Citizen juries could help resolve gene editing issue - Professor Colin Campbell

The need to start open discussions on the use of precision breeding techniques in agriculture - such as gene editing – means the use of citizen juries could offer a “more informed and constructive” way of arriving at consensus, it has been claimed

That was the opinion of Professor Colin Campbell, head of the country’s leading plant research establishment, The James Hutton Institute.

He said that gene editing technology could be used to speed up the development of new farming systems with greater resilience to variable weather and which could also benefit nature and help mitigate climate change.

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With a full public consultation already underway on the issue in England, Campbell said that gene editing was by far the sharpest tool yet in the molecular biology toolbox for breeding animals, plants, and microorganisms showing the required characteristics with high precision.

And as the technology used enzymes from microorganisms to find and repair genetic sequences already existing with an organism, he said such techniques differed markedly from previous genetic modification technique. With no external DNA being introduced, he said the process relied on existing genes being either activated or deactivated, making the technique less intrusive and more accurate.“With the potential to treat cancer, cure inherited diseases, and develop new vaccines, few have any issue with this technology when it comes to saving human lives.”

But Campbell aknowledged that views changed when it came to crops in the wider countryside, where the perception was everyone was sharing the risks and yet many remained unconvinced that the benefits would be shared equally.And while the use of such techniques had been widely accepted by scientists as a major breakthrough in mankind’s ability to breed new plant varieties with better nutritional qualities, enhanced resilience and traits which could help improve the environment, he stressed that it remained extremely important to recognise that society was divided on the issue.

Writing a guest blog for NFU Scotland the professor said that public attitude surveys had been used in the past to help judge how society as a whole felt on specific issues:

“But they only provide a snapshot of people’s awareness and views on an issue. They do not provide an opportunity to listen to all sides or any new information.”

He pointed out that in Scotland Citizen Juries had previously been used with good effect:

“These usually involve gathering randomly selected representatives of the population to hear a range of expert views on the subject, before being asked to discuss, elaborate, and define their viewpoints.

“It is a more informed and constructive way of arriving at a consensus and can provide a stronger basis for policy development.”

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Underlining the need for the issue to be moved forward, he said that it was becoming increasingly urgent that decisions were taken on exactly what type of agricultural systems were needed and desired for the future.

“While supporting such a future will take time, we need to start talking about it quickly, ensuring that there is an open, transparent, and informed debate”.

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