The UK’s leading researchers, veterinarians and farmers have urged ministers to free livestock science from unnecessary legal restrictions as the country prepares, after Brexit, to ease gene editing rules. Such a move would allow the creation of new breeds of animals resistant to disease, heat and drought, they argue.
The government is expected to propose easing gene editing restrictions in the near future to allow the creation of new generations of crops. However, the group, which has written to environment secretary George Eustice, worries that there is less interest in using technology to create new breeds of pigs, cows and poultry.
“It is as important that we use the enormous power of gene editing to create animal breeds resistant to disease, drought and heat waves as it is to create new crop varieties,” said Professor Bruce Whitelaw of the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh. “This is particularly important as global warming intensifies and we strive to ensure we are protected against future outbreaks of zoonotic diseases.”
The value of gene editing in the latter field is demonstrated by work done at Roslin and Imperial College London, where scientists have identified a gene that can confer resistance to influenza. “Now we can think about using gene editing to create breeds resistant to avian and swine flu, thus curbing outbreaks on farms, while reducing the risk of triggering future pandemics in humans,” added Whitelaw, one of the signatories of the letter.
Other recent developments in livestock gene editing include the creation of pigs that can fight a disease known as porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus (PRRSV), which is devastating pig herds around the world. “Using gene editing in this way has enormous power to save billions of pounds and stop animal suffering,” Whitelaw said.
Previously, the creation of new strains of plants or animals in the laboratory involved the transfer of entire genes or groups of genes from one species to another and was known as genetic modification. The EU strictly regulates GM technology.
The latest gene editing techniques involve making slight changes to existing genes in a plant or animal and are considered as safe as traditional breeding techniques. However, the European court of law controversially ruled in 2018 that gene editing was essentially the same as genetic modification and should be subject to strict rules.
“Gene editing research in the UK has been hampered by unnecessary and unscientific regulatory barriers that we have inherited from the EU,” said Professor Helen Sang, also from the Roslin Institute and a signatory to the letter. “This leaves us behind the approach taken in other parts of the world, such as Japan, Australia, Argentina, Brazil and Canada.”
Britain is expected to break free from these legislative shackles with an announcement soon from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. However, a report from the Working Group on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform earlier this year advised the government to go ahead with regulatory reform of plant and crop gene editing, but was more cautious about its use in livestock. .
Such an emphasis would represent a missed opportunity, said Professor Lord Trees, an expert in vaccine parasitology and another signatory to the letter. “The UK’s strength in genome sequencing, coupled with our preservation of rare breeds and genetic diversity, offers great potential.
“This could have a very significant impact on reducing the use of antimicrobial and antiparasitic drugs and help overcome the challenges of resistance to chemical treatment, as well as the problem of environmental contamination with drug residues.”
Many environmental groups continue to oppose the creation of new gene-edited breeds of pigs, cows and poultry, arguing that they will only make the escalation of factory farming worse.
“Some people just don’t like the idea of genetically altering animals,” Whitelaw said. “But we’ve been doing it for thousands of years and we’ve turned wolves into Chihuahuas and nobody seems to care.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism