On 25 May, the UK Government announced new legislation through the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, set to relax regulations on agricultural genetic editing of crops, and eventually animals.
Gene editing is currently not allowed in the UK as we still adhere to European Union policy1. However, Brexit has given the UK the ability to set its own rules. In this instance, this is unfortunately leading us to take a huge step backwards in animal welfare.
What does gene editing mean?
Gene editing is the removal of a piece of DNA from a gene, altering how the gene functions by ‘switching on and off’ certain traits that may or may not be desirable.
In selective breeding, a farmer will choose the most desired traits of an animal (i.e., tolerance to hot weather) and breed two animals together that share this trait, so their offspring have a higher chance of also having this trait. Gene editing will speed up this process by ‘switching on’ the climate tolerance trait2, creating cows that can better handle the rising temperatures due to climate change, and the hot and humid environment of intensive farming systems.
Gene editing is different from genetic modification, more commonly known as GMOs. In genetic modification, a whole new section of DNA (that holds the desired trait) is added to a gene, sometimes from a different species entirely. Currently, GMOs are regulated to ensure a high level of protection for both human health and animal welfare.
If the Gene Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill were to be successful, gene-edited farmed animals would be excluded from the definition of GMOs, and any accompanying regulations would be relaxed.
Ethical and welfare concerns
Plainly put, this new legislation poses significant ethical and welfare concerns for farmed animals. Gene editing will push farmed animals to their physical limits The UK Government argue that gene editing will “bolster food production” and “drive economic growth”. Therefore, gene editing will likely be used to push animals to grow bigger and faster, exacerbating the severe welfare problems that we know already exist through selective breeding for increased productivity.
Chickens are already forced to grow so big for their meat that they endure painful leg disorders, and dairy cows are pushed to produce such large quantities of milk that they suffer lameness and premature infertility, inevitably leading to a hasty death. Gene editing will perpetuate this suffering under the guise of ‘efficient farming’ and improved food security, at the expense of an animal’s welfare.
Gene editing will perpetuate and prop up factory farming
Gene editing can be used to improve disease resistance in farmed animals. It is true that this could be beneficial for diseases that do not arise from the intensive conditions of factory farming. However, many diseases arise from keeping animals in overcrowded and stressful conditions. Rather than using gene editing to mask the adverse health effects and perpetuate factory farming, we should be improving the conditions farmed animals are kept in.
The future impacts of gene editing are unclear Genetic technologies such as GMOs have been proven to cause unpredictable and unintended changes to the genetic makeup of animals. With no history of use to illustrate long term safety and reliability in gene editing on animals, we cannot predict what the medium or long-term effects on animal health and welfare will be.
GMOs are currently restricted on how they can be released into the environment to ensure modified animals are traceable and can be carefully monitored for any unforeseen effects. This regulation would still be essential for gene edited animals, and we do not hold the scientific evidence to relax on this regulation.
Knowing your products
There will be no way of knowing if the animal products you eat have been genetically edited. As the Bill currently stands, there is no Government intention or commitment for meat, milk products or egg products produced by gene-edited animals to be labelled as such. This means that when we go to the supermarket, we will have no way of knowing whether the food we but has undergone gene editing.
In a spring 2021 consultation on gene editing, 92% of responses received stated that the Government must consider issues such as consumer choice and appropriate product labelling3. However, no such demands have been acknowledged in the drafted Bill, contradicting the wishes of the public.
If this Bill passes through the Houses in its current state, unchallenged and unamended, we will forever question whether the food we buy has been genetically edited. It will serve as a reminder that, even though we are encouraged to care about the provenance of our food and provide our expertise and opinions, the concerns of the public are not given consideration by the Government.
Scotland and Wales will be forced to sell genetically edited products
This Bill will have significant consequences for the devolved nations such as Scotland and Wales. If the Bill passes, both nations could be forced to allow these foods for sale in their countries, without the need for mandatory labelling and despite opposition from Scottish and Welsh MPs and ministers4.
Gene editing may affect how we can trade with the EU
Relaxing the regulations on genetically edited products would mean divergence from the EU approach and as such could have implications on future trade. The additional checks and certification requirements needed for UK food exports entering the EU could severely hamper our trade with the EU.
We cannot let this Bill pass in its current state
Permitting gene editing is a backward step for animal welfare. By regarding animals as ‘things’ that can be tampered with for human convenience, gene editing goes against everything we fought for in the new Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act.
And it is not just animal welfare organisations like us that believe this legislation is wrong. The 2021 gene editing consultation received over 6,000 responses ranging from businesses, NGOs, public sector bodies, academic institutions and individuals of the general public. 88% of individuals believed GMOs should still be regulated, with 87% stating that genetic editing poses a greater risk of harm to human and environmental health due to the possibility of unintended consequences and animal welfare issues2.
Regardless of this overwhelming cross-sector and public opposition, this Bill is being fast-tracked through Parliament whilst other legislation that would benefit animals either remains stagnant, as is the case for the Kept Animals Bill, or do not appear at all, as is the case with bans the sale and import of fur and foie gras.
It is a farce that a Bill that has the ability to be detrimental to the future of livestock agriculture is being prioritised over the 2021 National Food Strategy5 recommendations that support prioritising sustainable farming through healthy diets, meat reduction and reduced overcrowding of farmed animal populations.
What can we do next?
The 2nd reading for the Gene Editing Bill took place in the House of Commons on Wednesday 15 June. We, alongside other NGOs, wrote to MPs to voice our concerns and urged them to raise these points during the Second Reading, and are grateful to those who spoke up for animal welfare. It is clear that the regulatory framework that should be present to protect animals is severely lacking. Vital inclusions such as a dedicated animal welfare advisory board are vague and require clarity within the Bill, rather than being tacked onto secondary legislation. Together, we are readying amendments to ensure these issues are encompassed in the primary Bill and we will continue fighting for animal welfare to be protected as this legislation makes its way through parliament.
We will endeavour to keep you updated on the progress of this Bill, and how you can help protect animals from the bleak consequences this legislation poses. We must ensure that the success of the Sentience Act that you helped us achieve is not in vain, and we must use our voice to speak out for the thousands who protested against gene editing in the consultation phase but were ignored.
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