While gene editing promises improved crops, concerns about access, equity, and transparency prompt a call for collaborative solutions and ethical frameworks.
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Perspectives on gene editing in agriculture within the socio-cultural landscape

While gene editing promises improved crops, concerns about access, equity, and transparency prompt a call for collaborative solutions and ethical frameworks.

Worldwide, scientists have been advocating for gene editing technologies in agriculture to address issues like climate change. As agriculture is a leading cause of global greenhouse gas emissions, they argue these technologies could help ensure access to nutritious foods without exacerbating environmental harm. Such calls are significant, considering 130 world leaders recently endorsed the COP28 declaration on sustainable food and agriculture.  

Despite the promise of gene editing technologies, their social acceptance remains uncertain. What makes these technologies and their resulting food products desirable to some while unpalatable to others? Are gene-edited foods more acceptable to consumers than genetically modified foods?

This research provides an overview of existing literature to summarise how various stakeholders in the food system view gene editing technologies, focusing on social benefits and concerns.

Gene editing technologies

Gene editing technologies are a range of techniques used to make changes to the DNA of organisms like crops and livestock. These modifications can result in food products with valuable attributes such as improved quality, increased nutritional value, climate resilience, and reduced pesticide use.  On the other hand, there are also potential concerns related to gene editing, including impacts on farmers, risk-benefit trade-offs, intellectual property rights, and unintended ecological damage. 

While selectively breeding desirable genetic traits is not novel, gene editing technologies allow scientists to modify DNA  more precisely and efficiently than other breeding methods. Scientists also distinguish between genetic modification and gene editing technologies because the latter can produce organisms that contain no foreign DNA. In contrast, genetic modification inserts DNA from unrelated species, producing organisms with foreign DNA.

Socio-cultural factors influencing acceptance

This study synthesised perceived benefits and concerns expressed by eight stakeholder groups (Figure 1) across 89 articles. In doing so, we identified four key socio-cultural factors ( Figure 2) critical to gene editing technologies’ acceptance and potential use in agriculture. The following sections will briefly discuss each socio-cultural factor: 

Access and ownership

Scientists and industry find gene editing more accessible due to its efficiency, lower cost, and simplicity compared to genetic modification. However, some NGOs and farmers think big companies control the technology through patents, limiting access to and ownership of modified seeds. To improve acceptance, sharing information and resources without claiming exclusive rights could be a solution. This might enable more people to benefit from gene editing, expanding the range of crops and livestock that might be modified.

Figure 1. An overview of the stakeholder groups explored in the current literature. Consumers were the most researched actor group, while NGOs and Indigenous people were the least studied.
Credit. Author

Collective wellbeing

Scientists advocate for gene editing in agriculture to address climate change, emphasising its potential benefits. However, concerns have been raised by NGOs about the fair distribution of these benefits, especially among marginalised groups like Indigenous communities. To ensure fairness, it’s crucial to involve a broader range of stakeholders in discussions and develop a collaborative scale to measure the impact on different groups.

Value-benefit alignment

In agriculture, gene editing should focus on compatibility with various food production methods and suitability in local, regional, and national contexts. This approach may lessen the impact on farmers and marginalised communities. Creating gene-edited foods with ethical considerations and perceived naturalness could increase consumer acceptance. To achieve this, targeted policies and ongoing evaluation are essential to address minority groups’ needs and ensure broad acceptance of gene-edited foods.

Transparency

While gene editing technologies are generally more acceptable than genetic modification, consumers and farmers need to gain knowledge regarding these technologies. Industry actors and scientists often view public perception as a significant barrier to using gene editing technologies in agriculture. To overcome this, more transparent business practices are essential, including product traceability, labelling, and engaging with the public. Further, building trust and maintaining acceptance will require the biotech industry to address its reputation for disregarding social responsibility, particularly in relation to the cultivation of some genetically modified crops.

Figure 2. Four key socio-cultural factors influencing stakeholder acceptance of gene editing technologies and gene-edited foods.
Credit. Author

Recommendations

Suppose stakeholders wish to promote the benefits of gene-edited foods. In that case, care must be taken to avoid portraying and promoting a single solution, as gene editing technologies are no silver bullet. Other recommendations for improving the acceptance of gene editing technologies and their use in agriculture are as follows:

  1. Consider alternatives to patents, e.g., models of non-proprietary sharing, patent pools, and waiving patent rights on non-commercial uses. 
  2. Consider prioritising the development of applications based on those that can deliver evidence-based consumer or community benefits. 
  3. Reestablish technology outcomes through problem identification with key stakeholder groups.
  4. Encourage collaborative discussions with marginalised stakeholders, e.g., rural and Indigenous communities.
  5. Consider voluntary tracking and labelling schemes for traceability and establish registries of gene editing technology applications in agriculture.

Conclusion

We need to understand stakeholder perspectives better because taking a one-size-fits-all approach to gene editing technologies is neither possible nor desirable. While stakeholders generally want gene-editing technology to result in positive outcomes, such as improved climate resilience, concerns about corporate power, inequity, and transparency remain.

Compared to debates on genetically modified foods, discussions about gene-editing foods have made strides in emphasising more holistic thinking, building trust, and informing stakeholders. However, more involvement and consideration of diverse viewpoints and local circumstances are needed.

Gene editing technologies can complement alternative food production methods, and recognising the complexity and diversity of global agri-food systems may facilitate broader social acceptance. This new approach may ensure that the development and implementation of gene editing technologies align with diverse stakeholder perspectives and values.

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Journal reference

Henderson, K., Lang, B., Kemper, J., & Conroy, D. (2023). Exploring diverse food system actor perspectives on gene editing: a systematic review of socio-cultural factors influencing acceptability. Agriculture and Human Values, 1-25. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-023-10523-6

Katie Henderson, MMart., is a doctoral candidate in Marketing at the University of Auckland Business School. Her research utilises qualitative methods to engage with stakeholders and consumers to better understand perceptions towards emerging food technologies. Katie holds a Master of Marketing and a Bachelor of Applied Science (Food Science) from the University of Otago, New Zealand. Broadly, her research interests focus on technology adoption, business innovation, sustainability, consumer behaviour, and stakeholder engagement.

Bodo Lang, Ph.D., is a Professor in Marketing at the Massey University Business School. His research lies at the intersection of marketing communication and social and sustainable marketing. Bodo has published in a wide variety of international journals and has served as an editorial board member or reviewer for numerous journals. Bodo’s research has received more than 2500 citations on Google Scholar, and his h-index, a measure of research impact, places him in the top 74% of full marketing Professors in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and the USA.

Joya Kemper, Ph.D., is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Canterbury. She is passionate about social and environmental issues in production and consumption systems. Joya’s research centres on sustainable, ethical, and healthy consumption and production, with a focus on behaviour, organisational, and institutional change. She has published over 40 journal articles in journals such as the Journal of Business Ethics, the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, and the Journal of Cleaner Production.

Denise Conroy, Ph.D., is a Principal Scientist and Team Leader of Stakeholder and Consumer Intelligence at Plant and Food Research. As a research psychologist, she specialises in understanding the attitudes, emotions, and values that motivate people to consume specific products or reject these offerings. With more than 20 years’ experience working in interpretivist research, she is a skilled methodologist dealing with qualitative methods and data.