USDA invests in research on the implications of gene editing technology

by Holly Demaree-Saddler
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WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S. — The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) awarded approximately $2 million to pursue research on stakeholder and public engagement on new plant breeding innovation techniques, such as gene-editing, intended for use in agricultural production.

“Recent advances in gene editing technologies promise opportunities for meeting challenges that come with a rapidly growing global population,” said Tom Shanower, NIFA acting director. “However, these advances also raise important questions about their acceptability and potential unintended impacts, so NIFA created the Social Implications of Emerging Technologies program in 2017 to fund research on stakeholder and public engagement with gene drive and other gene editing techniques for agricultural use.”

The funding is provided by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) through its so-called “Social Implications of Emerging Technologies initiative.”  The initiative is housed within the agency’s Agriculture Economics and Rural Communities (AERC)’s program area.

One of the research projects, totaling $466,202, was awarded to the University of Florida to define consumer preferences for regulation and consumption of food derived from gene-edited crops and determine the most effective way to communicate with the public and change consumer attitudes about the use of gene-editing technology. Meanwhile, researchers at Iowa State University were given $494,513 to identify key inducements and impediments to public trust of gene-edited foods and their governance.

An additional $499,693 was awarded to the Santa Fe Institute of Science on a three-pronged project that is to: develop a quantitative theoretical framework to model complex social-cognitive processes as applied to the particular context of genetically modified crops; use the framework to develop research hypotheses; and test predictions in a longitudinal experimental study on a national sample.

Finally, Texas A&M University was allocated $497,397 to evaluate the environment for public and stakeholder engagement around the potential research, development and use of gene drive technology in the control of agricultural pests in Texas.

The AERC program is made possible through NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative program, authorized by the 2014 farm bill. It supports social science projects, including behavioral and experimental economics research and analysis that inform decision making and policy design to enhance the sustainability of agricultural production systems and related activities in rural areas to protect the environment, enhance quality of life, and alleviate poverty.
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