidden step between the field—if the animal ever lived on a field—and the point where it gets to your plate,” he says. “I think it’s really exciting that consumers will be able to see how their meat is being made much more openly in the future.”