Science, Policy and Genetic Technologies

25 February 2021


Reported by Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Officer

Our societies are increasingly dependent upon the complex interaction among technologies. That puts expertise at the heart of how we live our lives, as this expertise is needed to develop, run, and regulate these technologies. According to Dr Rob Doubleday, this raises questions about democracy, public deliberation, and the role of wider society in thinking about the technologies we live with and the direction of their development.

In a new podcast miniseries on Science, Policy, and Genetic Technologies, Dr Rob Doubleday is joined by experts and special guests with the goal of undertaking an interdisciplinary examination of one area of technological development where we face a pressing set of policy questions: genome editing.

In the first episode of CSaP: The Science and Policy Podcast’s mini-series on genetic technologies, host Dr Rob Doubleday was joined by University of Cambridge crop scientist Professor Giles Oldroyd, Royal Society Senior Policy Advisor Jonny Hazell, and University of Cambridge Lecturer in History of Modern Science and Technology Dr Helen Anne Curry. Throughout the episode, they explored the history of the use of genetic technologies in agriculture and examined how the emergence of a new class of genetic technologies – genome editing via CRISPR – has raised new questions about the regulatory frameworks used to govern the use of genetic technologies in this space.

You can listen to the episode here:

A Historical Perspective:

According to historian Dr Helen Anne Curry, the aim of making genetic changes within crop varieties is an ambition which dates back to the start of the 20th century and was originally connected to changes in the knowledge of heredity and Mendelian genetics. Over the course of the past century, a variety of tools emerged for inducing mutations – including chemical and radiation treatments, as well as recombinant DNA technologies. However, previous generations of genetic modification involved moving genes between species, and technologies which changed DNA within a species were not historically considered to be a feature of genetic modification. Recent genome editing technologies have blurred that boundary, at a point when scientists and policymakers also face societal pressures to produce more food while reducing environmental impact and decreasing the presence of artificial inputs in agriculture.

Debates about a previous generation of genetically modified food in the UK occurred throughout the 1990s, in the context of a low point for public trust in the governance of agricultural technology. There was a sense at the time that governments and companies involved in producing food could not be trusted to look after the public’s best interests, and large agrochemical companies involved in genetic modification at that point already had a poor public reputation. At the same time, public trust in the food system more broadly was also affected by the serious food systems crisis that arose from outbreaks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease). There were also questions about who was using genetic modifications on crops, for what purpose, and who would most benefit. These questions echoed those which had been raised by activists in the 1960s and 1970s about new biological technologies more broadly. During this era, leftist radical and environmental movements had raised concerns about potentially unwanted kinds of scientific intervention in fields such as agriculture and had voiced opposition to the increasingly globalized and industrial state of the agricultural industry.

In the 1990s, regulators in Europe walled off some forms of genetic modification, developing onerous regulatory assessment processes for GMO agriculture. The impact of this has been that, with the exception of an approved variety of maize grown in Spain, there remains to this day almost no GMO cultivation in Europe. Yet, this has not meant that Europe has been free of GMO products – large quantities of GMO crops are imported from abroad, largely for use in animal feed. Meanwhile, the United States took a different direction – embarking on a regulatory approach which has fed into differences in the geographies of agriculture, trade, and commodities between the two regions.

Understanding the Science

According to University of Cambridge crop scientist Professor Giles Oldroyd, what genome editing does is create genetic diversity. He suggests that the end result is fairly identical to what could potentially be achieved through more traditional breeding approaches, but that the molecular and bacterial machinery used to get there are much more precisely targeted than traditional methods. He argues that these new bacterial approaches, known as CRISPR-CAS9, offer two major advantages over more traditional breeding methods – targeted changes result in less changes happening in the genome overall, and the approach involves less uncertainty. The CRISPR-CAS9 method involves a protein complex that uses pieces of RNA that guides it to the genome, and an enzyme that makes alterations to DNA. Once the alterations have been made, there is no need for foreign DNA. This is the primary difference between modern genome editing and traditional genetic modification, where foreign DNA stayed inside of the crop plant.

These new genome editing methods offer the possibility, according to Professor Oldroyd, of improving the sustainability of the system that gets nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus – which could be used to reduce dependence upon chemical fertilizers. He also suggests that we can optimize natural fungal associations in agricultural contexts to reduce our dependence on the use of chemical inputs in crops.

The Latest Developments:

In January 2021, Defra launched a consultation on the future of gene editing regulation in both crops and the food system. Participants in this podcast discussion highlighted challenges that this consultation process will have to grapple with – namely public understandings of genome editing. Dr Doubleday has also suggested that he anticipates another set of questions in this debate arising from the power and utility of genetic technologies. He suggests the public will wonder about the ends to which this technology will be used, how it will be controlled and regulated given the accessibility and relative ease of gene editing technologies. He also questions whether there will be public concern about the possibility of unintended consequences. He noted that over the coming months, the public will be offered the choice to determine whether new genetic technologies should be thought of in the same way as conventional breeding technologies, or whether they should instead be regulated in the same ways as the GM technologies of the 1990s. How those choices are presented, and the outcomes from these policy developments, will have an impact upon the future direction of innovations in agriculture in the UK.

CSaP: The Science & Policy Podcast’s four-part miniseries on Science, Policy and Genetic Technologies will be 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.