Rethink public engagement for gene editing

Publication date: 12/03/2018

Over the past three years, thousands of articles have been published about editing genes and genomes. Apart from a public dialogue run by the Royal Society at the end of last year, there’s been little attempt to engage the public on the implications of the technology in a way that could alter the decisions of scientists and policymakers. Indeed, concern about the lack of effective public engagement has motivated several workshops, including one by the intergovernmental Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

If the history of public engagement surrounding other recent scientific innovations is a guide, efforts to explain the science behind gene editing will intensify, such as through news stories, at science festivals, in public lectures and in museums. And there will be a rash of small, disconnected workshops involving members of the public that are designed to inform specific policy decisions.

If this is all that happens, scientists and policymakers will be ill prepared for the public debate that will almost certainly erupt as applications proliferate.

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The gene-editing conversation

Publication date: 31/01/2018

In 2014 biochemist Jennifer Doudna of the University of California at Berkeley awoke from a nightmare that would shift the focus of her world-class scientific career. Two years earlier, with her colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier, now director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, Doudna had achieved one of the most stunning breakthroughs in the history of biology, becoming the first to use a process called CRISPR-Cas9 to alter the genetic makeup of living organisms. Their “gene-editing” tool would allow scientists to efficiently insert or delete specific bits of DNA with unprecedented precision.

But as applications related to modifying human genes were soon reported in the scientific literature, Doudna began to worry. In the dream, a colleague asked if she would help teach someone how to use CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindrome Repeats). She followed him into a room to be greeted by Adolph Hitler wearing a pig face. The nightmare reinforced her belief that public discussion of the technology was far behind the breakneck pace of its emerging applications. She feared a public backlash that would prevent beneficial forms of gene-editing research from moving forward.

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Compatibility of breeding techniques in organic systems

Publication date: 01/01/2018

This IFOAM position paper states that “New genetic engineering technologies …are not compatible with organic farming and must not be used in organic breeding or organic production.” It goes on to list the specific techniques, and calls for “clear legal definitions to be in place which are regularly updated”.

The paper also states “Products obtained through genetic engineering processes should not be released into the environment. In any case such releases should not take place without a prior rigorous, multistakeholder designed and agreed risk assessment protocol that includes input from the organic sector and like-minded movements, and an assessment of the possibility to prevent the presence of such products in organic products and GMO-free products.”

IFOAM asks for the ‘Polluter Pays’ principle to be maintained. This means “On-going costs and harms to organic and non-GMO supply chains from contamination by these new techniques … should be borne by the developers and/or the company that puts the product on the market.” Although the principle is one of the EU directives, sadly it is not guaranteed in post-Brexit Britain.

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For whom? Questioning the food and farming research agenda

Publication date: 01/01/2018

A special magazine exploring where the power lies in setting our food and farming research agenda.

The UK’s Food Ethics Council asked international experts to explore where the power lies in setting our food and farming research agenda. We also asked who benefits from both publicly and privately funded research. We believe the status quo research agenda is not delivering the public good required for a food system that serves the needs of people, planet and animals.

This special collection of articles starts addressing key questions about how the research agenda is set in food and farming, unmasking and challenging the dominant research paradigm, and highlighting inclusive alternatives to deliver public good. The report is aimed at research institutions, funding bodies, government officials, CSOs and anyone with an interest in redefining the research agenda for the public good, especially in post-Brexit UK.

The report includes contributions from: Miguel Altieri, Molly Anderson, Annelie Bernhart, Helen Browning, Ibrahima Coulibaly, Dan Crossley, Liza Draper, David Drew MP, Ralph Early, Liz Hosken, Toby Hodgkin, IPES-Food, Nic Lampkin, Tim Lang, Les Levidow, Steve McLean, Tom MacMillan, Renato Maluf, Ben Mepham, Dunja Mijatovic, Pat Mooney, Marion Nestle, Clara Nicholls, Helena Paul, Susanne Padel, Michel Pimbert, Jonathan Porritt, Claire Robinson, Suman Sahai, Ruth Segal, Steve Tones and Melanie Welham.

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The case against genetically modified crops

Publication date: 01/01/2018

The business case for GMOs is rarely explored in depth.

In a report subtitled “An environmental investor’s view of the threat to our global food system”, Trillium Asset Management,  a US-based employee owned investment manager with a focus on sustainability, looks at the environmental, social and regulatory risks as well as the reputational and financial risks of investing in genetically engineered crops.

Purveyors of transgenic products claim that GM farming boosts yields and farming incomes by saving on fossil fuels, pesticides, and labor. Another claim arising from this assumption is that GM farming represents a step toward environmental sustainability by decreasing emissions and the use of agricultural chemicals. GM advocates also maintain that GM crops pose no health risks to either the farmers or consumers.

None of these arguments have held up over extended periods of use or in the face of independent testing. Pesticide and herbicide-resistant crops (by far the most widely used GM varieties) actually lead to an increase in pesticide and herbicide use over time horizons of as little as four years.2 Financial gains, which farmers make through increased yields, are offset by increased spending on patented seeds, fertilizer, and herbicides or pesticides, leading to a net decrease in income for all but the largest mega-farms. These higher input costs are especially damaging when small, more marginal farmers experience crop failure. Elevated levels of bankruptcy and consolidation have frequently occurred following the deployment of GM crops.

Perhaps the most pervasive argument for GM crops is centered on the message that these crops are needed to “feed the world.” The underlying assumptions of this argument, however, are simply incorrect. At current levels of global production, there is enough food for every person on earth to have 3,000 calories per day. The problem lies with the varieties of crops being grown, lack of financial access and infrastructure, and food waste. One-quarter of all calories or, by weight, one-third of all food grown, goes uneaten. In the United States, this problem is compounded, with 60 million metric tons of food, equal to an estimated $162 billion in value, going uneaten every year. This equates to approximately 1500 calories of wasted food per person per day.

