Those who oppose genetic engineering aren't likely to oppose marker-assisted breeding, some say.
The difference between genetic engineering and marker-assisted or enhanced breeding is big. The first introduces genes from outside species into plants or animals, while the latter 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 on 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 appeal, companies recognize the need to distinguish between the two technologies.
“This is probably the right time… to make the distinction between animals that are naturally selected using additional information at the DNA level versus creating new ‘forms of life’ that contain genes that they didn't have before,” says Ronnie Green. He's director of genetic operations at Future Beef, Parker, CO, and chairman of the U.S. Beef Improvement Federation's emerging technologies committee.
“In concept and in principle, it (marker-assisted selection) is no different than what we've done by selecting animals on data, phenotype or visual performance or on the basis of breed,” Green says.
Of course, enhanced breeding is more refined and more scientific than methods the livestock industry has used in the past, and it does speed up the selection process. But, Green says, science reinforces that enhanced breeding is essentially risk-free. And because it treats animals humanely and doesn't jeopardize food safety, he's not worried.
Future Beef plans to use genetic tests to identify bulls and cows with desired traits like red meat yield, tenderness, fast weight gain and disease resistance to ultimately produce a superior beef product.
“I don't perceive any risk from a public welfare basis,” he says. “All we're doing is causing more animals with copies of certain genes to be present than before.”
Cindy Brabander, chief administrative officer for GenomicFX, agrees. In fact, she thinks genetic engineering opponents may actually see enhanced breeding as a way to improve the food supply without resorting to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or transgenics.
Texas-based GenomicFX currently sells the DNA-based marbling test GeneSTAR through its Australian subsidiary, Genetic Solutions. The test helps seedstock producers identify cattle that may produce higher-marbling offspring.
The company will sell the test directly in the U.S. this summer. So far, there is no consumer-group opposition to the technology. Still, ensuring that consumers thoroughly understand marker-assisted breeding is very important, she says.
“Whenever you say the word ‘genetic,’ a lot of consumers just jump to the end and think genetic engineering or modification,” Brabander says. But, she believes consumers are becoming more informed about the difference between gene information and gene manipulation.
Green, on the other hand, doesn't think the general public or even most producers yet understand the difference. And, using the wrong word in the wrong way can easily cause misconceptions in public perception of the technology.
That said, he 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. He 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.
Meanwhile, most companies involved are proceeding carefully. Future Beef and GenomicFX have learned from the public backlash about products like Bt corn and BST milk. At this point, neither company plans any specific programs to educate the public about marker-assisted breeding, but both are busy educating segments of the livestock industry.
“We haven't really focused on a tremendous amount of education about GMOs and the differences… because it is such a clear distinction for us,” Brabander says.
But through relationships with livestock breeders, producers, processors and grocery retailers, GenomicFX is helping spread the word about genomic information tools and how they benefit all aspects of food production, she adds.
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.
Likewise, Future Beef is teaching the producers involved in their system what genetic technologies are and how to employ them appropriately in their programs. And, Green says, the company plans to make sure those producers “are very clear that what they're doing is wholesome, acceptable, ethical and good.”
Foods For The Future
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. Of course that's impossible, he says. But that makes it tough to ask consumers to accept an altered product that seems to benefit only the producer or the industry.
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.
Acceptance Important For Future
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, says Hoban.
Hoban's research found that 53% of U.S. consumers find it morally wrong to modify animals with biotechnology while only 24% find it morally wrong to modify plants 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.
Note: Neither Future Beef nor GenomicFX plan to do or use animal biotechnology.