//How much do you think about where your food comes from?  

How much do you think about where your food comes from?  

Is it, as one of the participants in our recent public dialogue said: ‘something that, sort of, you’re aware of, but you try and ignore it.’?  When you do think about it, do you feel, as another participant said, ‘a slight guilt sometimes when you haven’t thought about it enough’?  And what are the consequences when, as a third said: ‘People know what’s good and what’s bad. We choose to ignore it because we like the taste and it’s easy to do’?  

How much do you know about ‘precision breeding’?

Why dialogue?

Few issues in biotechnology provoke debate as readily as genetically modified (GM) organisms. And while people may have long ago made up their minds about GM crops, the prospect of altering the genes of animals is capable of exciting fresh reactions. Added to that, there are now new techniques of ‘precision breeding’ that differ from ‘first-generation’ genetic modification in ways that have led to them being positioned somewhere between GM and more conventional breeding practices. 

Following Brexit, the UK Government has made legislation to carve out separate arrangements for ‘precision bred’ organisms (initially only in England) from the retained EU regulations that govern the marketing of genetically altered plant and animals products. While debates continue about how this will work in practice, we thought it important to understand more about how non-specialists approached the prospect these new techniques being applied to farmed animals.  

There is certainly no shortage of research into public attitudes about genetic modification, including some on the new ‘genome editing’ techniques.  However, much of this comes from questionnaires and surveys that don’t say much about people’s reasons.  Furthermore, little of it is focussed on animal breeding specifically, or, where it is, it rarely touches on more than one or two example species. Most importantly, initiatives to engage non-specialists have tended to treat people as prospective consumers of products, rather than citizens interested in the implications for farming and food production systems.  

What did we find?

When we invited people to step back and, in the light of good information, to reflect on what was most important about these developments for the food and farming system, two principles emerged from the discussion:  

  • Innovation should be guided by the aim of reducing the negative impacts of livestock farming and aquaculture on animals and the environment.
  • Innovation should benefit consumers, not just producers, and improve fair access to animal products for those who want them.

At first blush, these principles might seem to pull in different directions and it’s true that they tended to represent the perspectives of different groups of participants. What allows them to be reconciled is the recognition that neither principle requires an outright rejection of the use of modern biotechnologies or an overall increase in the consumption of animal products. Put another way, both principles are compatible with responsible biotechnology innovation and a reduction in meat consumption. Participants in the dialogue could see this.

But it is easy to see how circumstances could produce a contrary outcome. So, for the participants in this dialogue, it was clear that research and innovation within the food and farming system had to be controlled to avoid producing ever-more wretched animals, ever-increasing consumption of animal products, and benefits that serve only private and not public interests.  

What next?

The timing of the public dialogue was important. Despite a long lead in, we had to adopt ambitious timelines for commissioning and delivering the initiative, but the dialogue already had high visibility, thanks to prior engagement with the sector and with policy makers. This helped to generate anticipation among key actors in the policy process: researchers, industry representatives (both in the UK and beyond), regulators, parliamentarians, government officials and minsters.  

While it is difficult to assign direct impacts to this dialogue among the clamour of other voices, it has provided an influential counterpoint to the minimal approach of securing consumer protection and freedom of choice.  This will be important as regulations are made over the coming months and years to introduce innovations that have been enabled by the new legislation.  Meanwhile, upstream, the dialogue findings are set to influence future research strategy and policy, as they are taken up into the Strategy Advisory Panels of the UK’s national research funder.

The dialogue also contains important messages about trust and responsibility in institutions.  These messages are important for food and farming policy, certainly, but also for research and innovation policy more generally. As one participant said: 

‘We want to be able to trust these institutions because we don’t have the cognitive capacity or time to learn everything I can about genome editing. We need to be able to say: ‘you guys are the experts and I need to be able to put trust in you”.’ 

But for this to happen, policy makers must offer convincing answers to another participant’s question: 

‘What is the strategic aim and vision? How is it going to change the industry? … Is it about future proofing, and making sure that the world is better in the next 50 years?’


This blog was written by Pete Mills At the time of writing, Pete was Associate Director at Nuffield Council on Bioethics.