Consumers who reach for decaffeinated coffee may not know how much of a carbon footprint their choice leaves behind. 

To decaffeinate, coffee beans are transported to a specialized plant and treated either by organic chemical solvents or by a steam and water process, then shipped again to be processed and packaged. What if producers could just grow decaffeinated coffee beans instead? 

“Using gene editing, you can avoid all of that transport, all of that plant and labor, and decrease the carbon footprint and provide a more direct-to-consumer decaffeinated bean,” said Cassie Edgar, chief IP & regulatory counsel at Tropic Biosciences. 

Gene editing — when a scientist makes a controlled change in the DNA of a living organism, which changes the organism’s genome and can be passed on to new generations through selective breeding — could have a massive impact on the future of agriculture. 

“We’ve never had a time where new ideas and new technology offer so much promise,” Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig said Wednesday, as he opened the session for a breakout audience at the Bio World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology in downtown Des Moines. 

But as panelists noted, all that promise comes with challenging discussions. 

Panelists Betsy Freese, executive editor of Successful Farming; Carmen Bain, associate professor at Iowa State University; Barb Glenn, CEO at the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture; and Edgar explored some of the uncertainty around the purpose of gene editing and how scientists, companies, advocates and consumers can accommodate a responsible discussion around the emerging technology. 

How are consumers and advocacy groups reacting to gene-editing technology?

A gap in the communication style between scientists, media and consumers is contributing to some of the confusion around what gene editing will and won’t do in the future, said Edgar — and better conversations will direct scientists to what consumers are truly seeking. 

“Because we’re all innovators and deeply in this space, we tend to talk as we were taught — ‘data, evidence and nucleotide change,’ ” Edgar said. “‘We have to start with the shared values, whether it be sustainability or food production or maintaining the availability of a certain species.” 

“It’s more about dialogue and not about education,” Edgar added. “We were at Berkeley and talking about [gene editing] across medical applications. There were people there from the deaf community, and we said you could actually cure or prevent [deafness] by editing a gene, and people were getting up and saying, ‘You know, we don’t need to be cured. We are a population of people and we are just fine, thank you very much.’ ” 

“It never occurred to me — I didn’t have anyone in my family who had dealt with that, and I never even considered that,” Edgar added. “Approaching [gene editing] from a dialogue perspective allows you to be open to hearing different perspectives. And that builds trust.” 

Activist groups have not consolidated on a position in the same way many movements have supported or condemned genetically modified organisms in the food supply, Bain said. 

“I think at this period, the public knows very little about gene editing,” Bain said. “At this stage, different advocacy groups for the most part have not taken too much of a position on it. Some groups have, but it’s not the same as we’re seeing around GMOs. I think it will change when we actually have a product on the market.” 

Will choice between gene-edited products and non-edited products build consumer trust?

Bain used the conflict over labeling GMO products as an example of giving consumers the ability to choose elsewhere rather than feeling forced to buy a product they don’t yet trust. 

“This was an issue with a lot of public antagonism that didn’t have to happen,” she said. “Proponents of the GMO industry fought labeling for millions of dollars … arguing it would stigmatize GMOs.

“I don’t think there’s evidence of that, necessarily,” she added. “There’s great academic research looking at labeling that shows that labeling actually increased trust, not undermined it … but again, this is a place where maybe we have to think about [compromise]. It provides those people who disagree an opportunity to opt out.” 

Glenn said that discussion had prompted the passage of the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law, which was passed by Congress in 2016 and requires food manufacturers and importers to properly disclose bioengineered foods. 

“So we came together across lines where we maybe hadn’t agreed before,” Glenn said. “We feel like that was a big change where we had that dialogue. … We shouldn’t beat ourselves up too bad, because we got to that point.” 

“If there’s money to be made — whether it’s pigs that run out free in the pasture versus confinement, or organic versus conventional — there will be farmers that will produce that crop or good in that way,” Freese said. “Sometimes some of your largest producers have a better way of turning one of their farms organic than the smaller producers do.”

Who is best positioned to talk to consumers about gene-editing technology? 

“I can tell you who is not,” Edgar joked after the question was posed. 

“Every company tries really hard … but there’s just an inherent thing about me trying to sell you something,” she said. “So it’s not the company, and it’s also not the regulators. … I love the idea of the farmer, or the chefs. I think it depends on who you’re trying to talk to.” 

Consumers need to know how gene-edited products will benefit them, not only the producer, before they buy on, said Freese. 

“We can’t just talk about the benefit to the farmer, because the consumers don’t care that he’s going to have fewer passes over the field with the spray or something like that,” Freese said. “If we can gene-edit things to use less pesticides, that would be huge for the consumer. 

“We need to depend on the influencers – the bloggers,” she said. “I’m not totally convinced that they’re as influential as we think, but I know a lot of companies really chase the food bloggers on social media.” 

“Women farmers are teed up [for media attention] … and they’re immediately credible,” Glenn said. “Farmers tell their story. We know we need to invite people on the farm, we need to invite people into the lab, into the vertical hydroponic facilities.”