The UK government should develop a clear plan for how gene editing technology will be used ethically in future food and farming systems amid concerns over animal welfare.
A report this week by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics found that although gene editing could bring real benefits to farming, there is also potential for it to be used to accelerate unethical animal breeding practices.
The council said there was a need for urgent public dialogue and strong regulation to guide the development of the technology, which is not currently permitted in the breeding of animals that are sold for food.
Gene or 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 such techniques could give farmers and breeders an opportunity to exercise more control over the genetic traits of future generations of animals. Gene editing is different from genetic modification as it does not result in the introduction of DNA from other species.
The government has recently stated its intention to relax regulation for animals bred using gene editing techniques. The proposed changes would only apply in England and would require new legislation to come into effect.
The Nuffield Council report noted how gene editing could be used to make animals that are resistant to viruses that cause devastating disease outbreaks, which could in turn save the lives of many thousands of animals each year and bring substantial economic benefits for farmers.
However, it warned of 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.
These concerns were echoed by animal welfare groups. The RSPCA said it remained “deeply concerned about gene editing and its implications for animals” and suggested there were more ethical solutions to problems like a reliance on antibiotics, such as the adoption of higher welfare farming standards that work in harmony with nature.
The Nuffield Council said that 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 gene editing technology will be used ethically in future food and farming systems.
It also recommended that food businesses commit to only sell meat from animals that are bred responsibly.