Gene-editing technology should not be used to pursue low-welfare agriculture – report

Cows in a field

The new gene-editing technology shouldn’t be used to breed farm animals with characteristics that mean they can endure poor welfare conditions, an independent report said.

And food retailers should commit to only selling meat from responsibly raised animals, urged the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in a series of recommendations on genome editing and farm animal husbandry.

The council warned that while biotechnology may offer potential “marginal benefits” by reducing greenhouse gases and addressing other environmental impacts of livestock, it will not make a substantial difference without changes to the effects of livestock. food and agricultural systems – and possibly a reduction in demand for meat and dairy products. some products.

Genome editing – the precise, targeted alteration of DNA to change the function of genes – is in the research stage for food sources, including animals such as chickens, pigs and cows.

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Animal welfare must be a priority, according to report (Gareth Fuller / PA)

The council’s report indicates that this could bring real benefits to food production, such as reducing disease in livestock, but could also be used to increase unethical practices such as intensive farming that worsens welfare. being, or breeding that results in animals that have lost the physical ability to have a good life.

The UK government recently signaled plans to ease regulations for animals raised using genome editing techniques, which would only apply in England.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics is calling on the government to urgently engage with the public on the issue before any changes allowing the sale of genome-modified (GE) foods take place.

A council report calls on the government to put animal welfare at the heart of its approach to new technology, and strong regulations and incentives to encourage ethical breeding practices.

Food labeling should allow the public access to information such as animal husbandry practices, living conditions and diets, and the government should bring together major food retailers to ensure that all animal products offered for sale are sourced from responsibly raised animals.

There must also be a system of “traffic lights” to assess the impact of breeding programs, and the red category – covering the development of traits that prevent them from living a good life, such as growing broilers. fast – should not be used in commercial farming.

Public funding is needed to support voluntary changes in people’s diets to consume animal products at sustainable levels and only when raised responsibly, according to the report.

He says that overall, the global food and agricultural system is “morally indefensible and unsustainable” and the ways we produce and consume food must adapt to provide a secure and sustainable supply of nutritious food.

GMOs could be used in ways that improve animal welfare and health and provide economic benefits to farmers, such as raising pigs that are resistant to deadly diseases or producing hornless cattle that do not need to be dog-eared for safety reasons.

Or it could be used to put genetic markers on male chickens so that they are eliminated as eggs, rather than killed as newly hatched chicks, in laying rearing systems, which only require female hens.

But experts have warned that modifying genes to combat health problems in animals could also be used to increase livestock densities in intensive systems, which would adversely affect their well-being.

They also cautioned against the potential negative results of breeding for “production characteristics” such as faster growth, higher final animal weights, litter size or milk production efficiency. .

Professor John Dupre, chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics working group and professor of philosophy at the University of Exeter, said: “The potential of genome modification offers a new approach to bringing about genetic changes in animals. breeding much faster than currently possible thanks to selective breeding.

“Although some applications of genome editing – such as disease resistance – seem excellent for animals in theory, if they were to lead to further intensification of animal husbandry, it could well affect the quality of life of animals. animals in other ways.

“Under no circumstances should new breeding technologies be introduced to perpetuate unsustainable food and farming systems,” he said, adding that now is the time to act to prevent it.

Hens playing football
Chickens from Leicestershire based egg farmer Sunrise Poultry Farms playing with soccer balls as they are trapped inside during bird flu lockdown (Sunrise Poultry Farms / PA)

Danielle Hamm, Director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, said: “It may not be long before genome-modified meat ends up in supermarkets and on people’s plates. “

She said the report found that the public was generally more concerned with how and why new breeding technologies would be used, rather than the nature and safety of the techniques.

She also said: “The public recognizes that our food and agricultural systems need to change, and it is clear that they will not tolerate the introduction of new technologies that would take us further away from sustainable, high-quality agriculture.

“Before regulatory changes are made, the government should make it a priority to speak with the public to help develop a clear plan for the ethical use of this technology. “

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We are taking a step-by-step approach to enable gene editing, starting with plants only and then looking at the application to animals and microorganisms later.

“We are committed to proportionate, science-based regulation and we will not lower animal safety or welfare standards. “

About Keneth T. Graves

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