Gene editing farmed animals could soon be rolled out as a way to make animals resistant to disease. But a new report is highlighting the bounty of dangers: from social, cultural, and ethical challenges to environmental fears as well.
It comes as the UK government is currently considering relaxing laws on using biotechnology techniques to create new breeds of animals.
Experts warn that tighter rules are needed to protect the welfare of animals.
Gene edited farmed animals
Procedures to “edit” animals have been praised by some, as the approach is designed to make animal agriculture more efficient and less harmful to the environment.
The practice has been discussed for some time, in major reports surfacing between 2016 and 2018.
More recently, the debate has become more prominent.This is since the UK government said it planned to “unlock the power” of gene editing in September.
The process involves making changes to an animal’s DNA in reproductive cells. This allows edited genes to be passed down to future generations.
But there are clear ethical challenges, as outlined in the Genome editing and farmed animal breeding: social and ethical issues report released earlier this month by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.
As a result, the authors make several recommendations to the government on how to use the technologies without compromising welfare.
Human intervention in animal reproduction can cause animals stress, discomfort, and injury, the report outlines.
Gene editing may have an effect on the “health and capacity for welfare” down breeding lines, it adds.
And, across history, selective breeding for increased commercial productivity in animal agriculture has had negative impacts on welfare.
For example, genetic selection has been used to breed cows raised for beef to grow larger muscles, which has resulted in calves that are too large to be given birth to.
It’s also been used to produce larger litters of pigs. Here, sows have been unable to produce enough milk and ended up with shoulder sores from spending so much time on the ground in order to feed all their offspring.
According to the Farm Animal Welfare Committee, genetic selection for egg production has caused osteoporosis in hens and left them more prone to bone fractures, the report explains.
Zoonotic disease reduction
A key propeller for gene editing is that it may make animals less susceptible to developing diseases. But this is largely driven by protecting humans, who can catch viruses from animals as we have seen across many zoonotic diseases, COVID-19 included.
“However, a reduction in the risk from disease should not be used as a reason to pay less regard to the welfare of animals,” Nuffield Council stresses.
While zoonotic diseases are a “major” public health threat, it is widely linked to how we farm animals.
Namely, the use of antimicrobials in livestock sectors has been identified by experts as a cause of antibiotic resistance.
Better public health policies are needed to address this, the report adds. Its other recommendations are for responsible breeding standards and financial incentives to ensure farmers adhere to them.
The government should also make more funding available to develop stronger animal welfare standards.
Additionally, producing animals with physical traits that make it difficult for them to enjoy life must be avoided altogether.
The ethicists advise that an independent body should monitor breeding programs.