Risk Perception of Genome Editing: Reservations and a Demand for Information
Results of a BfR, Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, research project on public perception of the process of genome editing published.
For decades now, humans have been altering the genetic information of plants and animals in order to produce new varieties or strains. Some more recent molecular biological methods known under the generic term “genome editing” enable targeted intervention into the genetic material. The CRISPR/Cas9 method, which could be used in agriculture and medicine, for example, promises to be particularly successful. The attitudes of people in Germany towards these newer methods have hardly been examined scientifically up to now. As it is of fundamental importance for appropriate risk communication to have knowledge of the attitudes and level of awareness of the general public, the BfR conducted focus group interviews within the scope of a study.
“Although the respondents were hardly aware of genome editing and knew little about these technologies, the majority of them reject the use of these methods in the food sector,” says BfR President Professor Dr. Andreas Hensel. “This shows just how important it is to keep the general public informed about the latest findings in risk assessment.”
Modifications to genetic information are a part of life. In conventional plant cultivation and animal breeding, humans use methods to increase the natural mutation rate so that they can select new varieties or strains with useful properties from among the mutants. Certain newer molecular biological methods which have become known under the generic term genome editing do not differ in this regard from conventional cultivation and breeding. One decisive difference is though, that with the genome editing method, very specific modifications can be introduced to the genome of the target organism. The CRISPR/Cas9 method, with the help of which the genome can be specifically modified, promises to be particularly successful at the moment. It opens up a variety of new application options. Its use in agriculture is being discussed, for example, in the development of disease-resistant plant varieties, as well as in medicine. Lawmakers have not yet decided how genome editing is to be classified from a legal point of view.
The BfR is dealing with the subject of genome editing from a scientific point of view. It is also preparing recommendations and measures for risk communication, but knowledge of consumers’ attitudes towards the subject is essential here. Moderated group discussions, so-called focus group interviews, permit an insight into the concrete points of view, attitudes and potential concerns of the general public.
Against this backdrop, the BfR formed and interviewed focus groups with a total of 39 participants of both genders. The interviews gave an insight into what consumers currently know about genome editing and which factors dominate their risk-benefit deliberations. It was also determined how the participants classify genome editing in relation to conventional genetic engineering and what their needs for information and regulation are.
The essential results are that, irrespective of the legal classification which has not yet been made, the interview participants see genome editing methods as a form of genetic engineering and they have similar reservations about them for this reason. In the food sector, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages in the opinion of the participants and the use of genome editing is rejected by the majority for this reason. The participants clearly demand a labeling obligation for foods produced with the help of genome editing. They also expect its strict regulation by the responsible authorities. This looks a bit different in the medical sector, where use is acceptable for many because a necessity and therapeutic benefits are apparent. The age of the respondents also plays a role in the assessment of genome editing: younger people were more positive and open to the new methods than older people.
It also became clear that the participants know little about the methods of genome editing. At the same time though, they would like to see public clarification of the methods in order to open up an informed public discourse. It is essential for future risk communication strategies that this consumer demand for information be met.
The report on the research project appeared under the heading “Durchführung von Fokusgruppen zur Wahrnehmung des Genome Editings (CRISPR/Cas9)” (in German) as Volume 04/2017 in the BfR-Wissenschaft series.