This week’s Guest View is dedicated to veterinary professor Lord Trees who outlines his support for the Gene Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill – which is being heard in England – and its potential to deliver positive results for disease control, animal welfare and environmental impact.
He points out, via Science for Sustainable Agriculture, that existing laws governing animal welfare, both in research and in agriculture, if properly enforced, should reassure those with welfare concerns.
Given my interests as a veterinarian, indeed the only veterinarian in the House of Lords, my contribution to the second reading debate of the Gene Technology (Precision Farming) Bill focused on its potential implications for animals, particularly in terms of disease resistance, the environment and animal welfare.
These are overlapping issues where, in my view, there is enormous potential for positive effects with the adoption of new breeding technologies such as gene editing.
I passionately share the concerns expressed during the debate by a number of peers about the need to protect animal welfare and prevent animal abuse and suffering. Importantly, these concerns are not unique to this bill.
Legislation already exists to cover laboratory, breeding and on-farm welfare issues, which would apply to precision-bred animals, as I will discuss.
By seeking to duplicate or add to existing welfare provisions solely in relation to the use of new breeding technologies, there is a serious risk that genetic research and innovation with potentially revolutionary implications for disease control and improving animal welfare – in which the UK is recognized as a world leader – could be discouraged or pushed elsewhere.
Notable recent advances in molecular biology have increased the speed and reduced the cost of whole genome sequencing, as well as the precise manipulation of the genome through techniques such as gene editing.
Although it has long been known that there are variations within and between animal species in susceptibility to infectious pathogens, this has, on the whole, not been exploited and demonstrated in animal husbandry. conventional animals.
Until recently, conventional selective breeding tended to focus on other productivity traits, although I was encouraged to read in a recent article by the eminent breeding specialist, Professor Geoff Simm , that better scientific understanding is increasingly enabling the design of “more sustainable breeding programs that better balance emphasis on productivity and animal health and welfare, that address environmental impacts and promote the sustainable use of farm animal genetic resources.
With whole genome sequencing, gene editing and utilization of the range of genetic resources represented by a variety of livestock breeds – rare breeds are a particularly valuable resource here – there is now a real opportunity to breed for disease resistance and other positive health factors. strokes, quickly and precisely.
For example, using gene-editing technology, pigs have been bred with resistance to Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS), a viral infectious disease of global significance that causes extremely high morbidity and mortality. In Europe alone, it is estimated to cost over £1.3 billion a year.
With regard to bird flu – which is currently causing huge mortality in wild birds and domestic poultry across Europe – it has been possible to genetically modify cultured chicken cells to make them resistant to the flu virus avian. This raises hope that poultry with genetic resistance to this devastating pathogen could be developed.
With regard to environmental issues, by reducing disease-related morbidity and mortality, new livestock technologies have the potential not only to improve food security, but also to maintain production with fewer animals and a reduced land use, while reducing the use of drugs and chemicals – including antibiotics and parasiticides – to help combat global problems of antimicrobial resistance and environmental pollution.
Another major environmental benefit is the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions resulting both from reduced morbidity and mortality – a major cause of emissions – and from the direct raising of animals, in particular cattle, with reduced methane emissions. We know it’s an inherited trait in cows. There are therefore substantial potential environmental gains.
When it comes to wellness – remembering that illness is a major wellness issue – reducing illness offers huge potential gains. Additionally, welfare could potentially be improved by reducing the need for certain potentially painful management procedures, such as debudding calves so they do not develop horns while raising polled cattle.
Sex determination could prevent the large-scale culling of, for example, male chicks from laying hen flocks.
Concerns about animal welfare are sincere, but I’m not yet convinced they are well-founded when raised specifically in relation to precision breeding, which experts in the field maintain mimics natural mutational processes. and conventional farming.
As with the introduction of any new technology, it is important to weigh the cost-benefit ratio. In my opinion, in this case, it is very positively in favor of the technology, provided, of course, that there are appropriate regulations and safeguards.
To be proportionate, these guarantees must take existing regulations into account. This bill does not change existing legislation protecting, for example, animals in research and development.
They are protected by the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, world class legislation which protects animals during research and development of medicines and vaccines for humans and animals.
Additionally, the bill does not change the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and subsequent regulations, which protect animals in many other ways. I would say that these regulations, properly applied, provide appropriate and proportionate safeguards.
Additionally, it is generally accepted that, where possible, welfare assessments should examine the results of any given management or husbandry procedure and should not, without evidence, assume that certain systems are good or bad for well-being.
Alongside notable scientific, veterinary and agricultural figures, I had the pleasure of signing a recent joint statement on animal welfare issues coordinated by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture, which emphasized this point.
He said: “It is wrong to associate gene editing with any particular breeding system or philosophy, just as it is wrong to associate scientific innovation and technological progress with a health or a poorer animal welfare.
“These technologies have so much to offer organic or extensive free-range producers, for example, who regularly use the most advanced animal genetics in their farming systems today, precisely because they offer a better balance between production factors , sustainability, health and well-being. ”
This is an important point. The use of genetics and advanced technologies, such as artificial insemination and sexed semen, are permitted and widely used under organic regulations, despite their perceived “unnaturalness”.
Overall, I strongly support the Precision Farming Bill. This would enable exciting new technologies that could transform our ability to control disease in animals, improve animal welfare and benefit the environment.
* Lord Sandy Trees is Emeritus Professor of Veterinary Parasitology at the University of Liverpool and an Interbank Peer since 2012. He is the sole veterinarian in the House of Lords. He qualified as a Veterinarian at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, University of Edinburgh and has worked in general medicine, industry and academia.