Study shows way to create common ground on gene editing

Open, inclusive process considers whether, when and how gene editing biotechnologies could be used and developed in a way that is broadly acceptable to society.

A range of new food production technologies are emerging in an effort to keep up with an increasingly crowded and hungry world population. New gene editing approaches now let scientists hack into genomes to alter the characteristics of foods, increasing yields, lengthening shelf-life or improving disease resistance.

A recent study led by researchers from the University of Minnesota's College of Food, Agricultural & Natural Resources Sciences (CFANS) provides a concrete proposal for an open, inclusive process of considering whether, when and how gene editing biotechnologies could be used and developed in a way that is broadly acceptable to society.

“Changes that took decades or centuries through selective breeding can now be made in a matter of months — a blessing or a curse, depending on your perspective. In fact, the fervor behind these positions has stagnated policy action and created a ‘powder keg’ environment that blocks the careful thinking needed to find a way to meet society’s tremendous food challenges,” said University of Minnesota professor of agronomy and plant genetics professor Nicholas Jordan, lead author of the study recently published in EMBO Reports. “Figuring out how to govern the emerging rules of this new game is critical to farmers, scientists, entrepreneurs and civil society organizations seeking to navigate the benefits and risks of advances in gene editing.”

Cooperative governance networks have helped find common ground about complex sustainability issues and might be very effective for governing possible applications of new agricultural biotechnologies, such as gene editing techniques for breeding crops.

In cooperative governance networks, a range of societal sectors — e.g., private companies, nonprofit organizations, researchers and governmental agencies — cooperate to manage complex issues related to particular products and processes. A governance network for gene editing of crops might initially focus on crops that would add ecological and economic diversity and resilience to agriculture rather than on dominant staple crops such as corn or rice.

To operate, the network needs to engage crop breeders, investors and a range of advocacy groups. All three must have strong incentives to participate in the network.

“A cooperative governance network for gene editing could surmount the intensely polarized discussions of current ag biotech. It provides a new approach to exploring and evaluating the risks and benefits of new ag biotech that is emerging from explosive growth in understanding of genomes and genetics,” said Timothy M. Smith, bioproducts and biosystems engineering professor and co-author of the study

“However, at present, it is almost impossible to discuss these techniques in a productive way,” Smith noted. “It is critical for society to carefully consider the risks and benefits of using these new techniques in an open and inclusive process. Cooperative governance networks have a track record of supporting such careful, open and inclusive consideration about complex challenges.”

Others have called for broad-based processes but have not provided a specific, implementable plan. In the absence of public policy action, collaborative governance may provide a legitimate starting point toward the responsible development of these important and powerful technologies.

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