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Emerging sociotechnical imaginaries for gene edited crops for foods in the United States: implications for governance

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Gene editing techniques, such as CRISPR, are being heralded as powerful new tools for delivering agricultural products and foods with a variety of beneficial traits quickly, easily, and cheaply. Proponents are concerned, however, about whether the public will accept the new technology and that excessive regulatory oversight could limit the technology’s potential. In this paper, we draw on the sociotechnical imaginaries literature to examine how proponents are imagining the potential benefits and risks of gene editing technologies within agriculture. We derive our data from a content analysis of public comments submitted to the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) 2017 docket titled “Genome Editing in New Plant Varieties Used for Food.” Our sample frame consists of 26 comments representing 30 agriculture and biotech companies, organizations, and trade associations. Our findings reveal three key sociotechnical imaginaries, including that gene editing technologies in agriculture: (1) are not GMO but instead equivalent to traditional plant breeding; (2) have the potential to usher in a new Green Revolution; and (3) could facilitate the democratization of agricultural biotechnologies. We argue that forming and projecting these collective interpretations of the potential of gene editing technologies for crops and foods plays an important role in efforts by proponents to influence regulatory oversight, modes of governance, and build public acceptance. This research contributes to calls by science and technology studies scholars to investigate emergent concerns and imaginaries for novel technoscientific advances to help inform upstream models of public engagement and governance decisions.

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  1. Cas9 is the most common guiding enzyme currently used with CRISPR. Other enzymes can also be used, such as Cpf1.

  2. CRISPR uses an antiviral defense mechanism paired with single-guided RNAs, while TALENs, meganucleuses, and zinc finger nucleuses identify their DNA targets through protein/DNA interactions (CAST 2018; Germini et al. 2018). CRISPR has the potential to create a variety of novel changes more efficiently, accurately and cheaply as compared to alternative methods because of its use of relatively simple, programable single-guided RNAs. This has made CRISPR highly versatile for use in a plethora of new projects and products at the basic and applied research levels (Germini et al. 2018).

  3. These are different site directed nucleus editing methods. SDN1 and SDN2 create simple, subtle changes to DNA. However, SDN3 introduces large sequences of DNA and can include the insertion of foreign DNA (CAST 2018).

  4. One submission supported an entirely unique governance approach, arguing that the FDA should “require premarket notification …regardless of the technique used” (Corn Refiners Association et al.). This submission was submitted on behalf of five food and feed associations: Corn Refiners, National Grain and Feed, National Oilseed Processing, North American Export Grain, and North American Millers. From their perspective, “the level of FDA’s safety risk-assessment and regulation of gene-editing techniques should be proportional to the degree of risk, if any, posed by the characteristics of the end-product rather than based on upon the technology used to create it” (Corn Refiners Association et al.). However, the Associations argued that mandatory premarket notification was critical to ensuring consumer confidence, transparency, marketability and trade of human and animal food products in the US and globally.



American Seed Trade Association


Biotechnology Innovation Organization


Crop Science Society of America


Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology


Codex Alimentarius, International Food Standards


Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats


Deoxyribonucleic acid


Environmental Protection Agency


European Union


Food and Drug Administration


Genetically modified organism/s


This is the name of the company KWS SAAT SE


Ribonucleic acid


Science and technology studies


United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization


United States


United States Department of Agriculture


USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service


USDA’s Agricultural Research Service


Transcription activator-like effector nucleases


World Health Organization


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This work was supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Agricultural and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) Foundational Program, Agriculture Economics and Rural Communities, Grant No. 2017-08623. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the USDA. The authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewers and the editor for their valuable comments on an earlier version of this article.

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Correspondence to Carmen Bain.

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Bain, C., Lindberg, S. & Selfa, T. Emerging sociotechnical imaginaries for gene edited crops for foods in the United States: implications for governance. Agric Hum Values 37, 265–279 (2020).

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