The UK inclining towards gene-editing of livestock after Brexit

Legalizing gene-editing livestock to enter the U.K. food supply could reduce the burden on livestock and give way to more active scientific research deploying the CRISPR technology.

Oct 5, 2019 |
4 min read

Dining on a quarter chicken in one of the 1000 branches of a signature peri-peri chicken restaurant, I wondered about the number of chickens this single London branch must have served today.

Then what started as a casual conversational signpost turned into amazement about the number of chickens that were being consumed in all its subsidiaries at that particular moment; then, in an entire day; in a whole week; in all the restaurants in the world. Woah! And think about the cows, pigs, turkeys, lambs, and their consumption for meat, milk, eggs, and other by-products.

Suffices to conclude that the pressure on the world’s livestock is massive. Larger and more industrialized economies of the world often depend on trade from more agricultural economies to meet their demand.

However, no trade arrangement, regardless of its optimization, is effective enough to fully meet the global demand without support of scientific intervention. In order to increase livestock yield and resultant profitability, breeders have, for long, used the method of selective breeding that achieves the desired DNA variation for more fruitful plant and animal varieties.

With the increasing recognition of CRISPR-Cas9 technology for genome editing as the way forward, breeders have the opportunity to introduce precise genetic variations. The intent is to introduce sustainability traits, for example, food quality and quantity, disease resistance, and climate adaptability.

Currently, the U.K. is a net importer of livestock products and has an interdependency for trade with the European Union. In the event of Brexit, livestock farming, like other U.K. sectors, will need to evolve. One policymaking area being considered in this regard is the genetic editing of livestock.

The existing EU legislation prohibits any gene-edited or gene-modified animal to enter its food chain, which naturally the U.K. complies with too. This, however, is expected to change once the U.K. has the authority to make its own legislation.

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An insight into how British policymakers are inclining in their management plans post Brexit can be seen in Michael Gove’s speech at the Oxford’s Farming Conference 2019. Gove, the environment secretary showed his support for livestock gene-editing at by saying that, “the [gene-editing] ability to give Mother Nature a helping hand by driving the process of evolution at higher speed should allow us to develop plant varieties and crops which are more resistant to disease and pests and less reliant on chemical protection and chemical fertilizer. They will be higher-yielding and more environmentally sustainable”.

The final decision of whether Britain will allow livestock’s gene-editing depends on several ethical, economic, or social concerns. In a poll conducted by Farmers Weekly, only 57% voted in favor of gene-editing in livestock.

The divide on whether lab-grown or genetically modified food is acceptable to consume or not is great on the one hand, and on the other, the growing demand for organic food products also needs to be noted.

The relationship of livestock farming with climate is another area to be evaluated for livestock gene-editing policymaking and for generating public awareness.

Current statistics reveal that agriculture contributes to about 10% of climate-heating emissions in the United Kingdom, out of which approximately 90% is composed of methane and nitrous oxide from livestock and fields, respectively.

Livestock production is also an important driver of habitat loss, water pollution and soil loss and while CRISPR’s use in AgTech is not a cure for all, the world’s scientific society is placing big bets on CRISPR’s ability to make the global food chain more sustainable.

Arguments surrounding ethics questioned whether breeders and policymakers should be allowed to “play god.” Gove foreseeing such concerns said that “lab-grown proteins, meanwhile, are very far from everyone’s idea of a mouth-watering treat.” Without enough positive public support, the implementation of such costly technologies does not make economic sense.

The opportunities existing today necessitate the decision of whether or not to experiment and at least learn about better livestock varieties must also include the welfare of future generations. If the overall global sustainability can be enhanced through contemporary scientific tools, the British policymakers have the responsibility of educating the masses.

Even with the controversy surrounding CRISPR-ing the DNAs of our bodies and food, the fact that gene-editing has taken a jump-start and has caused a lot of furor cannot be ignored.

While a Chinese researcher, Jiang He, announced to have created gene-edited human babies, Van Eenennam and colleagues continue to experiment and advocate genetically engineered, selected, and cloned animals in California.

And these are only two of many that have made headlines. Within the U.K., one group of researchers proposed plans to raise chicken with a small genomic incision to prevent them from contacting influenza, and another is pioneering the efforts to develop heat-resistant cattle.

Animals consumed for food with greater disease immunity would help in preventing the untimely demise of the animals as well as the spread of disease to humans. According to Van Eenennam, anti-progress arguments should not be allowed to hinder the benefits science can render to the entire ecosystem.

The burden of human population growth and lifestyle on mother nature is massive. This necessitates the utilization of human knowledge, expertise, and tools to provide some balance. In 2017, the U.K. spent £34.8 billion on research and development; however, it is disappointing that not more projects on livestock gene-editing have made it to the global forefront.

Only through investment in such discoveries can the U.K. hope to achieve a better understanding and implementation of sustainable livestock options.

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