We’ve scanned the web to bring together a library of interesting, thought-provoking articles, blogs, reports and academic papers that explore the issue of genetic engineering in food and farming from broader and deeper perspectives. Browse for inspiration or search by theme.

Adopt a moratorium on heritable genome editing

Publication date: 13/03/2019

We call for a global moratorium on all clinical uses of human germline editing — that is, changing heritable DNA (in sperm, eggs or embryos) to make genetically modified children.

By ‘global moratorium’, we do not mean a permanent ban. Rather, we call for the establishment of an international framework in which nations, while retaining the right to make their own decisions, voluntarily commit to not approve any use of clinical germline editing unless certain conditions are met.

To begin with, there should be a fixed period during which no clinical uses of germline editing whatsoever are allowed. As well as allowing for discussions about the technical, scientific, medical, societal, ethical and moral issues that must be considered before germline editing is permitted, this period would provide time to establish an international framework.

Thereafter, nations may choose to follow separate paths. About 30 nations currently have legislation that directly or indirectly bars all clinical uses of germline editing, and they might choose to continue the moratorium indefinitely or implement a permanent ban. However, any nation could also choose to allow specific applications of germline editing, provided that it first: gives public notice of its intention to consider the application and engages for a defined period in international consultation about the wisdom of doing so; determines through transparent evaluation that the application is justified; and ascertains that there is broad societal consensus in the nation about the appropriateness of the application. Nations might well choose different paths, but they would agree to proceed openly and with due respect to the opinions of humankind on an issue that will ultimately affect the entire species.

Resource type: article: Web Page

Embracing uncertainty: what are the implications for sustainability and development?

Publication date: 23/01/2019

Uncertainties can make it hard to plan ahead. But recognising them can help to reveal new questions and choices. What kinds of uncertainty are there, why do they matter for sustainability, and what ideas, approaches and methods can help us to respond to them?

Uncertainty is a concept that defines our times. Every media headline seems to assert that things are uncertain, and increasingly so. Whether it’s climate change, disease outbreaks, economic conditions or political settlements, the same narrative exists.

Helga Nowotny, in her book The Cunning of Uncertainty, argues that “uncertainty is written into the script of life”. But how should we understand ‘uncertainty’, and why does it matter? Are we equipped for responding to seemingly accelerating uncertainties across different policy domains?

A conventional, managerial and technocratic approach is to construct such challenges as risks – where the probabilities of future outcomes are known, or at least can be estimated. The paraphernalia of risk assessment and management are familiar, derived from engineering approaches. These approaches are good for some cases, such as designing a bridge or road, but not for others, where complex socio-ecological dynamics are involved.

 

Resource type: Web page URL

Revisiting risk governance of GM plants: the need to consider new and emerging gene-editing techniques

Publication date: 21/12/2018

New and emerging gene-editing techniques make it possible to target specific genes in species with greater speed and specificity than previously possible. Of major relevance for plant breeding, regulators and scientists are discussing how to regulate products developed using these gene-editing techniques.

Such discussions include whether to adopt or adapt the current framework for GMO risk governance in evaluating the impacts of gene-edited plants, and derived products, on the environment, human and animal health and society. Product classification or definition is one of several aspects of the current framework being criticized. Further, knowledge gaps related to risk assessments of gene-edited organisms—for example of target and off-target effects of intervention in plant genomes—are also of concern.

Resolving these and related aspects of the current framework will involve addressing many subjective, value-laden positions, for example how to specify protection goals through ecosystem service approaches. A process informed by responsible research and innovation practices, involving a broader community of people, organizations, experts, and interest groups, could help scientists, regulators, and other stakeholders address these complex, value-laden concerns related to gene-editing of plants with and for society.

Resource type: Adobe Acrobat (.pdf)

Organic GMOs – ask yourself, can this ever be a ‘thing’?

Publication date: 10/11/2018

There is no question that our food system is broken. The way we farm, the way we process, sell, buy and eat food has become an exercise in a polluted environment and polluted, undernourished bodies.

Against this backdrop the word ‘organic’ is sometimes waived like a flag – or worn like a magic cloak – that protects us from harm.

The image of organic, of an agricultural system that promotes healthy plants, animals, soil and humans; that emulates and sustains natural systems; that promotes fairness and justice for all living things; and that cares for future generations, is still strong and is still substantially true.

