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What Do the Public Really Think About Genetically Edited Crops?

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Gene editing brings ethical and legal issues to the table

It seems that we are living in a society that has never been more conscious about the food that we eat. An increasing number of individuals are switching to plant-based diets for a wide variety of reasons, be it for their own health, for the safety and well-being of animals or perhaps to tackle climate change.

During recent years we have also witnessed a revolutionary growth in the ability of scientists to genetically modify plants that are grown for food purposes, bolstered by advances in technology such as CRISPR-Cas9.

If you followed Technology Networks Explores the CRISPR Revolution, you may recall our interview with livestock geneticist Alison van Eenennaam, who passionately discussed the current legal regulations surrounding gene-editing in agriculture. In addition to legal issues, genetically modified organisms (GMO) also bring ethical issues to the table. But what do the general public make of them?

A team of researchers led by Naoko Kato-Nitta, a research scientist at the Joint Support-Center for Data Science Research and The Institute of Statistical Mathematics in Tokyo, Japan, conducted a survey to explore the opinions and attitudes of both Japanese experts and the general public on gene editing versus other breeding techniques in Japan. It's important to note here that in Japan the production of genetically modified crops is strictly regulated and not accepted.

The scientists publish their survey findings in Palgrave Communications.

Exploring public attitudes to genetic editing and engineering

The study utilized a web-based survey that was distributed to and completed by 3,197 volunteers. The volunteers consisted of lay public members and scientists that did and did not possess expertise in molecular biology.

The survey results demonstrated that those who had expert knowledge in molecular biology believed that emerging technologies such as genetic engineering and editing offer low risk and higher benefits for food science. In contrast, the lay public believed such technologies offered the highest risk and lowest benefit.

When assessing the opinion of experts from other disciplines outside of molecular biology, Kato-Nitta and team found that these individuals possessed similar attitudes to the lay public when considering the risks of emerging technologies, but also thought there was value to their adoption.

Interestingly, the lay participants perceived gene-editing crops to be more beneficial and valuable compared to other genetically modified crops.

Kato-Nitta comments, "We still have to be cautious in terms of people's attitude toward the risk and value aspects associated with this technology. In the survey, the experts in other fields perceived even more risk in gene editing than genetic modification in terms of ’Possibility of misusing this technology’."

The deficit model in science communication

In addition to shining light on the attitudes of the public to novel approaches in agriculture (that may ultimately influence the tight regulations currently in place), the authors note that the research highlights a key aspect of learning approaches in science communication.

Kato-Nitta says, "The results enabled us to elucidate the deficit model's boundary conditions in science communication by proposing two new hypotheses."

This model is based on the idea that as scientific knowledge increases, public acceptance of novel technologies also increases. It attributes scepticism and doubt of scientific technology to a lack of understanding.

Kato-Nitta continues: "Firstly, this assumption was valid only for conventional science, knowledge of which can be acquired through classroom education, but not valid for emerging science, such as gene editing, knowledge on which may be acquired mainly through informal learning. Secondly, the model's assumption on emerging science is valid only for increasing benefit perceptions but not for reducing risk perceptions."

The study is arguably limited based on the restricted sample used, however, the findings certainly seem to warrant further investigation on a larger – perhaps even global – scale.

Kato-Nitta concludes: "The scientific experts need to understand the diverse range of people outside their domain-specific community. I am currently working on developing a new model on public communication of science and technology that can explain the key factors that affect various facets of people's attitudes toward emerging science more comprehensively than the previous studies have done."

Reference: Kato-Nitta, Maeda, Inagaki and Tachikawa. (2020). Expert and public perceptions of gene-edited crops: attitude changes in relation to scientific knowledge. Palgrave Communications. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-019-0328-4