CRISPRcon 2020 Revisited: Risk Governance in Gene Editing and Food

CRISPRcon 2020’s fourth theme exploredsocial equity factors in non-human gene editing, and whether the technology’s impact on ecological and agricultural systems contribute to rather than curb social inequities. The two panels during this theme first examined how risks are defined and governed in food systems, and then explored the potential risks and benefits of gene editing for climate justice.

The first panel, on Oct. 13, considered how risk governance for gene editing in food is currently addressed and how issues of safety and equity might alternatively be addressed through regulatory and other processes.

“I’d like you to consider a definition of governance that includes all types of watchful and responsible care throughout the life cycle of a gene-edited product. For example, all the way from conception and the anticipation of risks or benefits or other societal impacts to the downstream stages of consumer decision-making, monitoring. It includes regulation but it’s not limited to that,” said Jennifer Kuzma, co-founder and co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society (GES) Center at NC State University, who moderated the panel and asked panelists to discuss a broad range of considerations for governance.

Panelists discussed the biggest risks that they see in gene-edited foods and agriculture, examininga common theme that has run throughout CRISPRcon 2020: trust.

“Fundamentally we know that no single company or association is going to accomplish the goal of building trust that enables the innovation to be accepted into the marketplace. As I think about the biggest risks that exist, my biggest concern is that we are not going to achieve the level of trust that’s needed to build a successful and beneficial innovation ecosystem,” said Sarah Gallo, director of market access for food and farm innovation at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization.

Eliane Ubalijoro deputy executive director for programs at Global Open Data in Agriculture and Nutrition noted a concern over whether there will be a widening chasm between large corporate farmers and small, local farmers. Sélim Louafi, social scientist at the Centre International de Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement, highlighted the lack of a decision-making authority that would be able to enforce oversight. And Gregory Jaffe, director of the Project on Biotechnology for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, identified three risks of equal concern: safety, environmental implications, and finding the proper balance of regulation and governance.

The conversation then turned to how to incorporate and improve public participation in developing regulatory policy to make governance decisions. Ubalijoro underscored another common thread examined throughout CRISPRcon 2020 –  securing the participation key stakeholders and communities, including  local farmers and  Indigenous perspectives.

“I really appreciate the efforts being made by the [Convention on Biological Diversity] in terms of having an Africa group look at sequence data, look at gene editing, look at genetic data and how that will work in terms of regulatory framework in the developing world. And how do we look at Indigenous knowledge in this framework and how to make sure that there is enough awareness and knowledge for local decision-makers to have fact-based decision-making happening,” said Ubalijoro.

Public input can play an important role because government regulators are often statutorily limited with making narrow determinations on gene editing products. Jaffe explained that those determinations are usually limited to determining whether a particular product is safe and does not consider other issues such as social equity  or the impact on rural communities.

“The question is, is the genetically engineered or the gene-edited animal safe? That’s a safety question. Do we want to do this because of ethical reasons or animal welfare reasons or other things? Those are completely different issues. We have to separate those. If we bring them together, then everything loses credibility,” said Jaffe.

The panelists also fielded questions from the audience, one of which asked how the conversation on regulation should address how products produced by large scale farmers can help meet the needs of all types of farmers and populations.

“It’s clear that we can expect that innovation derived from gene editing will mean it will serve the needs of those who are probably already over-fed, increase food waste and obesity, all the issues that are the hidden cost of this kind of food production system rather than tackling the real food security issues faced by the poorest and people who need more food,” said Louafi.

The panel wrapped up the discussion examining regulation of modern gene editing and the first generation of transgenics; harmonizing an international approach to regulating gene editing; food disclosure standards and labeling; and how different world views on technology are considered in the context of gene editing debates. Watch the full panel discussion below.