Jul. 18, 2019
Risk-disproportionate regulation of gene-edited crops has been proposed to gain public acceptance for this breeding technique. However, confounding safety regulations with advocacy for an underlying technology risks weakening achievement of both objectives. Dedicated factual communication and education from trusted sources is likely to better support public acceptance of gene-edited crops.
Gene Editing Contributes to Essential Crop Improvement
Along with the air we breathe and the water we drink, food is required for human survival. It is predicted that food requirements will rise significantly in the coming decades in response to an increasing population and the need to provide for adequate dietary nutrition across the globe. The world population is expected to grow from its current level of 7.7 billion people to 9.7 billion people by 2050. This population increase, in combination with the predicted improvement in the economic status of the population, is expected to require food production to increase by a staggering 70%. This increase in food will largely need to come from increased yield per land area, rather than increased land area dedicated to agriculture, because of both land availability and the need to protect the environment. The increase in population and trend toward urbanization will reduce the land area available to grow crops, and the benefits of land spared for native habitats will become even more critical to combat the greenhouse gases exacerbating climate change. Such increases in crop productivity will necessarily include improvement in the genetics of crop varieties that match or exceed the increases realized using traditional breeding in the past. Modern biotechnology (e.g., transgene insertion and gene editing) has contributed significantly to these agricultural productivity gains and is expected to continue to do so. It is therefore imperative for these innovative technologies to be widely embraced.
Does Risk-Disproportionate Regulation Instill Public Trust?
Mandatory premarket safety assessment of gene-edited crops under statutes currently in place for genetically modified crops has been criticized as not being risk-based owing to the similarity of the resulting crop varieties to those produced through traditional breeding. Traditional breeding often includes induction of, and/or selection for, mutations that similarly edit the crop genome, but traditionally bred varieties are rarely assessed by government authorities for safety because of the remarkable track record of safety previously observed. However, some have recently suggested that the burdensome regulatory oversight currently in place for genetically modified crops (averaging 35 million US dollars to complete for an internationally traded commodity) will instill consumer acceptance for gene-edited crops, and as such, strict government oversight is warranted. This position is at odds with the history of regulatory oversight for genetically modified crops where arduous regulation has likely contributed to public distrust.
Over-regulation of genetically modified crops likely has only reinforced any public perceptions that genetically engineered crops are risky, when in fact, risks are similar to those for traditional breeding, which itself has a good history of safety. For example, the introduction of transgenes into a crop variety through genetic engineering causes fewer unexpected changes to the biochemical composition of a crop and these changes are of a lower magnitude compared with traditional methods of variety development (although such changes carry negligible risk irrespective of the breeding method). Excessive oversight for contentious but low-risk technologies can contribute to public distrust and historically has failed to foster public acceptance (e.g., the use of food irradiation to prevent food-borne illness). Successful (but not universal) public acceptance of technologies, such as vaccines, microwave ovens, and cell phones, has been accompanied by science-based, risk-proportionate regulations (https://www.govinfo.gov/app/details/CFR-2012-title21-vol8/CFR-2012-title21-vol8-sec1030-10
). Would a hypothetical requirement by government regulators for vaccine providers to test new vaccines for their potential to cause autism likely change the position of members of the public that fear this outcome for their children? Alternatively, would risk-disproportionate regulation of this kind be seen by this segment of the population as a validation of their fears and therefore reinforce public distrust of contentious but safe technologies?