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Special Feature: Gene Editing the Food System

Illustration by Kelsey King; reused with permission from Ensia

Abstracts accepted on a rolling basis.
Deadline for first paper submissions: February 2020, with further submissions welcomed pending abstract reviews.

Maywa Montenegro, Department of Environmental Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz, US
Elizabeth Fitting, Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Dalhousie University, CA
Jack Heinemann, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Canterbury, NZ
Philip Macnaghten, Knowledge, Technology and Innovation group, University of Wageningen, NL


CRISPR-Cas9 and related new biotechnologies presage wide and lasting ramifications for agriculture and food systems. This special issue will explore the shape and direction of these changes – and the underlying forces that drive them. Since 2012, when the CRISPR genome-editing tool was first described, its uptake in agricultural research has permeated plant breeding and animal breeding, disease and insect control, and studies of the soil and human microbiome. Its powerful multifunctional toolkit – enabling deactivation of genes, introduction of small DNA sequences or full genes, “dialing up” or “dialing down” gene expression, and driving genes through wild populations – has challenged regulators to respond accordingly, even while scientific publications, patent applications, and industry investments accelerate. CRISPR has therefore provided an opening to deliberate on persistent questions at the intersection of science and society: about sharing and using technologies; rights of access, ownership and control; safety, risk, and limits of knowledge; technology’s relationship to political economy; values, cultures, and cosmovisions; and how humans relate to the non-human world, among others. How gene editing supports, or does not support, pathways to sustainability is fundamental to this conversation.[i] 

This Special Feature’s scope will be broad and open to multiple disciplinary perspectives. We welcome papers that consider classic CRISPR-Cas editing, newer tools such as base editing, prior forms of gene editing (TALENs, ZFNs, and meganucleases), RNAi, and/or gene drives in any organisms with relevance to agriculture and food. Papers may deal with tools and applications, scientific institutions, law, farmers and laborers, consumers and the public, social movements, the media, and corporations, among others. They may expand molecular appraisals of biotechnology with ecological and socio-ecological analyses. They may provide a historical lens for understanding today’s issues, a contemporary take, or a future-cast based on empirical data. Scales of interventions may be local, global, or at scales in-between. We are especially interested in the social and environmental struggles that gene editing brings to light; the new ways that it may be applied, distributed and regulated; the scientific, geopolitical, and (un)sustainable development trends it reveals; and the ethical tensions it allows us to grapple with as communities and society as a whole.

We invite research papers, policy bridges, practice bridges, and commentary articles that address questions including the following:

What are we making and how? Who is developing gene-edited organisms for agriculture? What are the specific tools, techniques, and traits involved? Which applications are prioritized, for whom, and for what purposes?

How is policy and governance shaping gene editing and gene drive? Which regulatory frameworks and policy regimes at state, national, and intergovernmental levels are – or should be – governing new biotechnologies? What is the vanguard of ideas in multi-tiered societal, risk and biosafety assessments of genome editing tools? What specific environmental, ethical, and social issues does gene drive raise?  How are governments and scientific bodies responding to calls for more transparency and participatory public engagement? What innovations are being developed aimed at governing genome editing with and for society, and with what success?

Under what conditions can gene editing promote pathways to sustainability? What kinds of environmental health, climate resilience, and sustainability benefits are being linked to CRISPR and other new biotechnologies? What aspects of gene editing are, or appear likely to, reinforce lock-ins of industrial systems? What aspects might provide an alternative to them? Whose vision of sustainability is being advanced in the gene editing sphere, and whose is not?

Who gets to own and access the technology and its products? What is the state of play in intellectual property rights to CRISPR and associated technologies? How will control of IP affect ownership of and access to crop seeds, animals, microbes, and data generated with new biotechnologies? In which ways are (or will) the WTO, the UPOV Convention, and national patent laws influence access to products of gene editing?  What are the institutional and structural relationships that gene-editing is reinforcing or disturbing in significant ways?

What are the resistances, social and natural? How are social movements in the Global North and South responding to the development of CRISPR technology? Are movements knowledgeable about gene editing, and if so, do they consider the debates, and their associated politics, to be qualitatively different from GMOs? In nature, what do we know about organisms resisting, or not resisting, the first wave of gene-edited organisms?

What ethical and societal engagement issues does CRISPR pose? How can we have a deep ethical discussion about the risks, benefits, values, and opportunity costs of a gene-edited food and agriculture system? What issues should we address in this discussion, and how might it happen? How can we learn from innovations in public engagement theory and practice, and in responsible innovation more broadly? Who is “we”? Can such dialogues account for communities with different cosmovisions – including scientific, agrarian, and Indigenous – who come to the table with divergent understandings of the power CRISPR, and what a technology can and cannot, or should not, do? 

This special issue invites submissions from researchers internationally, in academic, government, and civil society sectors. Please note that regular author publication charges apply to this special issue. Authors are encouraged to seek open access funds at their institutions. If those are unavailable, authors may apply for a fee waiver. See this page for details. We encourage interested authors to provide a 200-word abstract for feedback prior to submitting the full paper. Please submit abstracts to corresponding author: [email protected]

[i] Leach, M., Scoones, I. and Stirling, A. 2007. Pathways to Sustainability: an overview of the STEPS Centre approach, STEPS Approach Paper, Brighton: STEPS Centre.

Additional articles under review

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