Society and regional strategies 5 min
Ethics and politics of plant-genome editing: joint-committee report and position
Genome editing and its use as a tool to develop new plant species present ethical and political challenges that have been little discussed until now. Opinion 11 from the joint INRA-CIRAD-IFREMER Ethics Advisory Committee turns a powerful lens on the intricacies of these questions, analysing the value systems and symbolic representations that underlie the wide-ranging issues it identifies. Its discussions focus on the example of the CRISPR-Cas9 genome-editing system.
Published on 01 September 2021
One of a group of techniques known as NPBTs (New Plant Breeding Techniques), genome editing now enables the precise and targeted modification of a plant’s genome to be completed in a matter of days. For thousands of years, humans shaped the genomes of cultivated plants through the lengthy process of agricultural adaptation and through the hybridisation and repeated selection of varieties carried out by farmers to adapt plant populations to human requirements, drawing on the diversity of traits expressed in individual or closely related species. The twentieth century opened up new horizons for plant breeding with the introduction of in vitro propagation techniques, mutagenesis and transgenesis, to be followed in the early years of the current millennium by the emergence of NPBTs. The precision, speed, ease of implementation and minimal effort that characterise CRISPR-Cas9 led the Ethics Committee to select this system as a practical focus for their reflections on the application of the new techniques. The system makes it possible to deactivate particular genes and to introduce several different gene sequences simultaneously, whether these have been taken from other organisms that respond poorly to conventional breeding methods, or have been produced synthetically in a laboratory.
The Ethics Committee has examined:
- The risks associated with the new techniques in genome editing
- The legal status of organisms and products derived from the CRISPR-Cas9 system
- Intellectual property regulation of the plant sector
- The compatibility of NPBTs with agroecology
The risks: both wide-ranging and interrelated
The risks associated with the new techniques in genome editing are wide-ranging and interrelated: they are environmental, sanitary, agricultural, economic, social and political. Of these, only a small number are specifically linked to the new techniques, the most prominent being the threat of bioterrorism which, for the present, remains theoretical for plants. As a consequence, work already conducted in relation to GMPs (genetically modified plants obtained through transgenesis) has made it possible to explore and record most of the relevant current environmental and health risks. In the case of risks to agriculture, genome editing can be a factor in the reduction of biodiversity but can also serve to increase diversity and respond to new threats. In Opinion 11, the Ethics Committee also examines the economic, societal and political risks involved, noting that the different questions they raise reflect a common concern over the need to ensure that these new technologies, in association with intellectual property regulations, do not deprive citizens of their power to act on objects of shared interest. This in turn suggests that the relationships between scientific techniques and farming systems need to be rethought.
Should the basis for the legal status of the organisms and products derived from the CRISPR-Cas9 system be technique – the method used to obtain them? Or the resultant product (the phenotype) itself? Opinion, on the whole, tends to favour the second option, while current European legislation on the regulation of GMOs follows the first option. Underlying these two approaches is an opposition between a use-based vision and the concept of intrinsic plant value. This opposition plays out again in the political arena, where the two views of our relationship with plants are supported by opposing groups. The Committee notes that compromise solutions are possible but that these require dialogue.
Patents or Protection Certificates (PVPCs)?
In the realm of intellectual property rights, the Committee observes that ‘the patent system is part of a value set focused on private ownership and the search for profit through a form of control that runs counter to the humanist aspiration of the PVPC system’ (PVPC, Proprietary Variety Protection Certificate). It also argues that, despite a certain similarity between the two forms of protection, ‘in the realm of ethics, the PVPC system appears to be clearly superior’ in that it guarantees both fair intellectual recognition and the availability of genetic resources for breeding purposes. The Ethics Committee then notes that the Open Source system is an option worthy of consideration – this would favour small seed merchants by providing ‘free access to basic components, making it possible to prevent consortiums from acquiring monopolies by buying up licences at exorbitant prices’. For farmers, it would guarantee greater transparency and independence from seed companies. This could offer greater opportunities for technical innovations.
Relationship between genome editing and agroecology
On the compatibility of genome editing with agroecology, the Ethics Committee begins by observing that the concept of agroecology is still evolving and cites the core agroecological principles proposed by Michel Griffon in the motto: ‘Ecology as a technical guide, fairness as social inspiration’. It suggests that certain conditions would need to be met for genome editing to be compatible with this view of agroecology:
- Time is required to improve the process – the Committee emphasises that the ‘molecular scissors’ offered by the CRISPR-Cas9 system can only provide solutions to the problems of agriculture if they are allowed sufficient time to be tested in natural environments. Such studies require ‘patience and time: ten, twenty, or even thirty years of research and testing.’ The Ethics Committee thus insists on the need to ‘generate the necessary time for research’;
- More comprehensive evaluation systems for innovations are needed – these should include more than a risk-benefit assessment. Other value systems must be taken into account to ensure that the goals of equity, autonomy, social justice and care for the landscape are met;
- Research must be opened up to the public – ‘To reconcile the different value systems in operation, a rational discussion must take place that cannot be the sole responsibility of researchers and the designers of new varieties.’ There must be a shared and inclusive upstream discussion.
Social responsibility in research is thus the central issue. Researchers, at all stages of their research, theoretical or applied, must be ready to engage in public with the questions of value raised by their actions. This is as much the case for research teams as for their institutions. It has led the Ethics Committee to formulate ten recommendations addressed to the leadership teams of the three institutions (Opinion, pp. 27-28, see opposite).