By David Rapley, N8 AgriFood Policy Fellow, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, and fourth year PhD student at the University of Sheffield.
If at the start of October, you had proposed to me that genome-edited crops were a key to solving sustainable agriculture, I might have acknowledged their potential, but also offered up some of the challenges that have surrounded genetically modified crops since the 1990s. My time as a plant science PhD student has exposed me to various narratives of this history.
After having spent the last 13 weeks as a Postgraduate Fellow at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) talking to experts across academia, industry, government and civil society, I now realise that genome-edited crops present a situation beyond the lab that is vastly more complex.
Researching a POSTnote
In October 2021, I embarked on a 3-month Fellowship in Westminster at POST, supported by N8 Agri Food Policy Hub. The aim of the Fellowship is for PhD students to produce a 4-page policy briefing (a POSTnote) to provide MPs and Peers with a concise, balanced and independent overview of a policy topic.
My topic, “Genome-Edited Food Crops” was further shaped in my first week to address the recent Government response to their consultation on the regulation of genetic technologies (including genome editing). The scope of my POSTnote was large. I was not only researching and interviewing experts on the science of genome editing, and its potential to address sustainability issues such as climate change – I was also looking at how genome-edited food crops interplay with trade, detection, traceability, public choice and public acceptance. The 27 experts I interviewed were extremely helpful in this regard.
Perspectives from COP26
I took a week off POST duties after my interviews to be an official observer for the University of Sheffield at COP26, which gave me a greater international perspective on the topic of my POSTnote. There, I attended a number of events on how agriculture can lessen its impacts on – and be more resilient to – climate change. To my initial surprise, the topic of using any form of agricultural biotechnology as a solution to tackle climate change at the panels I attended was touched on lightly (if at all). Speaking to various panellists afterwards provided me with some insight. There was a general feeling that, given the already enormous challenge of reaching international agreements on climate change, it might be difficult to present solutions that might be potentially polarising, such as biotechnology crops.
(Indeed, biotechnology in agriculture is highly contested and is often not included in national plans for “climate-smart” agriculture.1 Furthermore, there is currently no intergovernmental organization that oversees regulation on genome-edited crops.2 Possibly then, nations may currently anticipate greater progress by agreeing on more unified approaches for climate mitigation targets and outcomes – such as through co-creating solutions with farmers.)
Writing a POSTnote
The real challenge was condensing everything into 4 pages for MPs and Peers to understand: stating simply and concisely the pertinent facts from the literature; highlighting the diversity of views from ~20 hours of interviews impartially; and integrating further feedback from internal and external reviewers. Having so many people contribute has reaffirmed to me the true value of POSTnotes.
Looking back and forward
For pandemic times, my experience in Westminster was one of privilege. Video interviews, lateral flows, and COVID restrictions were a staple. However, I also managed to enjoy lunch on the terrace, getting lost in the palace and watching Prime Minister’s Questions. I had wanted to do a POST Fellowship since I heard about it when I started my PhD. Like many previous POST Fellows, my experience did not disappoint. I am so grateful to POST and N8 AgriFood for giving me such an amazing opportunity.
I hope this POSTnote will inform the discussion on genome-edited food crops for MPs and Peers, as well as inform future potential POSTnotes. Genome-edited farmed animals is one closely-related topic that is receiving particular attention.3 Now my Fellowship has come to an end, I will be writing up my PhD for submission in 2022. I will look back fondly on my time at POST, meeting new people and taking a break from my PhD. I look forward to pursuing the interplay between science and policy in my future.
You can read the published POSTnote here: https://post.parliament.uk/research-briefings/post-pn-0663/
- Lipper, L. et al. (2018). A Short History of the Evolution of the Climate Smart Agriculture Approach and Its Links to Climate Change and Sustainable Agriculture Debates. in 13–30.
- Friedrichs, S. et al. (2019). An overview of regulatory approaches to genome editing in agriculture. Biotechnol. Res. Innov., Vol 3, 208–220.
- Nuffield Council on Bioethics (2021). Genome editing and farmed animals: social and ethical issues. 124.