Nanobionic watercress plants; dimensions variable; courtesy of MIT Professor S. Kennedy & Professor M. Strano Research Groups.

Talking About Gene-Edited Crops


Regulating Gene-Edited Crops

In “Regulating Gene-Edited Crops” (Issues, Fall 2018), Jennifer Kuzma identifies four patterns of behavior that undercut the public’s confidence in first-generation crop biotechnology, and she argues that despite scientists’ best intentions, these patterns are being replicated as targeted modification and gene-editing usher in food biotechnology 2.0. She maintains that attempting to find more strategic language, refusing to label, avoiding an overhaul of the regulatory process, and insisting on a science-based “product not process” approach to risk serves to reduce the public’s confidence in the institutions for governance of food biotechnology. These behaviors communicate a negative image of scientific ethics that itself contributes to the perception that products of agricultural biotechnology—including gene-edited biotechnology—are themselves risky.

Kuzma’s four behaviors contribute to a vicious circle of reasoning that amplifies the perception of risk. They suggest that as a group, scientists developing gene-edited crops are self-seeking and less than forthcoming when others raise any question about their methods or motives. They are, to use Kuzma’s phrase, judged to be untrustworthy, whether this judgment is warranted or not. But the cycle of reasoning does not end there. Common sense says that it is risky to rely on untrustworthy people or institutions, and this implies caution when assessing whatever product or service they might be offering. But this is translated into the judgment that the product itself is risky, and, of course, anyone who offers a risky product is not to be trusted. So, the cycle begins again.

This is the virtue-risk feedback loop described by Paul B. Thompson in his 2015 book, From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone, and it is important to recognize that it is perfectly rational. Although regulatory risk assessment appropriately quantifies hazards and assesses their likelihood, daily life requires judgments in which uncertainty about the quality of one’s information can create peril. When the person or group supplying that information has something to gain, assessing their behavior may be a more reliable way to judge the riskiness of one’s situation than listening to what they say. As explained as far back as 1970 by the economist George A. Akerlof, in an article titled “The Market for ‘Lemons’: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism” in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, the sleazy used-car dealer became a paradigm example of the untrusted source of information in US culture, and the product he was selling was highly discounted as a result.

This means that it is entirely rational to be suspicious about the safety of food biotechnology. The evidence for this judgment does not reside in the hazards of using rDNA techniques or in the remote possibility that some hazard will materialize. The evasive and unethical behavior is reason enough for the average person to be circumspect. Although I do not personally have grave concerns about gene-edited crops (or about first-generation genetically modified organisms, for that matter), I will vigorously defend the reasonableness of those who do, given the patterns that Kuzma has identified. And then a further pattern of calling nonscientists who raise questions about bioengineered crops irrational emerges as yet another mistake that scientists need to learn not to make.

Michigan State University

Cite this Article

“Talking About Gene-Edited Crops.” Issues in Science and Technology 35, no. 2 (Winter 2019).

Vol. XXXV, No. 2, Winter 2019