Agriculture and Genetic Technologies

11 March 2021


Reported by Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Coordinator

In the second episode of CSaP: The Science & Policy Podcast’s series on Science, Policy and Genetic Technologies, host Dr Rob Doubleday was joined by NIAB Chief Executive and plant scientist Dr Tina Barsby, and Dr Jack Stilgoe, a Senior Lecturer at UCL's Department of Science & Technology Studies. Throughout the episode, they explored what emerging genetic technologies in agriculture mean for our society, and the opportunities that we ought to have in mind when we think about this new technology.

Listen to the episode here:

Opening the discussion, Dr Barsby reflected that we have genome sequences of almost all of the crops out there in the world. We also have good knowledge of what those genes are doing, what the proteins are doing, and where we would like to change them. Genome editing allows us to do that in a more directed way than we could in the past. She noted that there are some similarities between genome editing and the genetic modification technologies of the past – particularly in that they are both laboratory-based ways of making changes to a plant cell. However, genome edits do not introduce foreign DNA, and offer increased precision in modifying plant characteristics over traditional methods.

With new sets of laboratory interventions introducing novel possibilities, Dr Jack Stilgoe noted that these novel possibilities have been accompanied by new questions which will be understood differently by philanthropists, farmers, scientists, companies, and the general public. He asks how we can reassure ourselves that we will not find ourselves in a situation where scientists with humanitarian instincts argue for technology that will allow us to feed the world, while at the same time agribusiness might say that this technology could allow them to capture and control agricultural markets in more ways. Here, Dr Barsby reflected that during the last wave of innovation in genetic modification “scientists in public laboratories suddenly turned around and found that the things we were doing were owned by somebody – there were patents flying around.” She noted that this could still be a concern, adding that there are also concerns over how regulation will be managed. If the cost of a regulatory process is so high that only big multinational companies could afford to do it, that would be limiting. Meanwhile, if new technologies are regulated in the same category as conventionally bred mutations, public sector organizations could bring forward things which have sustainability or public benefits, but no clear commercial benefit.

Twenty years ago, during the genetic modification debates, there were questions of who benefits, who controls the technology, how it will shape the wider food and agricultural systems, and questions about uncertainty and unintended consequences. Dr Doubleday questioned whether these underlying themes could re-emerge in ongoing consultations over the future of regulations for genome editing, or whether these consultations will instead take another path. Here, Dr Stilgoe suggested that while he has not seen evidence that these past concerns have gone away, there is a sort of optimism that the public mood has shifted. He hopes that these discussions will lead to a clearer sense of what public good agricultural biotechnology looks like. He hopes that publicly funded scientists will not find themselves entangled in corporate research agendas, and that we will be able to get a sense of what type of food crops the world needs. The discussion underway, he suggests, could be about what good gene editing looks like.

CSaP: The Science & Policy Podcast’s four-part miniseries on Science, Policy and Genetic Technologies was released throughout February 2021. This series is available across all major podcasting platforms, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, RadioPublic, Pocket Casts, Podbean, ListenNotes, Acast, Player.FM, Podcast Addict, and Castbox. This series was hosted by Dr Rob Doubleday and was produced by Kate McNeil with the support of research assistant Alice Millington.