Many trends in agricultural biotechnology have extended fluidly from the first era of genetic modification using recombinant DNA techniques to the era of gene editing. But the high-profile, explicit, and assertive discourse of democratization with gene editing — especially CRISPR-Cas9 — is something new.
In this paper, I draw on semi-structured interviews with gene editors, policy analysts, and communications experts as well as with critical academic and civil society experts. I use Science and Technology Studies and political ecology lenses to unpack democratization in three main parts.
First is democratizing discourses: On what grounds is CRISPR said to be democratic? Who is saying so? How do dissident communities respond to these narratives? Second is agricultural applications, with a focus on the Innovative Genomics Institute’s work in developing gene-edited food crops, including a case of saveable clonal hybrid rice. Third is governance, where I contrast US Department of Agriculture regulations and the CRISPRcon conference as “closed” and “invited” spaces, respectively, for democratic participation.
Next, I argue that “created spaces,” in which power is held by typically delegitimized actors and ideas, offer an opening for working out democracy on the terrain of biotechnology. I conclude with a set of principles and practices for CRISPR governance based on the idea that democratization of biotechnology requires epistemic justice. By gathering multiple, partial knowledges together, we move beyond narrow risk-benefit framings to better evaluate not just what CRISPR is and does, but what democracy means and whom it serves.
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