Our time is characterized by global challenges such as a 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. Gene editing, such as CRISPR/Cas, is used to make changes to an organism's genome. How gene editing should be identified and regulated is extensively discussed. 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?
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. We contributed by providing input to the expert committee and we also published advise to the government (a policy brief) in their process of evaluating the expert committee’s suggestion. Emerging gene technologies are also debated in the EU, and we have contributed with knowledge about ethics and sustainability to the European Commission, by participating in the EC “High-level event” on genome editing.
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 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) is now working to consider the need to update the regulation of GMOs in Norway. In ReWrite, we have performed a discourse analyse of consultation invitations regarding the proposed update with a special focus on what kind of future visions, values and ideals the various actors emphasized in their answers. 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 for the coming public debate when the NOR publishes its report. However, after several delays, this report is expected in June 2023.
In 2022, we have exposed both the public and the academe to results of our design fiction project, connecting ethics and commicative aspects of the debate. Such an art-based approach contributes to nuancing and democratization of the often-polarized political debate. The notion that new technology affects relations between humans and nature, as well as our attitudes and understandings of such relation seldom enter the debates. Through our publications and public dissemination, we have contributed to a broader and more inclusive debate about visions for a sustainable food future.
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.