Norwegians see advantages to gene editing food

By Justin Cremer

April 7, 2020

Norwegian consumers are receptive to using gene editing tools in agriculture if they bring social, economic and environmental benefits, a new study shows.

The findings offer yet another indication that European consumers’ opinions about genetic engineering are more fluid than has been generally perceived.

In a consumer survey carried out by GENEinnovate, a collaboration of private Norwegian companies, research institutes and the Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board, a majority of respondents said that they are in favor of using gene editing techniques like CRISPR to improve sustainability and benefit society.

Sigrid Bratlie, a member of the GENEinnovate research project and a special advisor on gene technology for the Norwegian Agricultural Cooperatives, said that the generally positive attitudes toward gene editing reflect a growing sophistication in the public’s understanding of biotechnology.

“My impression is that in the public debate, people are becoming increasingly focused on how different applications of technologies, in this case gene editing, can have different benefits or disadvantages, rather than a one-dimensional for/against attitude,” she said.

Improving Norwegian potatoes and salmon

The new report showed that Norwegians were particularly open to the use of gene editing when it comes to improving products that are important to Norway’s agriculture sector. For example, a full 70 percent of respondents were positive about using gene editing to create potatoes that are resistant to late blight.

“Norwegians are in general very supportive of Norwegian farmers and agriculture,” Bratlie said. “The potato is a staple crop in Norway and has long traditions in Norwegian agriculture. In Norway, late blight is a big problem. Farmers spend a lot of time and money on spraying [fungicides].”

Bratlie said Norwegian farmers spend an estimated €7 million each year on pesticides. Using gene editing to reduce the use of harmful chemicals also appeals to environmentally conscious consumers, she said. The survey showed that a clear majority of respondents, 58 percent, were positive about using gene editing to eliminate the use of pesticides in organic food production. In Norway, organic foods account for roughly two percent of all food sales but there is a political push to expand organic’s market share.

Around 60 percent of respondents also supported using gene editing to improve animal health, for example breeding pigs resistant to infectious diseases and creating salmon that are resistant to sea lice. More than half also supported the use of gene editing to reduce the environmental impact of aquaculture, which is big business in Norway. The Nordic nation exported 2.7 million tons of seafood last year, at a value of 107.3 billion kroner (roughly $10.5 billion).

“Norway has important bioindustries in livestock and fish genetics,” Bratlie said. “Also, these applications can improve animal welfare, which is something that many consumers care about, and can reduce the need for using medicines and other treatments, such as de-lousing chemicals in aquaculture, which has importance for the environment.”

Unethical not to use gene editing

Norwegians were also positive about using gene editing to help crops adapt to climate change, such as developing wheat varieties that can better withstand drought. In fact, nearly half of all respondents said it would actually be unethical to not use gene editing to address societal challenges like climate change, compared to only 22 percent who disagreed.

The ethics of using gene editing and GMOs have also been discussed in Norway’s Scandinavian neighbor Denmark, where the Danish Ethics Council released a report last year saying that in the face of a worsening climate crisis and a rapidly growing global population, it is unethical not to use advanced agricultural technology.

The Norwegian report did not, however, indicate that consumers are ready to give a full-throated endorsement of gene editing. The surveyed Norwegians did not, for example, look fondly upon using gene editing to create what the study called “trivial” changes to plants and livestock, such as changing the appearance of fruits and vegetables or the color of salmon fillets. Additionally, around 60 percent of respondents said they were somewhat or very worried that gene-edited products could present health risks to consumers and long-term environmental risks.

Interestingly, however, the more Norwegians knew about gene editing before participating in the survey, the less likely they were to be worried about health risks and the more likely they were to be positive about the use of the technology in general. The report found no correlation, though, between respondents’ level of knowledge and worries about environmental risks.

“Although many had not heard about gene editing, most were still positive towards its use as long as the purpose had clear benefits,” Bratlie said. “However, there was a correlation between attitudes and knowledge. Those with the most knowledge were the most positive, and also had the highest trust in developers and authorities that approve genetically engineered products. This shows the importance of knowledge building, and I think knowledge makes genetic engineering sound less foreign and scary.”

The full report, in English, can be read here.

Photo by Herbert Grambihler on Unsplash