Problematic survey on gene editing


Written by Dr. Trine Antonsen, PhD candidate Torill Blix Bakkelund, Dr. Sigfrid Kjeldaas and Dr. Odd-Gunnar Wikmark, GenØk – Centre for Biosafety. Original comment published in Nationen 29.04.20 refers to the report “Norwegian consumers’ attitudes toward gene editing in Norwegian agriculture and aquaculture“.

Gene technology potentially makes crops better adapted to climate change, reduce the environmental impact of agriculture and aquaculture, and thus contributes to more efficient food production for the world’s population. The research project GENEinnovate has conducted a survey of Norwegian consumers’ attitudes to the use of genome editing in Norwegian agriculture and aquaculture. In the survey questionnaire, GENEinnovate has focused on issues that are applicable to and relevant for Norwegian conditions and the country’s consumers.

A key purpose of the study is to allow the breeding companies, that are part of the project, to build knowledge and competence on genome editing in a way that reflects societal values and adheres to political and regulatory guidelines. We believe this work contributes with substantial insights, but presents its findings in a manner too simplified and implicitly biased to form a solid foundation from which to draw conclusions about the attitudes and values of Norwegian consumers.

The link between knowledge and attitudes constitutes the main focus of GENEinnovate’s analyses. But what knowledge is the survey based on? Respondents are asked to assess their own knowledge of genetically modified food and genome editing/genetic modification. This knowledge is subsequently ‘tested’ through four factual “statements that can be more or less true”.

One of these statements is about whether genetically modified foods are approved for sale in Norwegian stores, which requires some knowledge of Norwegian regulations. The last statement uses a 2016 US study on genetically modified agricultural crops to support the claim that genetically modified food is safe to eat. This ‘fact’ is presented in the mentioned study with certain qualifications and is not uncontroversial. We would also like to question the extent to which the findings of this study are directly transferable to a Norwegian context characterized by particular environmental challenges and predominantly small-scale agriculture and aquaculture production units.

Both in the focus group interviews and in the survey questionnaire, participants are introduced to techniques of traditional breeding, genome editing and genome modification. Breeding and breeding technologies are briefly explained in the form of a historical presentation in which humans appear as the only selective force. Interactions between different genes, and genes’ complex relationships with processes at the cellular, tissue, individual and ecosystem level, are overlooked. Nor does this brief informational text reveal how technological development has changed traditional work on breeding.

The survey defines genome editing as ‘comparable’ to traditional breeding, and as a technique in which barriers between species are not crossed. The questionnaire presents respondents with cases in which gene technology solves specific, clearly identified problems: Plants become adapted to climate change; pesticide use is reduced and other environmental threats alleviated; animal health and welfare are improved and production processes streamlined. The risk of other, unintended effects is not mentioned. Accordingly, responses to the survey’s questions about environmental or health risk emerge from the participants’ own background knowledge. This is not recognized in the study’s control questions.

As information concerning risks and disagreements is withheld, objections to new technology can easily be interpreted as subjective and ‘purely ethical’. In the survey, participants are asked whether it may be “unethical not to use the possibilities for genome editing livestock and plants if it can help solve important societal problems.” No opposite control questions are asked. This is problematic, because who wouldn’t want to solve important societal problems?

It is worth noting that 57 percent of the survey participants say they have some, little or no confidence that approved GMOs are safe to eat and safe for the environment. More than half (56 percent) are concerned (slightly or very much) that GMOs may pose a health risk when eaten and even more (60 percent) are concerned that GMOs pose an environmental risk.

The trend is the same regardless of self-assessed level of knowledge of GMOs. In light of this, it is difficult to argue for the report’s conclusion, which states that “Our findings suggest that there is a correlation between knowledge of genetic engineering and confidence in the scientific knowledge base on the topic, as well as confidence and attitudes toward the use of technology and the organizations behind it ”. From these figures, we can just as soon conclude that people generally do not believe that the knowledge we have and the risk assessments we do today are sufficiently developed to detect negative health and environmental effects.

The survey offers dream-like findings for those engaged in the emerging gene technologies: The knowledgeable, the young and the environmentally conscious are the ones most positively inclined towards the use of gene technology for purposes that benefit society and promote sustainability. We have tried to nuance the study’s tacit implication that more critical respondents are either a little ignorant or have not taken to heart the major challenges that lie ahead in food production. It might be the case, we suggest, that they merely possess a different kind of knowledge than the questionnaire asks for. It might also be the case that the survey’s questions do not well enough embrace or nuance their hopes, concerns and views on alternative solutions to these major challenges.