Our food system faces major challenges—in particular, adapting to climate change and feeding a growing global population. Recently, gene editing (GE) technologies have made it cheaper and quicker to engineer new crops and livestock. Yet GE exists in the shadow of GMOs (genetically modified organisms), which faced public backlash. This project aimed to understand how public groups in Canada and the US perceive GE technologies.
The team found that people did not respond similarly to all GE products. Instead, key features of applications—such as their use of livestock vs. plants, or the controllability of gene drives—made people more or less open to them. Understanding this variability is essential for responsible innovation, as certain technologies will likely be more controversial than others.
While regulators and proponents focus on technical details such as specific technique used or magnitude of sequence modified, public groups were less focused on these details. Instead, a subset of interview participants formed attitudes based on whether they perceived an application to serve a broader purpose, or whether substitutes existed, such as alternative management practices.
Roughly a third of survey participants were resistant to being asked to choose between GE products and benefits such as reduced pesticide use, or lower biodiversity loss; in other words, under no circumstances were they open to GE products. However, most other participants were optimistic about using GE products for the above benefits.
In summary, rather than focusing on the technical details of GE, governance approaches should be tailored to specific contexts, such as the alternatives available in the context of each individual application, their perceived necessity, and the extent to which an application is perceived to deepen dependency on industrialized forms of agriculture. For example, a public group might be more open to a product edited to require less fertilizers as compared to an herbicide-tolerant crop.