In fact, GM crops can actually exacerbate hunger issues by pressuring farmers in marginal areas to grow cash crops for export or extensive processing. Globally, approximately 80% of the GM crops grown are corn and soybeans, crops that are overwhelmingly used for animal feed and biofuels. The narrative that GM crops will lift poor farmers out of poverty by increasing crop yields is also specious. The more relevant barriers to economic growth and improved yields are lack of basic resources such as fertilizer, water, and transportation infrastructure.

We believe that for environmental, social, and governance (ESG)-focused investment strategies, agricultural biotech represents an unacceptable level of risk across a wide range of factors. The problem lies less with individual companies or products, but rather with how GM agriculture in its current iteration jeopardizes the whole agricultural system. Just as these risks are system-based, the consequences would manifest themselves by changing the very biological, economic, and social framework of food systems. Almost twenty years into the GM experiment, a range of these risks have become clear.

When taken together, we believe these risks form a very clear basis for exclusion of companies involved in agricultural biotechnology from an ESG investment strategy.

The original report was in 2014. Our link is to the updated version published in January 2018.

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Perspectives on organic agriculture and new plant breeding techniques

Publication date: 08/11/2017

The organic industry has vocally rejected genetically-modified crops (GMOs), making a public declaration in 1993 that they are incompatible with organic agriculture.

Since then, many organic supporters have campaigned against GMOs, and organic farming regulations in the EU and beyond prohibit their use.

Emerging genetic technologies have sparked renewed interest in this debate, but policy makers are still undecided on whether they should be subject to the same extensive regulations as genetic modification. Within the organic industry, there are different perspectives on whether these new techniques could ever be compatible with organic food production.

In this blog-post Rebecca Nesbit gives us an insight into these differing perspectives, interviewing proponents from each side.

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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.

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New genetic engineering techniques: precaution, risk, and the need to develop prior societal technology assessment

Publication date: 18/08/2017

Business has been arguing that governments should override the precautionary principle in favor of an “innovation principle.” The new genetic engineering techniques (sometimes called “new breeding techniques”)1 provide the perfect cover for this argument. Proponents assure us that these new techniques are essential to address the crises we face and will provide economic benefit, as long as we set aside the precautionary approach that they claim increasingly hampers technological progress. We are in the midst of powerful high-risk technological developments with potentially severe and irreversible health, environmental, and societal implications. It is vital to develop processes for examining new technologies while they are still being developed. We argue that precaution needs to guide technology development in this area. Indeed, it should precede the technology development. An adequate technology assessment and decision-making process requires concerted effort, courage, and restraint, and it must include the option to decide against developing or deploying some technologies altogether.

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Is it only the regulatory status? Broadening the debate on cisgenic plants

Publication date: 26/06/2017

In current debates on emerging technologies for plant breeding in Europe, much attention has been given to the regulatory status of these techniques and their public acceptance. At present, both genetically modified plants with cisgenic approaches—using genes from crossable species—as well as transgenic approaches—using genes from different species—fall under GMO regulation in the EU and both are mandatorily labelled as GMOs. Researchers involved in the early development of cisgenic GM plants convey the message that the potential use and acceptance of cisgenic approaches will be seriously hindered if GMO regulations are not adjusted.

Although the similar treatment and labelling of transgenic and cisgenic plants may be a legitimate concern for the marketability of a cisgenic GM plant, there are concerns around their commercialization that reach beyond the current focus on (de)regulation. In this paper, we will use the development of the cisgenic GM potato that aims to overcome ‘late blight’—the most devastating potato disease worldwide—as a case to argue that it is important to recognize, reflect and respond to broader concerns than the dominant focus on the regulatory ‘burden’ and consumer acceptance. Based on insights we gained from discussing this case with diverse stakeholders within the agricultural sector and potato production in Norway during a series of workshops, we elaborate on additional issues such as the (technical) solution offered; different understandings of the late blight problem; the durability of the potato plant resistance; and patenting and ownership.

Hence, this paper contributes to empirical knowledge on stakeholder perspectives on emerging plant breeding technologies, underscoring the importance to broaden the scope of the debate on the opportunities and challenges of agricultural biotechnologies, such as cisgenic GM plants. The paper offers policy-relevant input to ongoing efforts to broaden the scope of risk assessments of agricultural biotechnologies. We aim to contribute to the recognition of the complex socio-ecological, legal and political dimensions in which these technological developments are entangled as a means to acknowledge, discuss and respond to these concerns and thereby contribute to more comprehensive and responsible developments within agricultural biotechnology.

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Addressing socio-economic and ethical considerations in biotechnology governance: the potential of a new politics of care

Publication date: 01/06/2017

There is a growing demand to incorporate social, economic and ethical considerations into biotechnology governance. However, there is currently little guidance available for understanding what this means or how it should be done.

A framework of care-based ethics and politics can capture many of the concerns maintaining a persistent socio-political conflict over biotechnologies and provide a novel way to incorporate such considerations into regulatory assessments. A care-based approach to ethics and politics has six key defining features.

These include: 1) a relational worldview, 2) an emphasis on the importance of context, 3) a recognition of the significance of dependence, 4) an analysis of power, including a particular concern for those most vulnerable, 5) a granting of weight to the significance of affect, and 6) an acknowledgment of an important role for narrative. This policy brief provides an overview of these defining features, illustrates how they can appear in a real world example and provides a list of guiding questions for assessing these features and advancing a politics of care in the governance of biotechnology

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