Act now to ensure animal welfare is at the heart of plans to introduce genome editing into farmed animal breeding, says independent ethics body
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics is calling on the Government to put animal welfare at the heart of plans to approve new breeding technologies in farming and food production, in a new report ‘Genome editing and farmed animal breeding: social and ethical issues’, published today.
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics recognises that genome editing could bring real benefits to farming, but there is also potential for it to be used towards accelerating some unethical animal breeding practices. It says there is a need for urgent public dialogue and strong regulation to guide the development of this technology.
Genome editing is the precise, targeted alteration of a DNA sequence in a living cell, to alter the function of a gene. In the breeding of farmed animals such as chickens, pigs, and cows the use of genome editing techniques could give farmers and breeders an opportunity to exercise more control over the genetic traits of future generations of animals.
For example, it could be used to make animals that are resistant to viruses that cause devastating disease outbreaks such as the pig disease Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS). This could save the lives of many thousands of pigs each year and bring substantial economic benefits for farmers.
However, there are some potential pitfalls that need to be avoided – for example, reduction in the risk from disease should not be used as a reason to increase the scale and intensity of farming systems or to pay less regard to animals’ needs for appropriate care.
Genome editing techniques are not currently being used in the breeding of animals that are sold for food, but research in this area is well advanced. Several research groups have successfully demonstrated the use of the techniques to make functional changes to animals’ genomes, without any adverse effects.
The UK Government has recently stated its intention to relax regulation for animals bred using genome editing techniques. The proposed changes only apply in England and would require new legislation to come into effect.
The Nuffield Council’s report says before any changes in regulation are introduced, the Government should conduct a full policy review, including conversations with the public, in order to develop a clear plan for how this technology will be used ethically in our future food and farming systems.
The report makes several recommendations to the UK Government and others involved in livestock farming and food production, including:
- Investment in public dialogue to understand public values and concerns before any regulatory change to permit the sale of genome edited food happens.
- Action to develop enhanced welfare standards and clear guidance on responsible breeding, with appropriate oversight.
- Financial incentives for farmers and breeders to encourage ethical breeding practices that will drive up standards of animal welfare.
- Food retailers to commit to only sell meat from animals that are bred responsibly.
Professor John Dupré, Chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ working group and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Exeter, said:
“The potential of genome editing offers a new approach to bring about genetic changes in farmed animals much more quickly than is currently possible through selective breeding.
Whilst some applications of genome editing - such as disease resistance - sound great for animals in theory, if they were to lead to further intensification of farming then that may well be harmful to the quality of animals’ lives in other ways.
Under no circumstances should new breeding technologies be brought in to perpetuate unsustainable food and farming systems. Now is the moment to act to prevent this.”
Danielle Hamm, Director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, said:
“It may not be long before genome edited meat ends up in the supermarkets and on people’s plates.
Our report shows that the public generally seem more concerned about how and why new breeding technologies will be used than the nature and safety of the techniques – it is not what is done, but why it is done, that matters most to them.
The public recognise that our food and farming systems need to change, and it is clear they will not tolerate the introduction of any new technology that takes us further away from high welfare, sustainable farming.
Before any regulatory changes are made, the Government should be making it a priority to speak with the public to help develop a clear plan for the ethical use of this technology.”
NOTES TO EDITORS
- Media contact
Nuffield Council on Bioethics
(+44) 0207 681 9619
Genome editing and farmed animal breeding: social and ethical issues will be published on the Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ website on Wednesday 1st December 2021.
Embargoed copies of the report are available in advance, on request.
2. About the Nuffield Council on Bioethics
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics examines ethical issues raised by new developments in biology and medicine. Established by the Nuffield Foundation in 1991, the Council is an independent body, funded jointly by the Nuffield Foundation, the Medical Research Council, and Wellcome. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has achieved an international reputation for addressing public concerns, and providing independent advice to assist policymakers and stimulate debate in bioethics. http://nuffieldbioethics.org/
3. About genome editing
Genome editing is the precise, targeted alteration of a DNA sequence in a living cell. Genome editing techniques can be used to alter how a gene functions, for example, by changing a variant of a gene that may give rise to disease to one that does not. CRISPR-Cas9 is an example of a method of genome editing that is now widely used in research.
4. UK Government consultation
In January 2021, the UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) announced a consultation setting out plans to reform existing regulations that govern the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in England.
In September 2021, in a response to the consultation, the UK Government announced it would seek to bring forward primary legislation at a suitable opportunity to amend the regulatory definitions of a GMO to exclude organisms that have genetic changes that could have been achieved through traditional breeding or which could occur naturally. This will mean that some genome edited organisms will not be regulated in the same way as genetically modified organisms. The Government has indicated it will allow time to consider the distinctive ethical questions that arise in relation to animal welfare before changes affecting animal breeding are made.
5. About the working group
This inquiry was carried out by a multidisciplinary working group. The working group invited contributions from a wide range of people, including through an open call for evidence, commissioned research, site visits, fact-finding meetings and interviews, as well as a commissioned public dialogue, the findings of which were published in September 2021.
Members of the working group were appointed for their personal knowledge and expertise, and do not necessarily represent the views of their organisations.
John Dupré (Chair)
Professor of Philosophy of Science, University of Exeter
Intellectual property lawyer, currently Senior Intellectual Property Counsel, Stryker
Senior Lecturer in Political Theory, University of Edinburgh
Chief Science and Regulatory Affairs Adviser, National Farmers’ Union
Emeritus Professor of Agricultural Economics, University of Kent
Professor of Food and Society, Newcastle University
Programme Leader in Developmental Genetics, Medical Research Council (MRC) Harwell Institute
Professor of Epidemiology and Precision Livestock Informatics, University of Nottingham
Professorial Research Associate, Food Studies Centre, SOAS, London
Chief Policy Advisor, Compassion in World Farming
Professor of Animal Biotechnology, University of Edinburgh