BfR conducted 39 focus group interviews to gauge the attitudes and general awareness of genome editing techniques among German consumers.
"Although the respondents were hardly aware of genome editing and knew little about these technologies, the majority of them reject the use of these methods in the food sector," noted BfR president Professor Dr Andreas Hensel. "This shows just how important it is to keep the general public informed about the latest findings in risk assessment.”
Genome editing – also known as new plant breeding techniques (NPBT) – involve molecular biological tools that cut the genome of a plant in specific locations. “The CRISPR/Cas9 method, with the help of which the genome can be specifically modified, promises to be particularly successful at the moment,” BfR noted.
The system works with the native characteristics of a crop and does not introduce new genes. Proponents argue that this means the new biotechnology poses fewer risk factors than genetic modification, which is heavily regulated in the European Union.
The process is frequently compared to a more targeted form of traditional crop breeding techniques.
“It opens up a variety of new application options. Its use in agriculture is being discussed, for example, in the development of disease-resistant plant varieties,” BfR noted.
The legal status of genome editing is still under discussion and regulators have not reached a ruling over whether the process should be subject to the stringent laws governing GMOs.
The results of the focus group interviews suggest that German consumers view genome editing methods as a form of genetic engineering and associate the process with the same reservations.
“In the food sector, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages in the opinion of the participants and the use of genome editing is rejected by the majority for this reason,” BfR noted.
Participants “clearly demand” a labelling obligation for foods produced with the help of genome editing. They also expect its strict regulation by the responsible authorities.
However, amid this trepidation, BfR said that it also became clear that the participants “know little about the methods of genome editing”.
“They would like to see public clarification of the methods in order to open up an informed public discourse. It is essential for future risk communication strategies that this consumer demand for information be met.”