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NGO perspectives on the social and ethical dimensions of plant genome-editing

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Plant genome editing has the potential to become another chapter in the intractable debate that has dogged agricultural biotechnology. In 2016, 107 Nobel Laureates accused Greenpeace of emotional and dogmatic campaigning against agricultural biotechnology and called for governments to defy such campaigning. The Laureates invoke the authority of science to argue that Greenpeace is putting lives at risk by opposing agricultural biotechnology and Golden Rice and is notable in framing Greenpeace as unethical and its views as marginal. This paper examines environmental, food and farming NGOs’ social and ethical concerns about genome editing, situating these concerns in comparison to alternative ethical assessments provided by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, a key actor in this policy debate. In doing so, we show that participant NGOs and the Nuffield Council on Bioethics share considerable concerns about the social and ethical implications of genome editing. These concerns include choices over problem/solution framing and broader terminology, implications of regulatory and research choices on consumer choice and relations of power. However, GM-engaged NGOs and the Nuffield Council on Bioethics diverge on one important area: the NGOs seek to challenge the existing order and broaden the scope of debate to include deeply political questions regarding agricultural and technological choices. This distinction between the ethical positions means that NGOs provide valuable ethical insight and a useful lens to open up debate and discussion on the role of emerging technologies, such as genome editing, and the future of agriculture and food sovereignty.

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  1. Arche Noah, EcoNexus, Friends of the Earth Europe, Friends of the Earth Germany, IG Saatgut, GM Freeze, GM Watch, Greenpeace, Global 2000, Réseau Semences Paysennes, Slow Food, Test Biotech, Via Campesina.

  2. It proved impossible to get all relevant participants together in the UK at the same time. Combining interviews with the focus group allowed to us to expand the number of participants.

  3. Nuffield does not make clear its criteria for exclusion on the basis of conflicts of interest, however, all working parties publish a register of interests and do not represent the organisations to which they are affiliated.



Bovine spongiform encephalopathy


Clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats


Federal ethics committee on non-human biotechnology


European union


Genetically modified


Genetically modified organism


New breeding techniques


Non-governmental organisations


New plant breeding techniques


Transcription activator-like effector nucleases


United Kingdom of great Britain and Northern Ireland


Zinc finger nucleases


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This work was supported by funding from the following sources: the Governance and Public Policy Research Priority Area Award, University of Nottingham; the Business, Institutions and Policy Research Cluster Award, University of Exeter; and the Research Development Fund, Department of Sociological Studies, University of Sheffield. We would like to thank Penny Polson (University of Manchester) for her assistance in data collection and Liz O’Neill (GM Freeze) for her assistance in the identification of and initial contact with participant NGOs.

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Helliwell, R., Hartley, S. & Pearce, W. NGO perspectives on the social and ethical dimensions of plant genome-editing. Agric Hum Values 36, 779–791 (2019).

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