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expert reaction to report on genome editing and farmed animal breeding

A report published by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics looks at the social and ethical issues surrounding the use of genome editing technologies in the breeding of farmed animals.

This Roundup accompanied an SMC Briefing.


Dr Katrien Devolder, Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, said:

“Genome editing in livestock may look like a win-win for animals and humans, for example when it is used to prevent infectious diseases in animals that could result in another (human) pandemic, but we should keep in mind that it may also help maintain factory farms, and these cause global problems, including pollution, animal suffering, antimicrobial resistance, and global heating.

“Some object to genome editing in livestock because it is a technological fix that fails to tackle the root causes of the problem (e.g., the way animals are kept in confined places). But we often accept technological fixes. Cholesterol lowering drugs do not tackle the root causes of heart disease, such as genetic predispositions, unhealthy eating habits and lack of exercise. Nor do they tackle the social and political factors that influence lifestyle choices. But no-one would suggest that we should therefore stop using these drugs. We should think carefully about why we reject some technological fixes but not others.

“Genome editing in livestock may make us complicit in factory farming, which contributes to global heating, animal suffering, antimicrobial resistance, and pollution. Ideally, we would reform farming practices, rather than modifying animals to fit them. But if we can’t achieve the ideal, the best option may be to pursue genome editing while also taking steps to reform factory farming. For example, we could combine genome editing with higher taxes for meat, eggs, and dairy from factory farms, or with structural support for the production of lab-grown meat, or alternative and more sustainable farming practices.

“The ethical acceptability of genome editing in livestock will depend on the application: when it is used to produce more meat per animal this is going to be more problematic than when it is used to prevent diseases. It does not make sense to state that all or no genome editing in livestock is acceptable. We need to look at it application by application.”


Prof Helen Sang, Head of Division of Functional Genetics and Development, The Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh, said:

“Gene editing is a new genetic tool that increases the opportunities to introduce genetic improvements into farmed animals. We are confident that any changes in regulations that facilitate the use of these technologies will result in genetic improvements that positively impact both animal welfare and productivity. The immediate goals relate to resistance to major diseases, for example bird flu in chickens. The UK research community, animal breeding companies and producers/farmers are well-established as having high standards of animal welfare and there is no expectation that the use of an additional genetic technology will result in applications that are to the detriment of farmed animals. For example, resistance to PRRS (the common pig virus that causes severe respiratory disease) will benefit pigs whatever the husbandry involved in their production, including outdoor-rearing.”


Prof Darren Griffin, Professor of Genetics, University of Kent, said:

“It’s always good to talk and this is exactly what the bioethics report seeks to do.  Gene editing has many advantages for the safe introduction of genetic traits into the food chain. The drawbacks are very real however and a full and sensible public debate is essential. It is to be hoped that the debate is informed by the facts and not emotive phrases such as “Frankenstein foods.” While it is certain that not everyone will agree, it is to be hoped that some sort of consensus will be reached.”


Prof Tim Morris, School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, University of Nottingham, said:

“Although this report was established to consider ethical questions relating to the impact of genome editing technologies on farmed animals it has also considered the much wider question of the regulation of breeding of farmed animals. That wider question is also a valid issue but it is unfortunate that the council did not consider the benefits of also consulting on this wider scope. The report’s conclusions and recommendations in the whole area of farm animal breeding would have greatly benefited by better taking into account the responsibilities of breeders, breed societies, the wider opportunities from zootechnical legislation, and developing existing groups such as the Farm Animal Genetic Resources Committee in the wider contexts of agriculture.”


Prof Bruce Whitelaw, Prof of Animal Biotechnology and Interim Director of The Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh, said:

“The new genetic technologies that include genome editing have much to offer. Genome editing enables access to genetic variation that is otherwise difficult to use. These technologies can be used to reduce the disease burden on the animals, as we have demonstrated at Roslin for the pig disease Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS), and reduce the impact on the environment.

“The Nuffield Report recognises that now is the time to have the public dialogues to increase confidence in these tools, enable an evidence-supported regulatory process to be established, and assess how genetic technologies can contribute to our future food systems.”


Dr Kevin Smith, School of Applied Sciences at Abertay University, said:

“As a bioethicist specialising in genetics, I welcome the broad thrust of the findings of this Nuffield Report, in respect of the ethics of genome editing.

“It is refreshing to observe in the full report an explicit rejection of the so-called ‘precautionary principle’ in addressing the revolutionary new tools of genetic modification. By rejecting this emotionally attractive but scientifically untenable do-nothing ‘principle’, the report generally does well to acknowledge and highlight the substantial potential benefits of editing the genomes of agricultural animals, while making reasonable calls for appropriate regulatory oversight.

“Anti-science Luddites – of whom there are sadly very many in the UK – will doubtless loudly protest the report’s relatively permissive conclusions, in their irrational pursuance of a continued moratorium on genetic modification in agriculture. But those of us who see modern precision genetic modification technologies as a means to the ethical imperative of substantively improving food quality and security – one that is fully compatible with high welfare and environmental standards – should be heartened by the report’s general support for genome editing in farmed animal breeding.”



Declared interests

Prof Bruce Whitelaw: “I am a university research scientist working on genome editing technology. My research is funded by public (BBSRC) and commercial sources. I am currently the Interim Director of The Roslin Institute and on the Board of Directors of Roslin Technologies, a University of Edinburgh commercial joint venture. I was a member of the Nuffield Council’s Working Group on Genome Editing and Farmed Animals.”

Prof Tim Morris: “University of Nottingham School of Veterinary Medicine and Science; Rare Breeds Survival Trust Trustee.”

Prof Darren Griffin: “No COI.”

Prof Helen Sang: “I am involved in a research project, funded by UKRI-BBSRC with a contribution from the poultry breeding company Cobb-Vanntress, that is investigating using gene editing to confer resistance to avian influenza.”

None others received.

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