Conclusion of the BfR Consumer Conference on Genome Editing: Lots of potential, but clear rules required
Aromatic and durable tomatoes; wheat that defies heat and drought; gene therapy for inherited diseases; the body's own immune cells that fight cancer: All these promises can be fulfilled with the help of novel DNA scissors. But what are the risks? Where are the boundaries? What does society have to consider when embarking on these new methods in biotechnology? These and many other questions were discussed by 20 citizens at the Consumer Conference on Genome Editing - the technical term for DNA scissors - hosted by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR). The consumer vote drawn up by the participants at the end of the project was presented to representatives of politics, science, business and civil society at the Federal Press Conference (BPK) in Berlin on 30 September 2019.
The consumer vote can be read in full here:
Recording of the closing event on 30 September 2019: t1p.de/f5gd
Recording of the expert panel event on 28 September 2019: t1p.de/5o87
"Only 13% of over-14-year-olds have heard about genome editing before, according to our survey. There is a flagrant lack of information about a technology of extreme relevance to society, which has been addressed with this conference," says BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. "The presentation of the consumer vote is a great success and the lessons learned form an important basis for the necessary debates that must be conducted today and in the future."
The central demands of the consumer group
In their joint consumer vote, the participants of the BfR Consumer Conference emphasise that every use of novel technologies must be accompanied by a fundamental social change towards increased sustainability. Genome editing technology has the potential to deliver on a wide range of issues - such as sustainability, health, climate, biodiversity, animal welfare and more. This requires embedding within responsible research regarding opportunities, risks and effects as well as strict rules by the legislator. The requirements at a glance:
- Maintaining a principle of precaution
- Freedom of choice for consumers
- Freedom of information and transparency
- Priority of social aspects over economic interests
- Patent law reform: no patent protection for living beings
- Liability for unexpected damage caused by the manufacturer
- Labelling of genetically modified foods
20 participants, three weekends, one consumer vote
The consumer conference consisted of three parts. On two preparation weekends (10 and 11 August, and 31 August and 1 September 2019), the participants got to know each other, received an introduction to the scientific, technical and social aspects of genome editing and developed the questions that they wanted to pose to experts. At the final three-day conference from 28 to 30 September 2019, the questions from the consumer group were first answered by a panel of experts selected by them. The consumer vote was then drafted on this basis. The format of the consumer conference, which is based on the Danish model of the consensus conference, has already been tested successfully in 2006 by the BfR in the field of nanotechnology.
What is genome editing?
Humans have always influenced the genetic blueprint through animal and plant breeding. First by the - very lengthy - selection of desirable properties, and later, in the case of plant breeding, with the help of chemicals that led to rapid and tremendous changes to the genetic make-up. This allowed novel variants of plants to be produced that bear larger fruit, for example. The development of genetic engineering in the 1970s then enabled the targeted transmission of genetic traits (genes).
Over the past 20 years, several methods have been developed that can be used to specifically alter genetic material (the genome). This is possible with DNA scissors, which sever the genetic information at a very specific point. The properties of a gene can then be corrected at these cut points. The best-known DNA scissors are CRISPR/Cas9. It originates from a bacterium. This scientific instrument makes it possible to rewrite genetic material, i.e. to "edit" - hence the term "genome editing".
The BfR Consumer Conference on Genome Editing is online at (in German):
The BfR Consumer Conference on Nanotechnology is online at (in German):
About the BfR
The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientifically independent institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) in Germany. It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.
This text version is a translation of the original German text which is the only legally binding version.