Our time is characterized by social unrest, climate change and environmental degradation. Finding sustainable ways to produce food has become a significant societal challenge and efforts are being made to breed new varieties of animals and plants that have increased resistance to drought, floods and extreme temperatures, as well as to an increased resilience against disease, parasites, pests and molds. ReWrite advances cultural knowledge on how relations between humanity and nature affects and is affected by the development and use of emerging gene technologies.
In recent years, a set of new breeding techniques called gene editing have been developed. Genome editing is widely considered to be the key development in contemporary biosciences and technology. These new technologies, such as CRISPR/Cas, is used to make changes to an organism's genome. However, there are extensive debates on how gene editing should be understood and there are initiatives both nationally and internationally to reconsider regulation of such technologies. Should they be regulated as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or are they more similar to other and far less controversial breeding techniques? Are these techniques more precise and effective than those used for genetic modification, and what about the claims that they are more natural? How does this affect our relationship with our food and food production practices?
In Norway, the Gene Technology Act has its own criteria for sustainability, societal utility and ethics. Internationally, such additions to risk assessments are less common. Many people thus look to Norway to gain insight into how these broader aspects are emphasized in regulatory issues and when applications for GMOs are processed. In ReWrite, we have investigated how these broader aspects (also called non-safety factors) has been assessed in applications of GMOs, and elaborated on what such assessment contributes with. In 2019, the Environmental Agency asked an expert committee to propose guidelines for operationalization of the ethics criteria in the Gene Technology Act. On invitation, we contributed by providing input to the expert committee and we also published a peer reviewed policy brief to advise the government in their process of evaluating the expert committee’s suggested guidelines. The regulation of emerging gene technologies are also debated in the EU, and we have contributed with knowledge about ethics and sustainability both nationally and internationally, such as to the Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment, to the European Commission, by participating in the EC “High-level event” on genome editing, and to the Convention of Biological Diversity’s online panel on synthetic biology.
Grounded in environmental ethics, we have analyzed key concepts in the debate, such as naturalness, but also care, relationships, agency and integrity. We found that naturalness is closely connected to a static understanding of species, and we have shown how such a static understanding of the concept of species forms the basis for a problematic naturalness criterion in which the ethical distinction is claimed to go by crossing species boundaries. ReWrite sees the need for a more flexible framework in the face of new gene technology, and we have therefore proposed replacing the concept of naturalness with an ethical approach that emphasizes integrity and agency. The safeguarding and negotiation of integrity is a necessary part of all relationships. A biotechnological practice where this insight is a fundamental element can better safeguard various ecological, ethical and cultural priorities in the design and administration of legislation. Another significant point of debate is whether the novel gene technologies are «safe enough” to be deregulated. We have contributed to the clarification and nuancing by publishing a peer-reviewed article assessing this argumentative strategy.
A NOR (Norwegian Official Report) considering the need to revise the regulation of GMOs was published in June 2023. The long process leading up to this report has been a focus for ReWrite. We performed a discourse analyse of the Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board’s consultation regarding the proposed update with a special focus on what kind of future visions, values and ideals the various actors emphasized. Our findings have helped to highlight how surveys and public consultations on genome editing are shaped by the problem understanding and how it is framed, the presence - and absence of - different visions and ideals, and how these in turn are reflected in the interpretation of people's attitudes. The knowledge produced in ReWrite will be highly relevant in the coming public debate following the publication of NOR’s report as well as for the political processes thereafter.
ReWrite’s overarching aim has been to produce humanities-based cultural knowledge about future food systems and the role of new gene technologies in this. Genome editing is widely considered to be the key development in contemporary biosciences and technology. At the start of the project period, there was an active campaign to exempt certain new methods for genome editing from biotechnology regulation. Policy makers was faced with urgent need for comprehensive knowledge to make decisions concerning regulation. Specifically, there was a need for better understanding of the cultural and ethical issues of genome editing and the lines of public debate that are forming around these. In addition, there was the additional challenge of establishing an effective collaboration with policy makers and regulators to enhance the ability for the humanities-based knowledge generated in ReWrite to inform and influence policy.
This project therefore has had a huge relevance and benefit for society by addressing these key needs. Theoretically, Rewrite has generated new knowledge about the shortcoming of current ethical framework based in outdated concepts of naturalness and species lines, and suggested novel and more flexible frames for evaluation of genome edited food. What is more, the project has analysed the public discourse and highlighted biases toward market-oriented narrowing frames in what is supposed to be broad and democratic inclusive discussions. As well as publishing our results in academic, peer-reviewed journals we have had extensive dissemination to significant organisation involved in the gene technology regulation actions: The Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment, The Norwegian Environmental Agency, The European Commission and the Convention on Biological diversity (CBD) Online Forum on Synthetic Biology, as well as the digital version of the Convention of the Parties & Meeting of the Parties (COPMOP) for the CBD. We have also adviced and communicated our knowledge to stakeholder and interest groups such as the Norwegian GMO-network, or the UK NGO Beyond GM, as well as several commercial food and feed companies.
We have also had an extensive and concurrent programme of diverse dissemination activities to the public, involving the creative arts and design to reach public, policy and scientific audiences in both Norway and abroad, thus providing opportunities for societal dialogue and join reflection.
Despite of the covid-19 pandemic consequences for international mobility, the project advisors have been well intergrated in the project. Two advisors (Millar and Preston) have had two months research visits in Norway to work with the PL. Three scientific papers are co-written with advisors Lundestad, Preston and Hartley and a fourth scientific paper is co-written with Millar and is expected to be publish late 2023. This close collaboration has strengthened the network for the PL and the host institution (HI).
ReWrite advances knowledge on human/nature relations in modern biotechnologies, particularly new techniques for genome editing. It aims to have this knowledge help decision-makers develop biotechnology policy and regulations to meet the challenge of developing sustainable food systems. After decades of disagreement about the role of biotechnology in agriculture, new techniques for ´genome editing´ have now emerged. These techniques can be applied to any type of organism and are claimed to be easier, cheaper, more precise and ´more natural´ than earlier forms of biotechnology. This is because they allow for more targeted changes in a genome and do not necessarily involve the insertion of genes from other species. How genome editing should be understood and regulated are currently topics of intense debate. The claims of naturalness for genome editing are destabilising understandings of human/nature relations and the rapid emergence and uptake of the technology is seeing policy makers now struggling to navigate this controversial new field. Decision-making on the development and use of genome editing remains dominated by scientific and economic knowledge and rarely considers the significance of changing relationships between humanity and nature. ReWrite is therefore focused on generating new knowledge on how human/nature relations are being transformed by genome editing in the pursuit of sustainable food futures. ReWrite will conduct an environmental ethics analysis of how human/nature relations are being reimagined and rewritten by genome editing, and particularly, how these techniques compare with other approaches to agricultural plant and animal breeding. Further, the project will analyse how different people and groups think about, communicate and debate genome editing. It will then use innovative art-based research to encourage creative thinking about issues of ethics and communication in the pursuit of modern biotechnologies for sustainable food futures.