Research review: J. Mohorčich (2018) “What can the adoption of GM foods teach us about the adoption of other food technologies?” on Sentienceinstitute.org

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Disclaimer: I will be working full time for Sentience Institute from the 1st of August.

Sentience Institute’s research is available here, and the report is available here.

This report from Sentience Institute looks at the history of Genetically Modified foods and draws lessons for advocates of clean meat (and to a lesser extent, plant-based meat technologies).

The report is very easy to access and read through. The “introduction” and the “summary of implications and findings” are mostly similar in that they summarise the key takeaways of the report. If you are happy to trust Mohorčich’s analysis, then reading these sections will only take a few minutes, and will give you most of the main ideas.

The report starts with a summary of the history of GM foods and the contrast between their adoption in the USA and rejection in Europe. The analysis then clearly lists “analogies” to clean meat, as well as “disanalogies” and points of “unclear relationship”.

Overall, the report may have the effect of making the successful implementation of clean meat (which completely or nearly completely eradicates the use of traditional animal agriculture) seem less tractable. This is mostly through the analogy to the “two-phase industry model”. Initially, GMOs were supported and developed by optimistic startups who wanted to change the world and deal with environmental issues, which were backed by venture capitalists. This phase looks very similar to the situation clean meat is in at the moment. Later, however, the optimistic startups underwent mergers and acquisitions from larger companies, which led to a variety of issues and fears around corporatization and centralization of the food industry, which reduced consumer acceptance of GMOs.

If the analysis makes EAA readers less optimistic about clean meat, it also suggest important actions that could be taken, and serves as a useful warning to the startups and to clean meat advocates. For example, one lesson from the failings and difficulties of the proponents of GMOs is that “clean meat advocates should probably [focus] on developing a robust industry advocacy group in each market they plan to enter”.

Another key finding of the report is that concerns around unnaturalness were insufficient to prohibit adoption of GMOs; it was a broad coalition of concerns which led to reduced support in Europe and caused problems elsewhere. Furthermore, “constant discussion of safety concerns, even if to answer these concerns in a technically-sound manner, tends to displace positive framing of an issue and reinforce the idea that there is something to fear.” Accordingly, advocates should focus on the positives (especially the ethical positives) of clean meat, rather than focus on responding to dangers. This also fits with the implications of Eva Vivalt’s studies, which found that “embrace naturalness” messaging was more effective at encouraging support for clean meat than messaging which tried to disprove claims about its unnaturalness. Interestingly, her conclusion on the tractability issue, much like that of “Mohorčich”, is that “clean meat is not a panacea”.

Those newer to the topic may like to start with the resources recommended here, or by reading Paul Shapiro’s book, Clean Meat. For those involved in the clean meat space or considering intervention prioritisation within EAA, however, this analysis is essential reading.

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