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Gene-edited food: UK plans to embrace technology shouldn’t harm animal welfare, say ethicists

Gene-edited foods may one day be sold in UK shops, but ethicists warn that using the technology in livestock may exacerbate animal welfare issues if, for example, it leads to the creation of disease-resistant animals that can be housed together more densely

Environment



1 December 2021

Gene editing could exacerbate animal welfare issues

Shutterstock / MrSamarnPlubkilang

Ethicists say the UK’s embrace of gene-edited food must not be used to prolong or worsen existing animal welfare problems in farming, such as using greater disease resistance as an excuse to crowd animals more densely together.

The UK government recently said it plans legislation next year to allow gene-edited crops and animals in England to be treated differently to genetically modified organisms, in a first step that could eventually pave the way for such food to be sold in shops.

Gene-editing is more precise than genetic modification (GM), using targeted changes in DNA sequences that could bring about environmental, welfare and nutritional benefits, such as making pigs resistant to porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, a disease regularly found in the UK.

Danielle Hamm at the independent Nuffield Council on Bioethics says the technology could “bring real benefits to farming”.

But ethicists at the group published a report today that highlights concerns about potential applications of gene-editing in animals. The report says the technology may exacerbate animal welfare issues if, for instance, it is used to breed livestock that can resist disease more effectively and so allow for animals to be housed more densely.

Another example the report gives is that gene-editing to increase food-production, such as making species mature faster, should avoid replicating welfare issues created by selective breeding, such as fast-growing chickens having leg problems.

“We have this new technology that could be potentially transformative,” says Elizabeth Cripps at the University of Edinburgh, UK, a co-author of the report. Cripps says it could help meet challenges associated with animal welfare, climate change and human health. “But it could also be used in ways that are dangerous and set us back in terms of meeting those challenges,” she says.

The report makes several recommendations to the UK government, including greater engagement with the public. The team also proposes a traffic light system to weigh the impact of breeding programmes on animals’ lives.

The UK government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs didn’t respond to a New Scientist request to comment on the new report

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