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Why are NGOs sceptical of genome editing?

Publication date: 02/11/2017

In 2016, 107 Nobel Laureates signed an open letter calling on Greenpeace to desist from campaigning against agricultural biotechnology and for governments to reject and resist such campaigning, arguing that “[o]pposition based on emotion and dogma contradicted by data must be stopped”

The letter marked the latest chapter in a long‐running, heated and apparently intractable debate around agricultural biotechnology. Yet, while the arguments by Greenpeace and other non‐governmental organisations (NGOs) against agricultural biotechnology are frequently dismissed as based on emotion and dogma, their opposition is often grounded on more general scepticisms concerning the framing of the problem and its solutions, and the motivations of actors to employ biotechnology in agriculture.

Genome editing is an important case of agricultural biotechnology. In Europe, however, the European Commission has been delaying a decision on the regulation of genome editing and new plant breeding techniques (NPBT) for use in agriculture.

In the meantime, numerous groups are attempting to influence the debate, including biotechnology companies, scientists and NGOs. Scientists and their representations have been particularly prominent in these debates in contrast to a more muted position from commercial interests as companies have adopted a “wait‐and‐see” strategy with regard to the pending regulatory decision on genome editing.

As with earlier debates on genetically modified (GM) crops, NGOs have become the subject of intense criticism from leading scientists who support genome editing in agriculture. The subsequent debates have aroused passions on all sides, but rarely led to greater mutual understanding.

In this paper, we use the case of genome editing to argue that the Nobel Laureate letter may have mischaracterised opposition to agricultural biotechnology as rooted in emotion and dogma.

Rather, our results suggest that this opposition is grounded in three specific types of scepticism concerning the problem framing of food security; the focus on intensive agriculture and technological solutions to the problem of food security; and the motivations for adopting agricultural biotechnology. Below, we describe our methods for analysing NGO scepticism, before providing more detail on each of three types of scepticism.

Resource type: Adobe Acrobat (.pdf)

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