Cows in a field

Biotech should not be used to bolster unethical farming practices, bioethicists say

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Genome editing technology should be used responsibly and not to breed livestock that can endure poor welfare conditions, a report from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has said.

The council said that while biotech may be able to offer “marginal benefits” in cutting greenhouse gases and tackling other environmental impacts of livestock farming, it will not make a substantial difference in the absence of wider changes to food and farming systems, and probably a reduction in meat and dairy demand.

At present, genome editing – which allows for precise engineering of the genetic makeup of organisms – remains at the research stage for livestock animals such as chickens, pigs, and cattle.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics listed potential benefits such as reducing disease in livestock populations, marking male chicks so they can be disposed of as eggs rather than killed as chicks, or producing hornless cattle that do not need to be “dehorned” for safety reasons.

However, it raised the issue of genome editing being used to bolster unethical farming practices that worsens animal welfare, such as battery farming, or to engineer animals without the basic capability to live well. It suggested a “traffic light” system to assess the impact of breeding programmes, and the red category – covering the development of traits that make it difficult for them to enjoy a good life, such as fast-growing broiler chickens – should not be used in commercial farming. They also warned of the potential negative outcomes of breeding for “production traits” such as faster growth, bigger final weights of animals, the size of litters or efficiency of producing milk.

The UK government has recently signalled its intention to relax regulations – which were relatively restrictive under EU rules – for livestock bred using genome editing technologies. The deregulation would only apply in England. However, the council has called on the government to engage with the public on the issue before seeing through changes to permit the sale of new genome edited foods.

The government’s approach to the technology should maintain animal welfare, it said, and implement strong regulation and incentives to encourage ethical breeding practices. Meanwhile, food labelling should permit the public transparency about breeding practices, living conditions, and diet of livestock. Major food retailers should ensure all animal products sold come from responsibly bred animals, the council recommended.

Public funding is also needed to support voluntary changes in diets towards consuming animal products at sustainable levels and only when they are responsibly bred, the report added.

It labelled the global food and farming system as “morally indefensible and unsustainable” and said the ways in which food is produced and consumed must adapt to provide a secure and sustainable supply of nutritious food.

Professor John Dupre, chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ working group and professor of philosophy at the University of Exeter, said: “The potential of genome editing offers a new approach to bring about genetic changes in farmed animals much more quickly than is currently possible through selective breeding. Whilst some applications of genome editing – such as disease resistance – sound great for animals in theory, if they were to lead to further intensification of farming then that may well be harmful to the quality of animals’ lives in other ways.”

“Under no circumstances should new breeding technologies be brought in to perpetuate unsustainable food and farming systems,” he said. He added that now was the moment to act to prevent it.

Danielle Hamm, director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, said: “It may not be long before genome edited meat ends up in the supermarkets and on people’s plates […] before any regulatory changes are made, the Government should be making it a priority to speak with the public to help develop a clear plan for the ethical use of this technology.”

A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesperson said: “We are taking a step-by-step approach to enable gene editing, starting with plants only and then reviewing the application to animals and microorganisms later. We are committed to proportionate, science-based regulation and we will not reduce safety or animal welfare standards.”

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