Genome editing and farmed animal breeding: social and ethical issues


Published 01/12/2021

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Cow in field flipped

This report examines the social and ethical issues raised by the potential use of genome editing technologies in farmed animal breeding.

The potential application of genome editing in farmed animals was one of the two areas that we identified as requiring urgent ethical scrutiny in our 2016 report, Genome editing: an ethical review (the first was genome editing in human reproduction, which resulted in a report published July 2018).

The food and farming system faces a number of challenges – to the environment, to animal health and welfare, to human health, and meeting demand to increase meat consumption around the world. We need to change the way we produce and consume food in order to be able to provide a secure, sustainable, ethical and nutritious food supply for the world’s growing population.

Genome editing is the precise, targeted alteration of a DNA sequence in a living cell. In farmed animal breeding, it could be used to produce animals with specific traits that might be difficult to achieve using conventional selective breeding approaches.

New breeding technologies, such as genome editing, could help to address some of the challenges facing our food and farming systems. For example, it could be used to make animals that are resistant to certain viruses, saving many animals from the effects of disease and bringing economic benefits to the agricultural sector. However, it could also be used to accelerate some unethical breeding practices, for example, by using a reduction in the risk from disease as a reason to pay less regard to the welfare of animals and their needs for appropriate conditions and care.

The UK Government has recently stated its intention to relax regulation for animals bred using genome editing techniques. The proposed changes only apply in England and would require new legislation to come into effect.

The introduction of new technologies into food and farming must be aligned with public and animal interests. This should be as part of an overall vision for a food and farming system that supports, promotes, and rewards sustainable farming with high standards of animal welfare.

In our report, we propose five principles to guide the development of food and farming systems and the introduction of new breeding technologies for farmed animals.

We make a number of recommendations to the UK Government, animal breeders, major food retailers, research funders, and others involved in shaping the food and farming industries, both in the UK and internationally.

Project team