No, CRISPR-Cas won’t save the day for ag biotech

You want to know how to drive a scientist crazy? Insist that you believe something that’s not supported by current scientific evidence. Tell her vaccines cause autism, or creationism is just as valid a theory as evolution, or that climate change isn’t really happening, I mean, after all, a monster blizzard hit Washington DC this January! Global warming, pssh…

There’s an old episode of Friends that did a good job of showing how this kind of conversation goes. Phoebe professes not to believe in evolution and Ross, a paleontologist, keeps trying to convince her that evolution is real using scientific evidence and logic. He grows increasingly frustrated and insistent as she continues to deny the basis of his life’s work, finally losing it when she goads him into admitting (like a good scientist) that even theories like evolution are not immune from questioning and testing.

We train scientists to carefully generate, weigh and use evidence. To no one’s surprise, this leads many scientists to generalize and think that in all matters having to do with the physical world we all should and of course will follow the evidence. Yes, sometimes that leads to unpopular ideas, and sometimes the ideas change as the weight of evidence changes. This training can make scientists kind of boring at cocktail parties. Still, the overall scientific process keeps moving forward and it’s because of this reliance on evidence.

But many people (including, at times, even some scientists) don’t always think the same way about things in the physical world. And that’s why I’m pessimistic that CRISPR-Cas technology will peacefully resolve the Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) debate.

When I read the literature and editorials about the impact of CRISPR-Cas on agriculture, I find them hopeful and optimistic. Many are not just excited about the scientific potential of the technology, but also for the broader potential of CRISPR-Cas to silence objections to using molecular biology for crop improvement. In a recent Nature news piece, Dr. Jin-Soo Kim of Seoul University described how his group’s use of CRISPR-Cas technologies “might be exempt from current GMO regulations.” The abstract of an article in Plant Methods starts “(t)argeted genome engineering (also known as genome editing) has emerged as an alternative to classical plant breeding and transgenic (GMO) methods to improve crop plants. A news item from the Umeå University from December is almost giddy in describing how the Swedish Board of Agriculture has decided some applications of CRISPR-Cas will not fall under the European GMO definition.

These are logical lines of reasoning: people don’t like GMOs. Governments and organizations have created definitions of GMOs. With CRISPR-Cas we’re creating plants that have valuable traits and that also fall outside those definitions of GMOs. Therefore, these plants should be fine. Activists and governments will be satisfied. We’ll finally be able to employ better, innovative, surgical techniques for plant engineering and create truly innovative crops that can meet all kinds of growing needs.

The problem is, the issue has never been rooted in logic.

I don’t mean that to be demeaning. I say it to be realistic. Humans have demonstrated often that emotion, whether acknowledged or not, is the real driver for many of their behaviors. Anti-GMO protests, at their heart, are tied up in emotion and identity, especially given the incredible cultural importance food has in our lives. Reasoning follows from emotion, not the other way around. One need look no further than the current Presidential Primaries in the United States for a fascinating example. When the conservative magazine The National Review created an entire issue devoted to attacking Donald Trump, they marshalled logical arguments on a variety of fronts for why Trump is a terrible candidate for the Republican Party. He is inconsistent. He presents the party in a poor light. He is inexperienced and unrealistic. His policy positions (such as they are) have no basis in reality. Great arguments all. And Trump’s polling numbers stayed the same. They might even have gone up. Like Trump or not, he’s tapped into a level of emotional engagement in a large fraction of the Republican electorate, and logic won’t sway them.

Something similar in flavor will likely happen when the first CRISPR-Cas-modified plants reach field trials or are pending approval for wide sale and distribution. There will be fanfare and glowing press pieces about how this new vegetable or fruit is tastier/more nutritious/less harmful to the environment, all without introducing foreign genes…and it will be met with protests, maybe vandalism, and calls to broaden GMO definitions and labeling to include CRISPR-Cas in prominent letters. And we’ll be right back where we are now.

Well, that all sounds pessimistic.

But I can’t help it. The forces inside us include a strong helping of the elephant-rider dichotomy. As Jonathan Haidt described it, intuitions and emotions often come first, rationalization second. The rational parts of our minds think they’re in charge, but really they’re just along for the ride. The elephant part, emotion, that’s the real driver. Because of this, in many cases it won’t matter what rational arguments one brings to bear in favor of something like CRISPR-Cas because ultimately, people who feel these kinds of foods are wrong will rationalize a reason why to reject them.

So what can be done to try to help CRISPR-Cas technology reach its full potential in the face of this kind of skepticism and rejection?

This is tough. Emotionally invested humans will tend to agree with and seek out evidence that supports their viewpoint, while rejecting even overwhelming evidence that challenges their worldview. Finding a solution isn’t just an academic question, either. Whether it’s GMOs, climate change, vaccines, religious tolerance, or a host of other polarizing issues, there’s a real danger of policy and progress moving in directions that may ultimately be detrimental for humans if the weight of evidence doesn’t prevail.

A recent piece by Brian Resnick suggests one direction based on research on political and policy debates. The main idea he describes is that persuading arguments should frame ideas and concepts around the core principles of interest to the other side. So, to convince a conservative about the value of green energy, for example, frame it around energy independence rather than environmental benefits. Sounds simple, right? But when discussing GMOs, so often the arguments in favor of GMOs have been framed from the side of logic, authority and experimental evidence rather than the real fears of people about the food they eat. When one listens to the anti-GMO arguments, often they boil down to questions of autonomy and trust and not to questions of scientific validity. Those are the values that arguments and interventions have to work with.

People live in a scary, confusing, complicated world. Now scientists and governments and companies want to alter the food we eat in ways most of us can’t hope to understand? It’s no wonder there’s a backlash. Oddly enough, thinking about the problem this way has led me to the idea that maybe we really should be labeling food.

I’ve been anti-labeling, taking the left-brained approach that there hasn’t been any proven deleterious side effect of GMOs so far, so labeling is unnecessary. But if we’re trying to speak to autonomy and fear, maybe labeling would help—with a twist. Yes, label GMOs, but also include an overall, simple to read, icon system that sums up all the elements of agriculture that the consumer normally might not think about and therefore treats like externalities. Things like water use, pesticide use, preservation of soil quality, worker health, etc. And label EVERYTHING. GMO and non-GMO alike. That way, when someone’s comparing (GMO) apples to (non-GMO) apples, the full benefits and costs can be seen immediately. Putting a little behavioral economic foresight into designing these labels would go a long way toward making them easy for every consumer to understand.

Now the grocery shopper has autonomy, can allay his fears, and can make an informed choice rather than having a choice foisted upon him. The GMO debate can be framed around hearing that fear and uncertainty. I’m sure there are other ways to try and frame the debate and questions in ways that speak more directly to the underlying consumer issues. But I think it’s a direction policy makers and agbiotech need to explore, because even if CRISPR-Cas is not a classic GMO technique by the letter of the law, what’s going to matter to the consumer is his feeling about the spirit.

2 thoughts on “No, CRISPR-Cas won’t save the day for ag biotech

  1. Nicely written Kyle. As you conclude, for most people, this is not about the science. The real shame here is that products such as golden rice, which could be so beneficial to millions of the worlds children, may never get a chance to even be widely tested.

  2. Hi Stewart, yeah, the golden rice thing is really sad. Or, as Trump would say, Sad! To me it’s a conflation of first world priorities onto third world needs. We can afford to apply principle around things like food choice. Other places, not so much. It all comes back to the whole Maslow’s hierarchy of needs thing.

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