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:
This dialogue has demonstrated that members of the public have a keen interest in the food and farming system and a clear sense of the values that should underpin it. Changing rather than perpetuating an unsustainable food system is a fundamental public concern. Until now, wider public discussion has focused predominantly on safety and the extent to which genome editing can be viewed as an extension of selective breeding. While safety is a very important issue and core concern of people in this dialogue, it is only part of a wider, deeper discussion that the public are very willing and able to contribute to."
Danielle Hamm, Director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, said:
We believe there is a clear opportunity now, with the emergence of genome editing, to align public policy with the public interest in introducing new biotechnologies into the food and farming system. This dialogue has helped to identify core areas of public concern that the Government, policy makers and researchers need to be aware of. We expect the findings to stimulate further public debate and to inform research strategy and regulatory policy in a post-Brexit UK, by feeding into DEFRA’s broader review of the regulation of genetic technologies. The dialogue will inform our ongoing inquiry into genome editing in farmed animals and the policy work we undertake following the conclusion of our inquiry later this year."
Sarah Walker-Robson. Communications Manager, Nuffield Council on Bioethics
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