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Public Opinion: A Breeding Ground for Research

If you find “Coke versus Pepsi” to be a major dilemma, choosing your preferred breeding method for healthier pigs could prove a challenge. That said, many have strong opinions on the breeding question, and their thoughts could help shape research on improving disease resilience in the pork industry through genomics. In particular, scientists on the Genome Alberta-led project sought the public’s views on three options: conventional breeding, selective breeding using genomics, and gene editing.

All of my research to date says that people have a strong interest in enhancing disease resilience for pigs,” said Dr. Ellen Goddard, professor and co-operative chair, Agricultural Marketing and Business, Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta. “Where people differ is in how best to achieve that goal. The majority prefer conventional breeding, probably because it has been around a long time and seems relatively natural.”

The second most popular option is selective breeding through genomics, with gene editing – by far the fastest of the three approaches – being the least desired route. In Dr. Goddard’s view, this is likely due to it being the newest of the three and the fear by some of unforeseen circumstances down the road. Even so, the news is not all bad for proponents of gene editing.

If you build it...

“Though almost 40% of respondents ranked gene editing last among their preferences, they weren’t saying they wouldn’t buy a product resulting from gene editing,” said Goddard. “In fact, 20% made it their top choice, so they picked up on it being the fastest of the three and able to achieve a higher level of disease resilience in herds, more quickly. That support gives us something to build on in terms of explaining the applications of gene editing to the public.”

The survey also asked participants if they favored a government requirement for labelling products that resulted from gene editing, a change that would raise food prices due to the cost of enforcement and oversight. Respondents were randomly assigned different price increases ranging from low to high.

Initially, 52% supported mandatory labelling in spite of the impact on price. When forced to say how certain they were of that answer, however, the number in favor dropped to 40%. While age influenced their initial response, this factor disappeared when asked about their certainty.

What’s in a label?

“One finding of significance here is that if you are very concerned about the environment and feel government needs to take action around things like climate change, you are more likely to vote for mandatory labelling. This might mean that environmental attitudes are driving preferences for labelling; but it could also be that those worried about a perceived lack of environmental action just want to see something being done, and labelling is a start. If it’s the latter, support for mandatory labelling may not equate to a fear that gene editing is a threat to the environment.”

While there are always more questions to be asked and opinions to be gathered, the results so far could be informative for genomic research.

“What is clear from our findings is that quite a few people are uncertain about gene editing techniques in general. At the same time, the vast majority of consumers support doing something that will increase the disease resilience of pigs, at least in part because they feel that healthier pigs produce healthier pork.”

Armed with that support for their mission, and an awareness of the concerns around how they get there, scientists can continue the quest for disease resilience and toast their success with a nice, cold,  bottle of Coke...or Pepsi.  

Public Opinion: A Breeding Ground for Research

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