NGOs Outline Principles for Governance of Gene Edited Products for Agriculture and the Environment

Representatives of conservation and consumer non-governmental organizations unveiled six principles for responsible governance of gene editing in agriculture and the environment in an article published today by Nature Biotechnology. The authors noted that gene editing and other biotechnologies have the potential to address urgent food security, environmental, and human health dilemmas, yet these technologies also raise potential for societal concerns, environmental and health risks, and conflicts with cultural and spiritual values.

“To the extent that these products are being, and will continue to be, developed and applied in agriculture and the environment, we must consider how this activity occurs and under whose management, oversight, and stewardship,” wrote the authors in the article.

The six principles outlined in the article include: 1) Effective, science-based government regulation; 2) Voluntary best practices that complement regulatory oversight; 3) Risk avoidance and delivery of tangible societal benefits; 4) Robust, inclusive societal engagement; 5) Inclusive access to technology & resources; and 6) Transparency on gene editing products in the environment.

“Our principles could apply to products produced with almost any technology,” wrote the authors, noting that gene-editing techniques are not independent of the broader social, ecological, and economic histories, contexts, and debates related to earlier genetic engineering technologies. “We have focused on genetic editing because: this methodology has potential for safe and beneficial applications; new products are being developed rapidly; regulation and introduction of new products into commerce is controversial; and the lack of appropriate governance could lead to unintended environmental consequences or severely limit its use.”

The principles—developed by representatives from Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumer Federation of America, Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, The Nature Conservancy, and World Wildlife Fund U.S.—are intended to provide a high-level framework for responsible innovation and governance of gene-editing technologies.

“We offer governance principles as a starting point and roadmap for collaboration among many sectors — scientists, product developers, policymakers, regulators, companies, civil society, and consumers — that jointly could develop a pathway to the responsible innovation, governance, and deployment of gene editing technology,” the authors wrote. “They are an invitation from our organizations to other stakeholders to join us in developing a governance framework for gene editing at a critical time for this technology.”

The principles focus on gene-editing governance in the public and private sectors in the US context, recognizing governance in the United States can influence outcomes elsewhere. Underscoring the timeliness of discussion of principles for gene editing and the inadequacy of the current governance and regulatory framework, the organizations note that several developers are currently poised to introduce gene-edited products into commerce and that the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently substantially deregulated gene-edited plants and proposed a similarly minimal oversight system for gene-edited animals.

The six non-governmental organizations are participants in the NGO Roundtable on Potential Implications of Gene Editing Applications for Agriculture and the Environment. The roundtable is facilitated by the Keystone Policy Center and brings together US-based NGOs in food, agriculture, the environment and related interest areas to provide a forum for peer-to-peer engagement on gene editing policy and science and exploration of gene editing’s potential impacts in agriculture and the environment.

The article in Nature Biotechnology is available here.

Additional information is available here.