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Authors: Jonathan Menary1, Matthew Hobbs1, Sara Mesquita de Albuquerque1, Mario Amato2, Agata Pacho1 and Sebastian. S. Fuller1.

1St George’s University of London, Institute for Infection and Immunity, Tooting, London, UK, SW170RE

2University of Naples Federico II, Department of Political Sciences, Naples, Italy, 80138

Keywords: molecular farming, new plant breeding techniques, tobacco, qualitative research



Plants offer a convenient system for the production of the high-value recombinant proteins used in vaccines and other pharmaceutical products. Recent advances in biotechnology have paved the way for new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs), which offer a relatively quick means of improving plant molecular farming (MF) systems. Scaling MF ‘up’ and ‘out’ from the laboratory to glasshouse and field will depend on the involvement of a diverse set of stakeholders, including: researchers, farmers, agronomists, producer organisations and input suppliers. Understanding their attitudes towards the concepts of MF and NPBTs – as well as what barriers they perceive to the development of these technologies – will be paramount.
This study employs an applied qualitative approach, combining the agricultural innovation systems (AIS) conceptual framework with semi-structured interviews in four European countries with 20 key stakeholders. The interviews were transcribed and translated where necessary. An initial coding framework was developed in accordance with Framework Analysis and data were indexed by emergent themes. Further analysis of data is ongoing.
Initial findings indicate a high level of support for MF using NPBTs. However, different groups expressed different concerns. Scientists and industry leaders see European Union regulation and the competitiveness of existing protein expression systems as the primary barriers to the development of MF. Scientists remain concerned over the biosafety of plant-derived molecules and the feasibility and applicability of open-field molecular farming. Farmers, agronomists and producer organisation representatives expressed concerns over the establishment of supply chains that can compete with existing tobacco contracts. However, farmers and agronomists were confident they could produce any tobacco crop provided it was approved and supported by the producer organisations to which they belong. These data suggest that producer organisations, acting as brokers between individual growers/cooperatives and large tobacco buyers, are likely to be important ‘gatekeepers’ for new MF technologies.
All stakeholder groups felt that the societal benefit of plant-derived medicine would act as a bridgehead for the social acceptability of gene editing and MF in general. Arguments made by scientists in favour of using NPBTs rest on their greater precision and equivalence with natural processes when compared to existing breeding techniques. Famers felt that producing medicines with tobacco has the potential to de-stigmatise tobacco producers and production.
This research is part of a project that has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 760331.

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