JOHNSTON, Iowa — Green stalks have only just begun to sprout in the test fields where biotech giant DuPont Pioneer is planting rows of a new genetically edited corn. But across the street, in the company’s sprawling research campus, executives are already fretting about how to sell it to the world.
On the other, the industry’s last big breakthrough of this kind — genetically modified organisms, or GMOs — was an unqualified public-relations disaster, even according to its progenitor, Monsanto.
Wary of that, DuPont Pioneer, which is developing a strain of CRISPR-edited waxy corn, is proactively neutralizing skeptical consumers — years before these crops will even be available. The company recently began hosting CRISPR focus groups and launched a website on the technique, complete with animated videos.
The goal is to avoid the sort of public backlash that rocked Monsanto in the late 1990s and still plagues agriculture two decades later. In the United States, consumer skepticism of genetically modified crops has forced biotech companies into long, costly battles over issues such as whether these foods should be labeled; elsewhere in the world, the public outcry has prevented seeds from winning government approval.
“It’s more about social science than science,” said Neal Gutterson, the vice president of research and development at DuPont Pioneer. “[It’s] ultimately about getting social license for this technology.”
Odes to plant technology are ubiquitous in DuPont Pioneer’s Iowa offices, where even the conference space boasts glossy, museum-like exhibits devoted to genetically modified foods. Plus-sized photos show farmers standing idly in golden corn fields, and mystery hands reaching into overflowing bowls.
But the problem for DuPont Pioneer, and agribusiness generally, is that large swaths of the public do not share this sunny vision of biotech. Since the late '90s, when Monsanto botched the introduction of genetically modified crops in Europe, consumers have treated the term “GMO” as if it were a dirty word.
According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 40 percent of Americans believe GMOs are bad for their health. This assertion is not supported by science, which has concluded that the genetically modified crops on the market are safe for consumption.
But science has made little headway in a fierce debate that has often focused on the perceived values of the companies developing these products. Each year, activists in hundreds of cities worldwide march against Monsanto — and millions of consumers buy "Non-GMO Project Verified" products.
The biotech industry has taken strides to clean up its image in recent years: In 2013, Monsanto shook up its public-relations team, and the industry has banded behind a consumer education effort called GMO Answers.
But with CRISPR — a breakthrough gene-editing tool — the field gets a chance at its first real do-over.
Unlike conventional genetic modification, CRISPR works directly on the DNA of the plant or animal being bred. While GMOs, as we have traditionally known them, involve inserting target DNA from a different species, CRISPR can directly “edit” an organism’s DNA for a result that falls within the genetic diversity of that animal or plant.
The technique was discovered almost simultaneously at several research universities and has since been licensed out to a number of both noncommercial researchers and private companies. Outside of agriculture, CRISPR has diverse applications in medicine, where it's currently being used to develop everything from cancer therapies to novel disease models.
In agriculture, scientists say it takes far less time, and is more precise, than both traditional and genetically modified breeding techniques. DuPont Pioneer expects its CRISPR-edited waxy corn to be on the market within three years. The Agriculture Department has indicated that it does not intend to regulate the CRISPR-edited corn because its creation does not involve any plant pests' genetic materials.
“That comes with a lot of responsibility,” said Kerrey Kerr-Enskat, the publicist who handles DuPont’s CRISPR outreach efforts. “It’s not just about row crops — we don’t want to waste that opportunity [to engage with the public].”
Accordingly, DuPont Pioneer has spent the past several months convening regular focus groups with leaders from government, agriculture and environmental organizations, Kerr-Enskat said. The goal is to learn more about the public’s CRISPR concerns and use them to inform future messaging efforts.
In April, the company launched a website that it calls “the first step” in a larger campaign to win consumers’ trust for the technology. It’s an unusual move for a company that sees farmers, not food consumers, as its direct customers. Its product is, after all, seeds — and its first CRISPR product, waxy corn, is for industrial use, not human consumption.
The homepage shows a stock photo of a smiling family eating corn on the cob behind a green banner that calls CRISPR-Cas “one of the greatest breakthroughs in biology.” A “guiding principles” page promises the company's commitment to safety and “open, transparent and timely communications.” In a slick animated video, a measured female narrator claims that CRISPR is not so different from traditional plant breeding techniques deployed at the dawn of agriculture.
Ironically, the video is also not so different from the marketing that DuPont used 100 years ago: It was among the first companies to use silent film to advertise to consumers. In fact, DuPont — which sold explosives and plastics, long before it bought Pioneer and got into seeds — built interest in novel products such as nylon through what it called “educational advertising.”
Since then, of course, the atmosphere has changed. It’s not clear if consumers see DuPont Pioneer as a scientific authority — or if the company hurts its own position by wading into the debate.
Already, the controversy over GMOs has become so fractious, said Glenn Davis Stone, a professor of anthropology and environmental studies at Washington University, that even independent scientists have “let their role in educating be trampled by their interest in convincing.” Many are so frustrated by the impasse, he added, that they'll gloss over questions such as regulation, rather than risk giving the other side anti-GMO ammunition.
Meanwhile, two decades of sociological research have shown that skepticism of genetic modification is largely fueled not by ignorance or technophobia — but by a lack of trust in large companies, some of which is arguably well-deserved. Before they sold seeds, for instance, Monsanto manufactured Agent Orange, a defoliant used extensively during the Vietnam War, and both Monsanto and Dupont made DDT, an insecticide that caused widespread environmental damage.
Even pro-GMO advocates, such as Sarah Davidson Evanega of the Cornell Alliance for Science, say that public-sector scientists may be best positioned to deliver messages about CRISPR.
“There’s great optimism that this time we’ll do communications better,” Evanega said. “The great hope is that CRISPR is going to be different.”
Whether consumers will eventually embrace CRISPR is still, of course, anybody’s guess. As with GMOs, there is compelling science here. There are also, particularly when it comes to human genome editing, worrying potential drawbacks.
But Kerr-Enskat, of DuPont Pioneer, is quick to emphasize that her company won’t be the only or the loudest voice, no matter how the debate evolves. In fact, if you click the “contact” link on the new CRISPR site, your email will eventually make its way to her inbox.
“For GMOs, they waited until the product hit the market before there was a lot of communication,” she said. “But this is a two-way engagement.”
Correction: This story originally said that DuPont had once manufactured the chemicals DDT and Agent Orange. In fact, DuPont only manufactured DDT. The Post regrets the error.