Food Policy

Food for thought: Assessing the consumer welfare impacts of deploying irreversible, landscape-scale biotechnologies

Michael S. Jones, Zachary S. Brown,  Food Policy,  121. 2023.

Genetically engineered insects have gained attention as regionally deployed pest control technologies, with substantial applications in agriculture for combatting intractable crop pests and diseases. One potential tool is a ‘gene drive’, using CRISPR-based gene editing. In gene drive, preferentially inherited, engineered traits are spread throughout a geographic area to reduce pest populations or inhibit disease transmission, while also potentially reducing pesticide use and crop prices. But the self-perpetuating nature of gene drives presents a consequence, in that consumers could eventually be limited to only host crops grown in the presence of these genetically engineered insects. In this study, we analyze potential consumer welfare impacts of these technologies using discrete choice experiment data from a representative sample of U.S. adults, examining preferences regarding gene drive use to control spotted wing drosophila in blueberries and Asian citrus psyllid in orange juice (OJ) production. We find smaller average discounts for gene drives versus increased conventional pesticide use or genetically modified crops. Only 27% and 25% of blueberry and OJ consumers, respectively, are estimated to derive disutility from gene drives. However, gene drive disutility for these consumers is so large that elimination of non-drive options from their choice sets results in negative (blueberries) or neutral (OJ) effects to aggregate consumer welfare when weighed against gains to other consumers from reduced prices. Positive welfare effects are recovered by retaining availability of non-gene-drive products. We argue that this type of analysis will be increasingly important as landscape-level biotechnologies are deployed to address challenges to agricultural sustainability.

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