Public opinion on gene editing

| 11th May 2020
crop
Take part in Beyond GM's survey of public opinion on genome editing in food and farming.

There’s no escaping that governments in the UK, the EU and elsewhere see genome edited crops not just as a ‘good thing’ but essential to future farming.

What does the public think of genetic engineering in food and farming? Is there more acceptance, or less, these days? Have the issues changed over time, or is it just more of the same? How well informed do you believe you are?

Beyond GM like you to participate in our survey to help us find out.

While many people could be forgiven for thinking the issue of GMOs has gone away, the last few years have been a period of rapid developments in terms of new genetic engineering techniques.

Regulations

Terms such as gene editing, genome editing, bioengineering, synthetic biology (‘synbio’), precision fermentation and gene drives as well as new umbrella terms like New Breeding Techniques (NBTs) and New Genomic Techniques (NGTs) – each with slightly different meanings – have replaced the more familiar catch all of ‘GMOs’.

There has also been a clear move by industry and by some governments to distance these new technologies – the most well know of which is CRISPR – entirely from older style genetic engineering technologies. Biotech companies have been repositioning these new techniques as ‘close to nature’ and even lobbying for them to be unregulated.

Those efforts took something of a hit in July 2018 when the European Court of Justice (ECJ)  effectively ruled that newer techniques do produce genetically modified organisms and therefore should be regulated in the same way as older ones.

Biotech companies have therefore redoubled their efforts to remove regulations in Europe and elsewhere. In post-Brexit UK Prime Minster Boris Johnson, on his first day in office, committed to ‘liberating’ the UK’s biotechnology sector and new legislation will make it easier for the UK to overturn rulings made by the ECJ.

In the US President Trump has authorised a public information campaign to ‘educate’ citizens about the benefits of agricultural GMOs – and has recently opened up US national parks to herbicide tolerant GM plants.

Sustainability 

There’s no escaping that governments in the UK, the EU and elsewhere see genome edited crops not just as a ‘good thing’ but essential to future farming.

New Green Deals in most countries, which ostensibly put sustainability at their heart, can be predicated on the more widespread use of new biotechnologies which, promise to improve yields, welfare, biodiversity, sustainability and profits in the farming and technology sectors.

For those who question the necessity or efficacy of genome editing in food and farming these are challenging times.

In addition to all this, genome editing has begun to move from food crops to farm animals. Pigs, chickens and cattle are considered priorities for this work, which is aimed at producing higher yielding animals that consume less resources/feed, cutting down animals’ contribution to climate change and also at improving resistance to disease for industrially farmed animals. 

Nature

Most recently, a report from the IUCN, Genetic Frontiers for Conservation, attempted to lay out the pros and cons of re-programming nature through gene editing, synthetic biology and gene drives as a way of, among other things, reviving declining or even extinct species, improving soil and therefore plant health and biodiversity, re-engineering disease carrying insects and more. 

It’s a controversial approach on several levels, especially given the constant interaction between farming and the natural world. It also opens up important questions around the use of genetic engineering in rewilding, climate change mitigation and conservation and whether and how this use will be regulated.

The positioning of genome editing as a public and environmental good is undoubtedly gaining momentum. But the conversation is missing an essential element – the voice of the public. Which is why we want to hear from you.

It would be easy to assume that genetic engineering in food and farming is the least of our worries, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of emergencies that we currently face and with our attention pulled in a hundred different directions. Yet it connects with every single one of the issues we currently face. 

As part of our A Bigger Conversation initiative Beyond GM is asking members of the public to take part in a short survey so we can learn more about your understanding and your views. Your answers will help us represent you better in our discussions around food systems and regulation. They will also form the basis of a report on citizen engagement.

To add your voice and your views to our survey, click here. Closing date is May 29, 2020.

This Author

Pat Thomas is a director of Beyond GM in the UK. She is a former editor of The Ecologist and a campaigner, journalist and author who specialises in the intersection of environment, food and health.

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