Organic is the most widely-used system that comes closest in practice to genuinely sustainable farming. But it’s under attack on many fronts. In part this is because there can be a large space between image and the business-as-usual reality of food production. Even with the best will in the world, unsatisfactory practices can creep in and, increasingly, corporate and industrial farming and food interests seek to benefit financially from the cache of organic while at the same time belittling, and in some cases ignoring, its core values.

As in many things the US leads the way in this. Hydroponics and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have both been allowed in organic foods certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), in the face of considerable opposition, recently formalised under the banner of the Real Organic Project.

The US has also been blighted by the rise what some call ‘Big Organic’ – an upscaling of organic production that mimics industrial agriculture in its reliance on monocultures, intensive animal rearing and industrial processes. One component of Big Organic is some of the well-established organic brands that have been bought up by large food conglomerates; another is the proliferation of ‘organic’ supermarkets that operate in the same unfair and unsustainable way as their conventional counterparts.

It might be argued that this is simply the consequence of continued and healthy growth in the organic market. Even if that is the case, it is also part of a subtle trend that chips away at the essential nature of organic using mumbo jumbo about the inevitability of market forces and opaque certification.

Resource type: article: Web Page

Policy and governance perspectives for regulation of genome edited crops in the United States

Publication date: 08/11/2018

Genome editing for crop improvement lies at the leading edge of disruptive bioengineering technologies that will challenge existing regulatory paradigms for products of biotechnology and which will elicit widespread public interest.

Regulation of products of biotechnology through the US Coordinated Framework for Biotechnology is predicated on requiring burden of proof that regulation is warranted. Although driven by considerations of newly emerging processes for product development, regulation has, for the most part, focused on characteristics of the biotechnology product itself and not the process used for its development per se.

This standard of evidence and product focus has been maintained to date in regulatory considerations of genome edited crops. Those genome edited crops lacking recombinant DNA (rDNA) in the product intended for environmental release, lacking plant pest or pesticidal activity, or showing no food safety attributes different from those of traditionally bred crops are not deemed subject to regulatory evaluation.

Regardless, societal uncertainties regarding genome editing are leading regulators to seek ways whereby these uncertainties may be addressed through redefinition of those products of biotechnology that may be subject to regulatory assessments. Within US law prior statutory history, language and regulatory action have significant influence on decision making; therefore, the administrative law and jurisprudence underlying the current Coordinated Framework strongly inform policy and governance when considering new plant breeding technologies such as genome editing.

Our purpose in this discussion has been to elaborate how governance within the US legal framework is influencing decisions regarding the regulation of genome edited crops. We do not defend or justify the US regulatory system or suggest any given theory of jurisprudence which is preferable for administration of the Coordinated Framework for Biotechnology. Such considerations would require much more serious examination of the norms that constitute the basis of the US regulatory system.

However, this analysis of the regulatory framework for biotechnology in the US should provide an explanation of the circumstances in law that have led US regulatory agencies, including the USDA, to their current positions for imposing new rules for crops and derived foods developed through genome editing.

Open access .pdf also available.

Resource type: article: Web Page

Organic farming with gene editing: An oxymoron or a tool for sustainable agriculture?

Publication date: 10/10/2018

A University of California, Berkeley professor stands at the front of the room, delivering her invited talk about the potential of genetic engineering. Her audience, full of organic farming advocates, listens uneasily. She notices a man get up from his seat and move toward the front of the room. Confused, the speaker pauses mid-sentence as she watches him bend over, reach for the power cord, and unplug the projector. The room darkens and silence falls. So much for listening to the ideas of others.

Many organic advocates claim that genetically engineered crops are harmful to human health, the environment, and the farmers who work with them. Biotechnology advocates fire back that genetically engineered crops are safe, reduce insecticide use, and allow farmers in developing countries to produce enough food to feed themselves and their families.

Now, sides are being chosen about whether the new gene editing technology, CRISPR, is really just “GMO 2.0” or a helpful new tool to speed up the plant breeding process. In July, the European Union’s Court of Justice ruled that crops made with CRISPR will be classified as genetically engineered. In the United States, meanwhile, the regulatory system is drawing distinctions between genetic engineering and specific uses of genome editing.

