Our global food system is in need of a transition towards one that is sustainable, fair, and healthy. With the Farm to Fork Strategy, the EU aims to accelerate this transition and ensure a competitive European agriculture. But what constitutes such a system? And which role can technology play? These are relevant questions, and pertinent to the current debate on what role new genomic techniques (NGT) should play in the European plant breeding sector.
The European Commission (EC) is preparing a policy initiative for plants (and food and feed derived from these plants) obtained by new genomic techniques (NGTs). These are techniques capable of changing the DNA of an organism, developed after 2001, when the existing GMO legislation was adopted. Currently, food crops developed with NGTs are subject to the EU Directive on the deliberate release into the environment of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). A study by the EC concluded that there are strong indications that this legislation is not fit for purpose for some NGTs and their products.
Two policy options for the EU dominate the debate on the use of NGTs plant breeding. One option is to exempt NGT crops from the GMO Directive, if and only if there is no foreign DNA present in the end product. The other policy option is to uphold the GMO Directive for NGT crops. Both options come with societal consequences and challenges. A third policy option is increasingly receiving attention. This option attempts to unify the benefits of both options and entails a less elaborate risk assessment for NGT crops with lower anticipated risks than currently is the case. Moreover, the use of NGTs would be allowed only under specific conditions, depending on the level of genetic intervention and on broader social and ethical considerations.
Currently, the debate on using NGTs in plant breeding is held almost exclusively among scientists, scientific and industry organisations, and companies in the agri-food field, as well as a small number of NGOs. However, in shaping a new policy on NGTs, it is important to include the voice of citizens, not only because biotechnologies have the power to redesign life, but also because they offer the potential to reshape the practice of agriculture and the future of our food (system). The way we produce food involves questions of how we want to live on this planet and how we want to relate to other species. For purposes of democracy, citizens need to have a say on which public values are incorporated in a new policy for NGTs.
Aim of the study
In this study, we have engaged with Dutch citizens from several layers of society in open, constructive dialogue using focus group discussions to explore their views on the use of NGTs and older genetic modification (GM) techniques in crops, the factors shaping these views, and the conditions they deem necessary to introduce NGT crops onto the European market, if introduced at all. For this, we employed an anticipatory method, to explore how concerns and responses emerge in structured interaction. The six focus groups were made up of five to eight participants, each professionally recruited. To ensure a diversity of perspectives, and provide a reflection of Dutch society, we selected individuals representing broadly the Dutch public in terms of age, educational background, socio-economic class, and gender.
Our findings provide an insight into how the Dutch public is likely to respond when the proposal of the EC for a new regulatory framework for NGTs in plants becomes a public issue. This study therefore provides policymakers with a unique opportunity to understand and address public sensibilities towards the use of NGTs in crops, and to help develop democratic governance for NGTs in agricultural practice.
The attitudes of citizens in our focus groups towards the use of NGTs in crops diverge. Some believed these techniques will be necessary for dealing with current predicaments, like climate change, while others viewed the introduction of these techniques in practice as likely to aggravate current problems in agriculture and the food system. However, in general, citizens views converged towards reservation and hesitation about the use of NGTs and genetic modification in crops. Citizens raised doubts mainly about the plausibility that these crops will contribute meaningfully to the solving of our current societal challenges in the food system, and whether they are indeed the right approach for dealing with these challenges. They wondered if alternative solutions may be better, and how these may come with less unforeseen, long-term risks for human health and ecosystems. However, some participants expressed doubts whether alternatives are realistic, such as for example, in the fight against food shortage, eating less meat as a strategy to make agricultural land available for food instead of feed. Moreover, the citizens in our study questioned whether companies will in practice develop valuable varieties for society, as the logics of the corporate world tend to be focused on capital accumulation and on making profits.
Citizens in our study were unanimous in their view that regulation of NGT crops is necessary for diverse reasons: to prevent harms to the environment and human health, to give consumers freedom of choice, to guard against the potential of the technology to increase inequalities, and to ensure that the technology is directed towards contributing to solutions to societal problems. The latter is viewed as an important pre-condition for the introduction of NGT products onto the marketplace. According to citizens, NGTs should not be developed purely for commercial motives driven by the logic of the market. There needs to be a clear societal purpose for their introduction. In terms of policy, this would necessitate a case-by-case assessment of NGT crops for broader considerations such as purpose, and value to society.
Values underlying citizen’s views
The views of citizens are shaped by underlying values that include those of safety, naturalness, justice, well-being, and feelings of unease about the pursuit of perfection and efficiency in our food system. Besides these underlying values, the context of the climate crisis, the corona crisis, and the nitrogen crisis also are formative of opinions. For citizens, there remains an underlying concern that the application of the technology is likely to exacerbate certain ongoing and unwelcome trends and developments in society, such as the increasingly unequal global food system and the concentration of power in large corporations. Economic and commercial purposes are by many dismissed as sufficient justification for introducing NGTs in plant breeding practices.