Social and economic dimensions

Based on available information, which is currently limited, there is very little public awareness of the term ‘gene drives’ or of the science and technology associated with this term. Negative attitudes to all genetic modification persist despite almost 30 years of GMOs being globally available, and many scientific studies providing strong evidence that there are no adverse effects to human health due to consumption of GMOs (Nicolia et al., 2014; NAS 2016b). Within Australia, there are relatively few GM products on the market compared for instance to the United States, although GM-derived vegetable oil and soy flour have been in widespread use for the past two decades.

Public opinion regarding GMOs appears to vary widely within the Australian community, although there are few scholarly studies on attitudes towards GM foods (as noted by Lea, 2005). Community attitudes to biotechnology have been monitored in Australia by the Commonwealth Government, under the auspices of Biotechnology Australia (from 1999-2007), the Department of Industry (in 2010 and 2012) and the Office of the Gene Technology regulator (in 2015).1 These surveys show some volatility in Australian public opinion regarding GM and biotechnology. Australians are generally viewed to be less cautious than Europeans and more sceptical than residents of the USA about GM. Anti-GM activism (in the form of direct action) in Australia has been far more limited than in Europe and the United States (Hindmarsh, 2008). There continues to be popular concern about the potential for drift between GM and non-GM crops (particularly organics, for example the recent court case in Western Australia (Paull, 2015)), the use of GM in crops destined for the food supply (even when no GM material remains in the final product) and the role of multinationals in GM particularly in the developing world. In short, the key issue underlying public attitudes to GM is that competing arguments are grounded in extremely diverse understandings and assumptions, particularly about what counts as evidence (predominantly of risk or lack thereof), and how to balance risks and benefits, especially with regard to new innovations. These arguments are likely to recur in the case of synthetic gene drives.

As in the case of GMOs, the concerns of potentially affected communities need to be carefully considered in regard to gene drives. Community engagement will be important from the earliest stages of gene drive research. Community engagement around control of carp involving genetically-based approaches (Thresher, 2008) and Wolbachia releases (Hoffmann et al., 2011; Kolopack et al., 2015) provide case studies. Any unintentional release—even without harmful consequences—could cause widespread public distrust of scientists, transgenics and transgenic products, and the field of gene drive research more generally. Transparent information provision and policy, cultural respect and engagement with social and ethical implications of this type of research will be imperative for the possible benefits of synthetic gene drives to be realised, in alignment with best practice strategies in science engagement (see for example Department of Industry, Innovation, Science and Research, 2010) and to avoid community backlash such as occurred in the case of GM policy and regulation (Schibeci & Harwood, 2007). The potential benefits of gene drives and the consequences of inaction are also important to convey to the public. There is a risk that lack of action or continued ineffective action could cause damage to the environment and be unnecessarily costly.

The trade implications of gene drive modified organisms released in Australia must also be considered. Australian exports to an importing country with different gene technology legislation to our own could be detrimental to trade relationships and generate other economic issues. Unintended consequences of a gene drive modified organism may include increased import requirements such as increased testing and documentation. A gene drive targeting pest fruit flies may be a problem for countries such as Japan which have highly specific regulations on fruit imports. These potential trade impacts should be discussed with Australian industries prior to release to ensure they are comfortable with the risks. In addition early engagement with key importing countries for trade is highly recommended.

A significant ethical concern is commercialisation and ownership of intellectual property. A patent for the technology of RNA guided gene drives was filed by Esvelt and Smidler in 2014 (WO 2015105928 A1). There are currently two competing patents (Zhang versus Doudna) over the CRISPR gene editing technology (Egelie et al., 2016). For a synthetic gene drive with applications in public health and conservation, there may be very little scope for commercialisation. As in other areas of biotechnology, the patenting of gene editing and gene drive technologies may raise ethical and economic issues and thus present impediments to ongoing research. Conversely, intellectual property can reward innovation and allow time for new products to be developed.

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