What Can GMOs Teach Us About Cultured Meat?
There are many potential benefits of switching food production methods from traditional animal agriculture to cellular agriculture. Notably, foods created through cell-culturing techniques can (theoretically) avoid a significant portion of the environmental and ethical problems that come with the current system of breeding, raising, and slaughtering billions of animals a year. However, it is important for the burgeoning cultured foods industry to take care to avoid the pitfalls that have hindered the success of similar new technologies. This paper warns of these possible pitfalls using the case of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as a comparison from which the cultured food industry (specifically cultured meat) can learn. The authors emphasize that if the cultured meat industry gets swept up by the demands of big business and loses sight of its original prosocial motivations, it could lose public trust and fail to integrate into the mainstream food system.
The authors begin by explaining why GMOs make a good case study for comparison to cultured meat. Research on GMOs, like research on cultured meat, was initiated by academics working in small biotechnology startups rather than by business tycoons. These early GMO researchers believed that the products they were developing would help reduce world hunger and create a healthier, more sustainable, and more affordable food supply. These researchers, along with their early investors, were unprepared for much public resistance since from their point of view, there were so many undeniable benefits to GMOs.
Initially there was a lot of hype around GMOs in the media and even among large portions of public. For example, a U.S. poll taken in 1995 found that 73% of the public approved of them. Similarly, cultured meat is currently a topic of excitement among many investors and members of the public who hope that it can replace the current system of destructive animal agriculture. In the case of GMOs, the idealistic hopes of the early 1990s were crushed in parallel with the rapid proliferation of GM crops that took place from 1996-1999. Resistance to GMOs increased especially greatly in Europe. Public opinion polls from 1999 found that the rate of public opposition to GMOs stood at over 50% in most European countries, with some countries having substantially higher opposition rates (e.g. 81% in Greece). As a result, the planting of GM crops was (and continues to be) severely restricted in Europe. Even in the U.S., where public opposition rates hovered at around 27% in 1999, crops like GM wheat, rice, and tomatoes stopped being grown due to consumer wariness. Consumer resistance, in turn, made retailers and suppliers hesitant to sell products made with GMOs for fear of losing customers.
One reason for public resistance to GMOs in the late 1990s was public concerns regarding their “unnaturalness” and the feared possibility of unknown safety and contamination effects. The authors found that transparency and focusing on benefits helped build trust with consumers in this regard, whereas secrecy and focusing on disproving fears only made consumers more paranoid. For example, Zeneca’s red cans of tomato paste, which were proudly labeled as GMOs, outsold competing brands in 1996. In contrast, the public perception of GMOs was damaged by attempts made in France to shift public discourse towards explaining away the fears associated with GMOs. Even when the explanations were scientifically sound, focusing on combating negative perceptions rather than raising awareness of benefits only increased public fears.
The authors note that although public fears over unnaturalness can damage the reputation of a new product, such fears usually only cause substantial backlash when paired with other fears that intensify them. In the case of GMOs, this complementary fear was that of corporate control of the food supply. Much of the decrease in public trust came as the original GMO organizations were bought out by large corporations like Monsanto and Tyson. Many consumers saw these corporations as prioritizing profit over the humanitarian goals promised by early GMO proponents, especially when news stories came out about Monsanto suing farmers for replanting seeds from patented GM crops. The authors warn that cultivated meat could face a similar rise in public opposition to GMOs if the industry is overtaken by giant corporations who bulldoze through public concerns in the pursuit of profit.
As several former Monsanto employees quoted in this paper warn, seeing yourself as a hero with the moral high ground (a self-image that some animal advocates certainly have) could hurt your cause if it leads you to refuse to understand potentially constructive criticism. Readers who see cultivated foods as a promising avenue for reducing animal suffering in the food system should therefore try to apply the lessons learned from GMO adoption and opposition to their own advocacy. For example, advocates can focus outreach activities on educating the public about the positives of cultivated foods rather than spending extra effort on dispelling rumors and negative perceptions. Additionally, advocates working within the cultivated food industry can proactively create positive and clear labels for cultivated foods. Such labels can boost transparency and avoid issues where the public feels misled by not knowing the origins of their food. Advocates within the cultivated food industry can also make sure to secure buy-ins from suppliers and retailers – including those in other countries – in order to avoid losing these vital connections down the line, as was the case with GMOs. The authors conclude the paper by pointing out that the global GMO food industry currently grows much slower than was initially predicted and has yet to achieve many of its lofty early goals. If cultivated foods are to fare better, steps must be taken to maintain public trust as well as to maintain the self-awareness needed to correct missteps within the cultivated foods movement itself.