Rules for creating genetically modified farm animals must prioritize welfare

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These genetically engineered piglets were made resistant to deadly lung disease

Regulations allowing the production of genetically modified farm animals must put welfare first, independent review finds.

The technology allows scientists to modify DNA in order to introduce specific traits, such as resistance to disease.

The British government is think about proposals to allow the commercial development of genetically modified livestock In England.

Independent analysis called for a review of government proposals to regulate the technology.

A report from the Nuffield Council for Bioethics warns that removing the current ban on the commercial development of genetically modified animals could increase the suffering of livestock.

Deputy director of the council, Peter Mills, who drove the report, said the government’s plan to remove current restrictions “effectively hinders the ability of breeders to advance their breeding programs.”

He said: “Agriculture is a business, and farm animal producers have an obligation to draw a line between what they can get out of it and (animal welfare). is that this line is more clearly. “

Editing genes involves inserting new DNA sequences, deleting existing ones or modifying them in the genome of a living organism. It is a more precise and focused technology than previous forms of genetic engineering, and the changes are virtually indistinguishable from natural mutations.

These early forms of genetic engineering sometimes involved inserting a gene from a different organism at random into another living being.

The UK is one of the world leaders in technology. Researchers at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh have developed pigs immunized against one of the costliest animal diseases in the world, a respiratory disease known as PRRS. They also try to produce African varieties of cattle that produce more milk, while an American company created cows that thrive in warmer conditions.

The Nuffield Report recognizes that technology has the capacity to deliver “real benefits”. But Elizabeth Cripps of the University of Edinburgh, a member of the task force that produced the report, said it could also make matters worse.

“Genome editing could be used to perpetuate or possibly increase the dense herd of animals in industrialized (production),” she said.

“We would be concerned about raising animals that could better tolerate poor conditions without apparently having adverse health effects.”

A 1989 experiment by researchers working for the US Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, MD, is cited by critics as an example of how genetic science could be misused. American scientists have added a gene to the DNA of a pig that is said to produce a human growth hormone. The animal was expected to grow faster and be leaner than normal pigs.

The researchers succeeded: weight gain increased by 15%, feed efficiency by 18%, and carcass fat was reduced by 80%.

But the animals suffered from several unforeseen health issues, including kidney and liver problems, uncoordinated walking, bulging eyes, gastric ulcers, heart disease and pneumonia. Proponents of gene editing say current technology is much more targeted and therefore less likely to have such dire consequences

EU regulations currently prohibit the commercial development of genetically modified animals. But Brexit gave the UK government the opportunity to change its rules. In September, he announced a relaxation of the rules governing research into genetically modified crops and his intention to introduce new regulations next year to allow the sale of food made from genetically modified plants and possibly animals. in England.

The chairman of the Nuffield task force, Professor John Dupre of the University of Exeter, is concerned that the approach of new rule-making by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs ( Defra) is “too narrow”.

“Those involved in policing need to look beyond just food security issues and keep in mind a holistic vision of a food and farming system that supports sustainable agriculture and improves animal welfare standards.”

Nuffield Council’s recommendations include a government review of its proposals and a public consultation process that feeds into the review.

Other recommendations include the establishment and application of breeding standards based on the latest scientific advances, an independent body to monitor the long-term impact of genetic modifications on animals and a labeling system for foods containing breeding information.

When announcing his proposal to ease restrictions on GM technologies, the Environment Secretary said he recognized there was a strong public interest and that Defra would continue to engage with experts, companies and campaign groups as well as with the public throughout the process. A spokesperson said the department was taking a “step-by-step approach” to allowing gene editing to be used commercially.

“We start with plants only, then look at application to animals and microorganisms later.

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

Professor Bruce Whitelaw, who is the Acting Director of the Roslin Institute, is an advocate for the safe and responsible development of genetically modified animals. As a member of the working group, he signed off on the concerns and recommendations of the report. And he told BBC News that proper regulation would ensure the technology benefits animal welfare – as well as feed a hungry world.

“Genome editing is a genetic technology that has a lot to offer agriculture. At Roslin, we have already shown that this technology can reduce the disease burden in livestock by producing pigs that are resistant to the PRRS virus. have welfare benefits for the animals on this farm, ”he said.

“The Nuffield report identifies the opportunity that, through public dialogue, we will be able to assess how this technology can be used for the benefit of agriculture. system.”

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