Resource type: article: Web Page

Is the new European ruling on GM techniques ‘anti-science’?

Publication date: 06/08/2018

There has been much commotion in the media over the past week, following the ruling by the European Court of Justice over how to interpret EU laws bearing on the regulation of GM crops.

The ruling clarifies an anomaly, in that new plant varieties developed by longstanding non-GM gene-altering techniques of ‘mutagenesis‘ (using chemical reactions or ionising radiation) are now interpreted “in principle” to be classifiable as GMOs. The new GM techniques of ‘gene editing‘, on the other hand, are interpreted by the ECJ to be included in existing GM regulations.

In a complex case, the Court’s rationale is not without some ambiguity or persisting questions.

Resource type: Web page URL

Social-ecological outcomes of agricultural intensification

Publication date: 14/06/2018

Sustainable intensification of agriculture is seen by many in science and policy as a flagship strategy for helping to meet global social and ecological commitments — such as ending hunger and protecting biodiversity — as laid out in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Paris climate agreement.

However, there is limited evidence on the conditions that support positive social and ecological outcomes.

The authors address this knowledge gap by synthesizing research that analyses how agricultural intensification affects both ecosystem services and human well-being in low- and middle-income countries.

Overall, they find that agricultural intensification is rarely found to lead to simultaneous positive ecosystem service and well-being outcomes. This is particularly the case when ecosystem services other than food provisioning are taken into consideration.

The researchers found. for example, that it is important to look at how intensification is introduced, for example whether it is initiated by farmers or forced upon them. Change is often induced or imposed for more vulnerable population groups who often lack sufficient money or security of land tenure to make these changes work. Smallholders in the cases studied often struggle to move from subsistence to commercial farming and the challenges involved are not currently well reflected in many intensification strategies.

Another  finding is that the distribution of wellbeing impacts is uneven, generally favouring better off individuals at the expense of poorer ones. For example, a study in Bangladesh showed how rapid uptake of saltwater shrimp production is enabling investors and large landowners to get higher profits while poorer people are left with the environmental consequences that affect their lives and livelihoods long term.

The authors also found that the infrequent ‘win-win’ outcomes occur mostly in situations where intensification involves increased use of inputs such as fertilizers, irrigation, seeds, and labour.

Resource type: Adobe Acrobat (.pdf)

A critical juncture for synthetic biology

Publication date: 12/06/2018

The development of new technologies and their applications often have to navigate regulatory limitations and public attitudes, expectations or resistance – the trajectories of genetically modified crops in the Europe or the success of in vitro fertilization after initial resistance demonstrate how public attitudes and regulation can determine if a technology succeeds or fails.

Academic scientists and companies working on new technologies increasingly must consider these factors and mitigate real and perceived risks of the technology so as to avoid overreaching regulation and public resistance that could threaten innovation. In this context, social science takes an important role by gauging public attitudes about if and how the emergence of new technologies stokes fears and raises hopes.

This article illustrates how the natural sciences and social sciences interacted in the emerging fields of synthetic biology and nanotechnology, specifically the timing and rise of social science research and commentary on the potential impact and risks of these emerging technologies.

Resource type: Web page URL

Risk in synthetic biology – views from the lab

Publication date: 01/06/2018

The concepts of risk and responsibility are often linked to discussions of emerging scientific fields, but studies into how these concepts are connected to research practices have been narrowly focused on risks for humans and the environment.

To broaden these concepts, “Responsible Research and Innovation” (RRI), a democratic governance framework, aims to enable societal discussions beyond traditional risk assessment and mitigation. Proponents of RRI argue that these discussions should not be confined to the direct risks of the research itself, but also include wider issues, such as “the purposes and motivations of research” [1]. Yet, it is not only RRI protagonists who want to broaden this conversation.

We found that scientists also ponder non‐technical risks, such as the impact of institutional demands on career, health and social relationships, or economic pressures from the incentive system in which much of research in biology is now embedded. These findings challenge the present formulation of RRI as a science governance framework and lead us to argue that “responsible” research and innovation systems can only succeed if these broader concerns are taken as seriously as the risk of laboratory accident or inadvertent release.

Resource type: Adobe Acrobat (.pdf)