Societal Aspects of Gene Editing (SAGE)

This research project by Wageningen University and Utrecht University develops a comparative responsible innovation approach to examine the conditions, if any, under which genome editing technology can and should be applied to animal breeding applications.

On the one hand, genome editing in farming animals promises various benefits, including:

  • Improvements in productivity - for example by breeding animals that convert feed more efficiently into animal products
  • Improvements in animal welfare - for example by breeding cows that do not grow horns and thus do not have to be dehorned
  • Improvements in disease resistance - for example by breeding pigs that are resistant to African Swine Fever
  • On the other hand, however, this application of genome editing technology raises ethical and societal concerns. The question is therefore whether, and if so, under what conditions the technology can become embedded responsibly in society.

Using the anticipate-include-reflect-respond (AIRR) framework, social scientists, ethicists, beta scientists, and breeding companies collaborate to anticipate, reflect on and respond to ethical and societal concerns about this technology.

Project aims

The ‘Just Editing’ project examines the conditions under which genome editing should be applied in livestock breeding, if at all. The overall purpose is to ensure that research and innovation in this field are responsible and fit with social values and norms. To this end, social scientists and ethicists work together with beta scientists, breeding companies, and other concerned parties to anticipate, reflect on and respond to ethical and societal concerns about genome editing in livestock.

In the first part, the project strives to understand (visions and expectations regarding) the benefits, challenges, risks, and uncertainties of genome editing. Based on literature review and interviews, this analysis compares livestock applications of genome editing to human health applications, which enjoy wider social support.

Second, the project aims to open up public deliberation and ethical reflection on genome editing of farm animals. After exploring conditions for inclusive public dialogue and formulating a preliminary ethical framework, focus groups are held with members of the Dutch public. A social scientific and ethical analysis will subsequently be performed to identify and understand the perspectives raised.

The final part experiments with methods by which research and innovation practices (both academic and corporate) can incorporate ethical and societal reflexivity. The project thus hopes to develop workable tools for research and innovation that is responsive to ethical and societal values.

The main result of the project will be a policy report and toolkit on how, if at all, to proceed with research and innovation on genome editing in livestock. The policy report and toolkit will help to address governance and ethical challenges, will offer guidance on public engagement with research and innovation, and will propose tools for building responsiveness to ethical and societal issues in academic and corporate practices.