Precision Breeding Bill: let’s focus the debate on using scientific innovation for public good
Science for Sustainable Agriculture
Society faces challenges to feed a growing population with a reliable supply of wholesome food, produced to high standards of safety and welfare. The development and adoption of new technologies – such as precision breeding - can help optimise the balance between productivity, health and welfare in modern livestock farming systems, says aquaculture breeder Alan Tinch.
It was disappointing that a minority of MPs used last week’s Second Reading debate on the Precision Breeding Bill to articulate their prejudice against modern livestock farming by suggesting that the legislation would be a step backwards for farm animal welfare.
Disappointing, but perhaps not entirely surprising given the high-profile campaigns by organisations such as Compassion in World Farming to draw an (unjustified) association between technological advance and worse outcomes for farm animal welfare.
This isn’t a debate about whether or not we should farm livestock. We should be considering how new technology can be used to make farming even more sustainable, and deliberating ways to improve the health and welfare of livestock.
Genome editing itself is neutral in terms of animal health and welfare. It is a scientific tool which enables scientists and breeders to make targeted genetic changes more quickly and precisely, based on our improved understanding of genomics and genetic function.
Margaret Beckett, as Environment Secretary, once observed that opposing genetic technologies was like campaigning against the petri dish – in other words, what matters is not the existence of specific scientific tools but the way they are used.
As this legislation progresses through Parliament, I hope that future debates will focus on the potential of the science, and avoid provocative references to “cramming animals together in unsanitary conditions” (Kerry McCarthy MP – a vegan), or to “intensive factory farming practices” (Caroline Lucas MP – a vegetarian).
It is also wrong to associate genome editing with any particular farming system or ideology, just as it is wrong to associate scientific innovation and technological advance with poorer animal health or welfare.
We understand from experience that any advance in our scientific knowledge can be deployed to deliver a range of outcomes. We should assess and deploy new technology to improve systems, not dismiss it because there are potential negative consequences. Overzealous precautionary approaches would have prevented use of new technologies such as the printing press, the steam engine, internal combustion engine, vaccines and others. We now consider the Locomotive Act disproportionate with its requirement to wave flags in front of motorised vehicles.
The development of Covid vaccines in record time is a clear example of how genetic technologies such as GM, genome editing and RNAi have unquestionably been used for the enormous benefit of humankind.
Current plans for the use of genome editing in the livestock sector relate either to human health applications or to improved health and welfare in farmed animals, primarily through improved genetic resistance to diseases such as Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) and African Swine Fever in pigs, and avian influenza in poultry.
These devastating animal health conditions are not the result of ‘factory farming’, as Caroline Lucas suggests. They do not differentiate between animals kept in intensive or extensive systems.
Concern continues about the spread of avian influenza which is transmitted by wild birds and affects outdoor-reared and backyard poultry, and can potentially mutate to infect humans and begin the next global pandemic. Genome editing to control avian influenza infection in chickens has been proposed by scientists in the UK. How can it be ethical not to embrace and encourage scientific innovation which promises solutions to such devastating disease?
The Precision Breeding Bill itself does not set or change existing standards for farm animal welfare.
These standards are addressed through separate regulations applied at both research and farm level – and which rightly focus on welfare outcomes, not on production or breeding methods. They are reinforced at farm level by independently accredited assurance schemes such as ‘Red Tractor’ and ‘RSPCA Assured’.
Still often misjudged by the perceptions of 30 or 40 years ago, farm animal breeding today uses a balanced approach to select for a range of traits which optimise performance, health and welfare outcomes in new strains. Organisations such as the European Forum of Farm Animal Breeders (EFFAB) promote the use of a balanced range of traits in farm animal breeding, and UK breeders – supported by world-leading livestock research and animal health institutes such as Roslin and Pirbright – are recognised for developing novel methods of selecting animals with improved welfare characteristics – including IPN resistance in Atlantic salmon, and real-time X-ray assessment of leg strength in broilers.
By using genome editing constructively, animal breeders and farmers can deliver further improvements the health, welfare and sustainability of farmed animals. Personally, I consider it immoral not to deploy technology that can be used to improve the health and welfare of the animals in our care. We wouldn’t argue against the development of a new vaccine because farmers might increase stocking density – and exactly the same argument applies to precision breeding technologies such as genome editing.
In addition, the Bill makes provision for a separate welfare assessment to be applied specifically to genome edited animals as a further assurance that the welfare of the animal (or its progeny) would not be adversely affected by any trait resulting from precision breeding.
Modern animal breeders welcome objective methods to assess animal welfare and include assessment of welfare-associated traits into their breeding programmes. By open and transparent consideration of precision breeding technology, animal breeders can demonstrate that modern farming continues to improve the health, welfare and sustainability of livestock production.
Alan Tinch is VP Genetics of The Center for Aquaculture Technologies. He has over 30 years’ experience working in farm animal breeding for international breeding companies. During his career he has worked with aquatic and terrestrial species such as Atlantic salmon, chickens and pigs in the UK and worldwide.