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“Closing the Trust Deficit for Gene Editing in Agriculture”

Presented by Dr. Carmen Bain. Co-authored with Dr. Christopher Cummings, Dr. Theresa Selfa, and Sonja Lindberg.

Gene editing techniques, such as CRISPR, are a major biotechnology advance that promise significant benefits within the agricultural sector. To maximize the technology’s potential, proponents of gene editing in the US want to avoid the controversy that GMOs engendered. The goal of this paper is to examine efforts by proponents to garner social license for gene editing and to consider whether these efforts are likely to enhance their trustworthiness. To accomplish this, our paper focuses on two research questions: 1) What attributes and/or actions are proponents of gene editing engaging in to enhance public acceptance for gene editing? 2) Do these attributes and/or actions address the key concerns of advocacy groups critical of GMOs and skeptical of gene editing? We draw on data from in-depth key informant interviews from agriculture, biotech, and food retailer companies and organizations, together with agriculture, food, and environmental advocacy groups. Our data also includes content analysis of key websites, such as the Coalition for Responsible Gene Editing in Agriculture and CRISPRcon. Our analysis is focused on organizational actors who play a key role in shaping the information climate related to gene editing by framing its potential benefits and risks as well as shaping responses to the technology, including how it should be governed. We find that many proponents are focused on efforts to build public trust in gene editing, which contrasts with prior efforts focused on the information deficit model to counter anti-GMO criticism. Key attributes of trust advanced by proponents include transparency, shared values, access and control, and consumer and environmental benefits. However, our interviews with advocacy groups suggest that a focus on these attributes may not address the ‘trust gap’ since they sidestep the primary concerns of advocacy groups, which include concerns related to governance and risks. Without directly engaging in these concerns, proponents’ efforts to enhance their trustworthiness may be limited as trust may simply function as the latest “deficit model”.


Dr. Bain is the Project Director on the USDA-NIFA funded Gene Edited Foods Project. Dr. Bain’s research interests include the governance of agricultural and food systems; gender, agriculture and international development; and the social dimensions of agricultural biotechnologies. She has conducted research in Chile, Ghana, the EU, New Zealand, Uganda and the U.S.

Dr. Bain teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in the sociology of agriculture and food systems, women and agriculture, sociology of the environment, and rural sociology. She is the adviser for the undergraduate major, agriculture and society. Dr. Bain is also the Associate Dean of Academic Innovation within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.