Importance of Engaging Stakeholders in the Genetic Modification Process

by Morgan Beltz

Genetic biocontrol technology is one way of controlling invasive fish species. However, like genetically modified organisms, it is controversial in the eyes of the public. Sharpe (2013) studied the public perceptions of genetic biocontrol of invasive fish by conducting eight focus groups in the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain regions. The focus groups were asked the same set of questions and allowed to voice opinions to discuss as a whole group. The discussions of the focus groups were then analyzed in three phases; sorting individual transcripts into reaction categories, coding the text to see emerging themes, and coding the written responses. The author found three central themes in the focus group discussions: issues of uncertainty, acting cautiously, and the question of balance. Most participants thought research for biocontrol was good, but the actual implementation should be analyzed with very high standards. The participants came up with a wide scope of concerns which the author believes is important for developers and researchers to take into consideration.

Sharpe conducted the focus groups in the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain region because they are both facing invasive species problems. The focus groups ranged from 4 to 16 participants with a total of 61. The participants were all people that would potentially have a stake in genetic biocontrol, such as employees of management agencies, therefore not the general public. However, the author noted that not including the general public was of little concern because no participant had a position of authority, no one has vested interests in the approval or disapproval of technology, and all the discussions were confidential. To begin the discussion all participants were provided with the same background information packet that also included the discussion questions. The packet reviewed the genetic manipulation techniques that could be used and the purpose of each one. After the discussions each participant wrote down three benefits of, and concerns about, using biocontrol techniques. These responses were categorized and used as part of the results. The results were arrived at by transcribing the discussion of each focus group and sorting the reactions into categories, coding the categories to find overlapping themes, coding the participants’ written responses, and adding them to the different categories.

The author found that the participants generally had four major categories of initial reactions; science fiction, food and agriculture, concerns about the uncertainty and danger associated with the technology, and public perception of the technology. These categories addressed initial fears and controversies regarding genetic biocontrol, such as problems with consumption of GMOs, costs and consequences, and overcoming the negative public perceptions of GMOs. The participants next discussed potential benefits of genetic biocontrol and those responses landed in three broad categories; development of a potential control of invasive aquatic species, other benefits related to the technology, and concerns about benefits. Overall the participants were able to come up with 156 different benefits of genetic biocontrol. These benefits included being able to control species, having more tools to control species, increased knowledge of the technology that could lead to more innovations, and possible creation of an industry. Lastly the participants listed their concerns with this technology, coming up with 300 concerns that fit into five categories: ecological, related to uncertainty, financial, technological, and regulatory. These concerns covered all fears of transgenes being transferred to non-targeted organisms, negative outcomes and impacts, financial costs, success of the technology, and overlapping regulations.

The author concluded from the group discussions that participants feel that the concerns outweigh the benefits with genetic biocontrol. Concerns were much broader than benefits, falling into 11 categories and 22 subcategories, whereas benefits only had eight categories and three subcategories. Although several issues could be cross referenced as both benefits and concerns, there was too much uncertainty surrounding the issue for it to be seen as an overall benefit. In conclusion, the participants made recommendations for the producers of genetic biocontrol organisms. The recommendations included doing no harm, engaging many different viewpoints, requiring thorough unbiased testing, have a case-by-case approach, clear reasoning for stopping or going forward, an effective regulatory framework, and transparency at all steps.

From leading these focus groups the author found that stakeholders felt that developers do not necessarily consider the viewpoints of others and want to be included in the process. In general, stakeholders want a more determined path of action that includes knowledge of known benefits and harms. These stakeholders are affected directly by genetic biocontrol so they could potentially contribute valid information and knowledge of the implications of this technology to the scientists. Although this was a small sample, the focus groups came up with a wide variety of concerns that could be legitimate issues to solve in the production of aquatic species for genetic biocontrol.

Sharpe, L., 2013. Public perspectives on genetic biocontrol technologies for controlling invasive fish. Biological Invasions, doi: 10.1007/s10530-013-0545-5.

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