Lessons learned from the introduction of genetically engineered crops: relevance to gene drive deployment in Africa

H. Quemada,  Transgenic Res,  2022.

The application of gene drives to achieve public health goals, such as the suppression of Anopheles gambiae populations, or altering their ability to sustain Plasmodium spp. infections, has received much attention from researchers. If successful, this genetic tool can contribute greatly to the wellbeing of people in regions severely affected by malaria. However, engineered gene drives are a product of genetic engineering, and the experience to date, gained through the deployment of genetically engineered (GE) crops, is that GE technology has had difficulty receiving public acceptance in Africa, a key region for the deployment of gene drives. The history of GE crop deployment in this region provides good lessons for the deployment of gene drives as well. GE crops have been in commercial production for 24 years, since the planting of the first GE soybean crop in 1996. During this time, regulatory approvals and farmer adoption of these crops has grown rapidly in the Americas, and to a lesser extent in Asia. Their safety has been recognized by numerous scientific organizations. Economic and health benefits have been well documented in the countries that have grown them. However, only one transgenic crop event is being grown in Europe, and only in two countries in that region. Europe has been extremely opposed to GE crops, due in large part to the public view of agriculture that opposes “industrial” farming. This attitude is reflected in a highly precautionary regulatory and policy environment, which has highly influenced how African countries have dealt with GE technology and are likely to be applied to future genetic technologies, including gene drives. Furthermore, a mistrust of government regulatory agencies, the publication of scientific reports claiming adverse effects of GE crops, the involvement of corporations as the first GE crop developers, the lack of identifiable consumer benefit, and low public understanding of the technology further contributed to the lack of acceptance. Coupled with more emotionally impactful messaging to the public by opposition groups and the general tendency of negative messages to be more credible than positive ones, GE crops failed to gain a place in European agriculture, thus influencing African acceptance and government policy. From this experience, the following lessons have been learned that would apply to the deployment of gene drives, in Africa:It will be important to establish trust in those who are developing the technology, as well as in those who are making regulatory decisions. Engagement of the community, where those who are involved are able to make genuine contributions to the decision-making process, are necessary to achieve that trust. The use of tools to facilitate participatory modeling could be considered in order to enhance current community engagement efforts.Trusted, accurate information on gene drives should be made available to the general public, journalists, and scientists who are not connected with the field. Those sources of information should also be able to summarize and analyze important scientific results and emerging issues in the field in order to place those developments in the proper context. Engagement should involve more opportunities for participation of stakeholders in conceptualizing, planning, and decision-making.Diversifying the source of funding for gene drive research and development, particularly by participation of countries and regional bodies, would show that country or regional interests are represented.Efforts by developers and neutral groups to provide the public and decisionmakers with a more thorough understanding of the benefits and risks of this technology, especially to local communities, would help them reach more informed decisions.A better understanding of gene drive technology can be fostered by governments, as part of established biosafety policy in several African countries. Developers and neutral groups could also be helpful in increasing public understanding of the technology of genetic engineering, including gene drives.Effective messaging to balance the messaging of groups opposed to gene drives is needed. These messages should be not only factual but also have emotional and intuitive appeal.

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