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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Beyond naturalness? : social dimensions of gene editing in agriculture Nawaz, Sara


Proponents are heralding gene editing as a crucial solution for climate change and food security. These technologies, however, pose social risks, ethical dilemmas and governance challenges. A central exploration across this thesis is the enduring and yet elusive power of ‘naturalness’. As a master construct, it shapes how we distinguish between good and bad, what we eat, how we govern new technologies and what we ignore as agricultural options. There is a tendency to convert complex policy questions to a (seemingly) simpler one: Is it natural or not? This thesis examines constructions of naturalness emergent in the governance of gene-editing technologies, exploring the concept’s contradictions, assumptions, and implications. I begin this exploration in Chapter 2, which investigates concepts of naturalness in a range of fields, highlighting several ‘logics’ as useful in studying lay perceptions of gene editing. Chapter 3 reviews different regulatory triggers for crop gene editing across jurisdictions, many of which are linked to assumptions about naturalness. I find that ‘natural or not’ dichotomies characterize most regulatory approaches, and propose options that better align with responsible research and innovation. Using interviews (n=19), participant observation and narrative synthesis, Chapter 4 explores the United States (US) and Canadian organic sectors’ responses to gene editing, finding that the similarity between gene editing and existing breeding methods is forcing a re-articulation of rationales for distinguishing between acceptable breeding methods and not. Chapter 5 traces debates over governance of genomic data at two international fora using analysis of 139 documents from official proceedings. It finds that different understandings of both the naturalness and also origin of the value of such data define positions, which roughly group into those of Global North and South. Chapter 6 offers an exploratory Q method study (n=20) of archetypes of thinking about gene editing amongst young urban professionals, finding system-critical views offer an under-explored perspective. Lastly, via a survey (n=1478) of US and Canadian populations, Chapter 7 finds that system-critical attitudes predict discomfort with gene editing and likelihood of expressing outright opposition, and may offer a perspective missing in proponents’ understandings.

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