Written by Lieve Van Woensel with Virginia Mahieu.
In an increasingly digital world, Parliament’s Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) Panel is expanding its online foresight capabilities. In partnership with the Danish Board of Technology, STOA recently conducted an online stakeholder engagement exercise and published an in-depth analysis with the outcomes, to elucidate the societal concerns surrounding a highly topical and controversial issue – gene editing in crops – as part of its mission to support decision-making by the Members of the European Parliament. The purpose is to inform them about the challenges of genome editing, and the societal hopes and concerns surrounding the possible implementation of this new technology to support European food production.
New genetic technologies (NGTs) – mainly CRISPR-Cas9 – have come to the forefront of discussions for their potential to contribute to agricultural sustainability, particularly in relation to the European Green Deal objectives. Traditional breeding methods can improve crops, but NGTs can make the process faster and easier. Genetic modification techniques are strictly regulated in the EU under the Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) Directive. The question is whether NGTs should be treated differently or even exempt from the current directive.
The directive defines GMO as ‘an organism, with the exception of human beings, in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination’. Whether changes made with NGTs could also occur naturally is an issue of ongoing debate. In 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled that NGTs would be subject to the same requirements as older techniques (therefore coming under the GMO Directive), but amendments and revisions of the European Union legislation are not excluded. However, NGTs are a subject of controversy as, while some believe they can bring improvements to European crop production, others worry about the risks and other potential problems associated with their use. Thus, the debate continues.
When making evidence-based policy decisions about new and influential technologies, it is essential to factor in not only the scientific evidence, but also the societal context in which the technology would be applied. To this end, STOA performed a foresight study with a stakeholder engagement component in order to gain an overview of the concerns (hopes and fears) present in a representative group of stakeholders that work with or are impacted by NGTs. This exercise included an online survey and a workshop with key stakeholders from diverse fields affected by NGTs. The online survey used hypothetical policy options, borrowed from the 2019 report by the Rathenau Instituut on ‘Genome editing in plants and crops‘, to guide stakeholders in identifying arguments for and against several potential regulation scenarios, ranging from full regulation as for conventional GMOs, to a levelled approach based on the societal and ethical assessment of the value of the application. The concerns and arguments were then refined with the help of the stakeholders themselves during a subsequent workshop.
STOA identified relevant organisations and experts and sent out 52 invitations for participation in this stakeholder engagement exercise. Of these, 40 completed the survey, including respondents from actors representatives of agrarian industry and research, farming, environmental NGOs, administrations, trade, food science, consumer and lobby watch organisations, as well as some experts in behavioural sciences.
The key categories of concerns expressed included general concerns about the EU policy-making process, the practical implementation of new legislation and societal safeguards, uncertainty and unknowns surrounding the new technology, and the implications of potential legislative changes for innovation and competition within and outside the EU. Some further specific examples included concerns over social acceptability and consumers’ freedom of choice, traceability, the justification and application of the precautionary principle, as well as potential health and environmental risks and associated liability issues. They are presented in the in-depth analysis in multiple grouped formats to facilitate reading: condensed according to topic (chapter 3), organised according to the relevant European Parliament committee (chapter 4), and summarised concisely (chapter 5). The original format (grouped per policy option), obtained as a result of the workshop, is presented in Appendix I.
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