3-5 May 2021
Europe/Vienna timezone

F - Life Sciences - Biotechnology

F.1 New techniques for plant breeding and genetic engineering: epistemic issues, qualitative changes and socio-economic aspects

Carina R. Lalyer(1)*, Johannes L. Frieß(1), Bernd Giese(1), Wolfgang Liebert(1), Loïc Sauvée(2) and Nicolas Brault(2)*

1.Institute of Safety/Security and Risk Sciences (ISR), University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU), Vienna (Austria)

2..Interact Research Unit, at UniLaSalle, Beauvais (France)

In October 2020, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020 to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna “for the development of a method for genome editing”, which had a revolutionary impact on the life sciences.

This is particularly true in agriculture.

The first example is the introduction of New Plant Breeding Techniques (or New Breeding Techniques) which refers for example to the site-directed nuclease techniques (ZFNs, TALENs, CRISPR/Cas9). As they are considered as targeted mutagenesis, it becomes possible to introduce targeted improvements into a given variety and to accelerate the effect of breeding in crop species. These NPBT are presented as the solution to all the problems that agriculture in general and plant breeding in particular are facing today: for example, according to a booklet made by the University of Wageningen[1], NPBT can be used to create “varieties with durable disease resistance against pathogens” or to remove “gluten from wheat for the benefit of coeliac patients”. It also states that “further developments in NPBTs indicate that traits such as resilience against drought and salt stress, and consumer quality factors such as fruit taste, can also be effectively addressed using genome editing”. In brief, NPBT will allow breeders to create all desirable traits that customers are looking for: a healthy, tasty and sustainable food.

The second example is gene drive, or HEGAAs[2] (Horizontal Environmental Genetic Alteration Agents), which puts forward new ways to rapidly spread desired genes in natural populations. These technologies may either modify or supress wild populations of animals or plants. Gene drives are targeted at vectors for disease (e.g. malaria-transmitting mosquitoes), invasive species or agricultural pests. Besides the intended beneficial effect, releasing such modified organisms into the natural environment has the potential to lead to undesired negative ecological consequences at different organizational levels, from species, communities to landscapes.

However, using such a technology does not only affect ecosystems but can also lead to powerful and new consequences in the socio-economic, political, ethical and legal realm. Following the precautionary principle and the three pillars of sustainability, an early assessment of the use of novel environmental biotechnologies is pivotal to determine and understand the potential arising conflicts and the negative and beneficial effects. Ramifications may have its source e.g., in differences in national regulatory frameworks, national borders, protected cultural assets, different perceptions of nature, farming practices as well as lack of transparency and public trust.

The aim of this session is:

(a) to assess the epistemological implications of these new techniques: is it possible to give a plant or a mosquito any trait we want or is it a more complex situation?

(b) to explore the different facets of the socio-economical but also ethical and legal impacts that might arise from releasing modified organisms with novel editing techniques and reflect on the role of responsible research and innovation

(c) to analyse how prospective technology assessment can prepare for an appropriate governance framework.

The participants of the workshop are interested individuals with or without prior knowledge on the subject who are willing to partake an interactive session. The format of this workshop is group-oriented brainstorming and idea exchange after short inputs (of approx. 5 min) with the goal to undertake an exploratory journey in the direction of the issue at hand.


*Corresponding authors: Carina R. Lalyer, e-mail: carina.lalyer@boku.ac.at, Nicolas Brault, e-mail: nicolas.brault@unilasalle.fr

KEYWORDS: Plant breeding, Genetic modification, Prospective Risk Assessment, Socio-Economic Aspects, Technological Promises


[1] https://edepot.wur.nl/447321. Acceded 16/12/2020

[2] Horizontal Environmental Genetic Alteration Agents (HEGAA), cf. R. G. Reeves, S. Voeneky,

D. Caetano-Anollés, F. Beck, C. Boëte (2018) Agricultural research, or a new bioweapon system?

Insect-delivered horizontal genetic alteration is concerning. Science 362 (6410), 35-37 DOI: 10.1126/science.