The findings of a dialogue exploring people’s views about the adoption of genome editing technologies into animal farming have been published by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.
Genome editing is the deliberate alteration of a selected DNA sequence in a living cell. Technologies based on genome editing could, in the future, be used to help to address challenges in the food and farming system. For example, they could produce inherent resistance to disease in pigs, sheep or cattle, or improve how well animals adapt to their environment. Doing this by intervening directly in the animal’s DNA raises distinctive ethical questions such as whether and when altering an animal’s biology is proportionate to meet human needs.
As part of an in-depth inquiry on the ethical issues raised by genome editing in farmed animals, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics commissioned Basis Social, working in collaboration with Bright Harbour, to run a dialogue with members of the public. The aim was to provide an opportunity for people to explore the implications that adopting such technologies might hold for farmed animals, the food system and society more generally.
What this dialogue has shown is that the public seem less concerned about the nature of the technology itself than how it would be used, for what purpose, and in whose interests.
People welcomed the possibility that technologies could improve the health and the welfare of farmed animals through improved resistance to disease, but they were wary of the potential to exacerbate what they saw as undesirable trends of intensification in farmed animal production. For this reason, they viewed the presentation of genome editing technologies as a way of accelerating conventional breeding practices as a reason for concern, rather than reassurance. In particular, they were opposed to genome editing being used when it was only in the interest of producers.
Other positive reasons for using genome editing included securing equitable access to food, improving the qualities of animal products, and reducing their environmental impact - as long as these were compatible with promoting higher standards of animal welfare, and the technology was carefully regulated.
But there was scepticism about the ability of governance and regulatory systems to control this technology in a way that delivers public goods rather than private profits to big producers.
As the dialogue progressed, a central question emerged: “Will applying this technology take us closer to, or further away, from the agricultural systems we should aim for in the future?
This dialogue comes ahead of an expected response from the Department for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to its consultation held earlier this year, which proposed removing a layer of EU-transposed regulation from some genome edited organisms. The Regulatory Horizons Council last week made recommendations to the Government about how genetic technologies in plants, animals and microorganisms in agriculture and food production should be regulated.
Professor John Dupré, Chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics working group on genome editing and farmed animals said:
Danielle Hamm, Director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, said:
Sarah Walker-Robson. Communications Manager, Nuffield Council on Bioethics
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