Leading UK researchers, veterinarians and farmers have urged ministers to free animal husbandry science from unnecessary legal restrictions as the country prepares post-Brexit to relax gene-editing rules. Such an approach would allow the creation of new breeds of animals resistant to disease, heat and drought, they argue.
The government is expected to propose relaxing gene editing restrictions in the near future to allow for the creation of new generations of crops. However, the group – which wrote to Environment Secretary George Eustice – fear there is less interest in using technology to create new breeds of pigs, cows and poultry.
“It is just 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 especially important as global warming intensifies and we are working to ensure that we are protected against future outbreaks of zoonotic diseases.”
The value of gene editing in the latter area is demonstrated by work at Roslin and Imperial College London, where scientists have identified a gene that can confer resistance to influenza. “We can now consider using gene editing to create breeds resistant to avian and swine flu, and thus curb epidemics in farms, while reducing the risk of triggering future pandemics in humans”, added Whitelaw, one of the signatories of the letter.
Other recent developments in gene editing in livestock include the creation of pigs capable of fighting a disease known as porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus (PRRSV), which is devastating herds of pigs 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.
Newer gene editing techniques involve making slight modifications to existing genes in a plant or animal and are considered to be as safe as traditional plant breeding techniques. However, the European Court of Justice controversially ruled in 2018 that gene editing is essentially the same as genetic modification and should be subject to strict rules.
“Research on gene editing in the UK has been hampered by the unnecessary and unscientific regulatory barriers we have inherited from the EU,” said Professor Helen Sang, also of the Roslin Institute and a signatory of 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 get rid of these legislative hurdles with an upcoming announcement from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. However, a report by the Task Force on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform earlier this year advised the government to pursue regulatory reform of plant and crop gene editing, but was more cautious. as to its use on livestock.
Such insistence would represent a lost opportunity, said Professor Lord Trees, an expert in vaccine parasitology and another signatory to the letter. “The UK’s strength in genome sequencing, as well as our preservation of rare breeds and genetic diversity offers great potential.
“This could have a very important impact on reducing the use of antimicrobial and antiparasitic drugs and help overcome the challenges of resistance to chemical treatments, as well as the problem of environmental contamination from drug residues. “
Many green groups remain opposed to the creation of new genetically modified breeds of pigs, cows and poultry, arguing that they will only worsen the intensification of factory farming.
“Some people just don’t like the idea of genetically modifying animals,” Whitelaw said. “But we’ve been doing this for thousands of years and turned wolves into chihuahuas and no one seems to care.”