New science group back gene editing for farm animals

A new group set up to ensure science gets a fair hearing in policy development has challenged animal welfare groups’ claims that it would be unethical to adopt gene editing techniques in developing more resilient farm animals.

Responding to a statement by the RSPCA which described the Government’s Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, introduced at Westminster recently, as a “serious step back” for animal welfare, the recently launched Science for Sustainable Agriculture (SSA) claimed that the reverse was actually the case.

The group argued that it would be unethical not to embrace the potential of technologies such as gene editing to help improve sustainable, high-welfare production in farmed animals.

“Precision breeding technologies can help accelerate the development of major health and welfare boosting traits such as Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) resistance in pigs and bird flu resistance in poultry,” stated the group.

SSA argue that it would be unethical not to embrace the potential of technologies such as gene editing to help improve sustainable, high-welfare production in farmed animals.

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Professor Lord Trees, a cross-bench Peer and former President of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, warned that a failure to embrace more precise breeding technologies such as gene editing could be a missed opportunity to deliver significant improvements in animal health and welfare.

“Disease is arguably the single biggest welfare issue in rearing farm animals, and gene editing offers the potential to accelerate the development of disease resistant breeds,” he said, adding that adopting the technology could reduce drug and chemical use, with positive effects for problems such as anti-microbial resistance and environmental pollution.

Other beneficial applications for welfare included the potential to aid sex determination, so avoiding the need to cull male chicks or dairy calves, added Professor Lord Trees.

“We do have robust animal welfare regulations in place for farmed animals, no matter how they have been bred, as well as other legislation covering research and development,” he said. “These existing regulations rightly focus on welfare outcomes, rather than any particular breeding method.”

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Professor Helen Sang, a scientist at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh who pioneered the use of gene editing in research aimed at developing bird flu resistance in chickens, said that blocking such research would be detrimental to animal welfare.

"It is simply not true to claim there are more ethical or humane ways to solve these previously intractable, and devastating, health conditions which affect animals reared in all types of farming systems,” said Professor Sang who offered to meet with the group and explain the science behind the approach.

“Regulatory safeguards are already in place to maintain high standards of welfare – from early-stage research to on-farm production. The Precision Breeding Bill also includes provision for additional welfare assessments applied specifically to gene edited animals, so from a scientific perspective it is difficult to understand the RSPCA’s position.”

A spokesperson for SSA said that it aimed to champion and explain the vital role of science and technology in safeguarding global food supplies, tackling climate change and protecting the natural environment.

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“SSA also stands ready to expose, comment on and challenge unscientific positions or policy decisions in relation to sustainable agriculture,” the spokesperson added.

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