Gene Editing: what should the public know

By Ellen Goddard

Perhaps you have heard of gene editing (genome editing) in the news? Particularly the best-known approach, which is CRISPR-Cas9?

In 2020, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery and development of the technology. Wikipedia defines gene editing as a type of genetic engineering in which DNA is inserted, deleted, modified or replaced in the genome of a living organism. Many of the practical applications have aimed to delete genes that lead to disease in plants, animals or humans. One example is the ability to gene-edit pigs to be completely resistant to porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), the most economically-important disease of pigs in North America, Europe and Asia, costing producers in North America more than $600 million annually. (Correspondence: Gene-edited pigs are protected from porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus, 2016, Nature Biotechnology, Vol 34, No 1, pp 20-22).

CRISPR technology differs from earlier biotechnology applications, like genetic modification. Scientists speak to the fact that it is much more specific, and traits can be completely heritable by progeny from the edited animal. On the other hand, there are public concerns about how the decision to use the technology may be made – related to whether the technology is perceived to be interfering with nature. Scientists from a number of countries have called for a moratorium on gene-editing babies (Communication: Adopt a moratorium on heritable genome editing, Nature, 567, 165-168 (2019)).

At the heart of the issue at the moment is the role of the public in developing gene editing policies (Morgan Meyer (2020) The Fabric of the Public in Debates About Gene Editing, Environmental Communication, 14:7, 872-876, DOI: 10.1080/17524032.2020.1811477). People often assume that science alone should drive policy but this may discount public concerns and form resistance to the use of the technology. There is a growing recognition that public concerns about the use of certain technologies are valid in determining policy, and that not all public concerns can be dealt with purely by educating the public about the potential benefits of the technology. Like many other earlier technologies, CRISPR does come with the risk of some unintended consequences (Gene-edited hornless cattle: Flaws in the genome overlooked). But every development, including the development of the COVID-19 vaccines, comes with risks of unintended consequences. The main difference may be in how those unintended consequences are presented (or not presented) to the public. It is hard to put unintended consequences in context to make appropriate individual risk assessments if the use of the technology is not obvious (in some countries, gene-edited plant products are not required to be labelled although GMO plants are) and the potential unintended consequences are not made public and transparent.

To investigate Canadian public acceptance of the use of different technologies, national online surveys were conducted in 2019 and 2021. Previous research shows that the public strongly approves of the development of pigs (and other livestock) that can be bred to be more disease-resilient. This recent research showed exactly the same thing. What differed this time was follow-up questions asking respondents to identify the preferred technology to breed disease-resilient pigs. The options were conventional breeding (with its longer development time), using genomic information in selectively breeding pigs (which could be significantly faster than conventional breeding) and gene editing (the fastest method to change the disease susceptibility of farm and national pig populations). Although all methods were seen as positive, there were definite distinctions across technologies (Goddard, unpublished results). For example, consumers’ willingness to pay for pork from gene-edited pigs was 7% less than from conventionally-bred pigs. The use of genomics in selective breeding was only discounted by consumers by 3% over conventional breeding. These results may be because consumers are less familiar with the different technologies but equally may be driven by ethical considerations. One interesting result is that the more knowledgeable and satisfied respondents were with the way pigs are taken care of in Canadian agriculture, the more they supported increasing disease resilience by any means.

Given the changes associated with new and diverse technologies in agriculture to solve problems associated with disease, drought and other aspects of climate change, it may be beneficial to consider open and transparent disclosure of the technologies used and their associated potential consequences. On this basis the public can increase familiarity and potentially reduce deeply held risk perceptions about the use of new technologies in food.

Posted in Consumer.