27 May 2022 - for immediate release

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Leading figures from the veterinary, scientific and livestock community challenge the ‘anti-science’ stance of RSPCA in opposing Precision Breeding Bill

 

Precision breeding technologies can help accelerate the development of major health and welfare boosting traits such as PRRS resistance in pigs and bird flu resistance in poultry, and the RSPCA is wrong to claim there are ‘more ethical and humane ways’ to solve these challenges, say leading figures from the veterinary, genetic science, breeding and farming sectors.

 

As the world emerges from a global pandemic, amid heightened concerns over food security, and with global demand for meat protein set to double by 2050, representatives of the UK livestock research and production chain have strongly challenged the RSPCA’s stance, saying it would be unethical not to embrace the potential of technologies such as gene editing to help improve sustainable, high-welfare production in farmed animals. They also expressed disappointment that the RSPCA, an organisation dedicated to promoting better animal welfare, is taking a campaigning stance against scientific advances which have so much to offer in terms of improved health and welfare in farmed animals.

 

They were responding to a statement by the RSPCA describing the Government’s Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, introduced in Parliament this week, as a ‘serious step back’ for animal welfare, raising concerns over unknown and unpredictable long-term consequences.

 

But Professor Lord Trees, a cross-bench Peer and former President of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, warned that a failure to embrace more precise breeding technologies such as gene editing could be a missed opportunity to deliver significant improvements in animal health and welfare.

 

“Disease is arguably the single biggest welfare issue in rearing farm animals, and gene editing offers the potential to accelerate the development of disease resistant breeds.  This would in turn reduce drug and chemical use, with positive effects for problems such as anti-microbial resistance and environmental pollution. Other beneficial applications for welfare include the potential to aid sex determination, so avoiding the need to cull male chicks or dairy calves. We do have robust animal welfare regulations in place for farmed animals, no matter how they have been bred, as well as other legislation covering research and development. These existing regulations rightly focus on welfare outcomes, rather than any particular breeding method,’ he said. 

 

Professor Helen Sang, a scientist at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh who has pioneered the use of gene editing in research aimed at developing bird flu resistance in chickens, also underlined the major opportunities of applying these technologies to benefit animal health and welfare, with UK research leading the world in many respects.

 

“Simply blocking the development of disease resistance traits such as PRRS resistance in pigs and bird flu resistance in poultry – in which UK-based research is world-leading - would be detrimental to animal welfare. It is simply not true to claim there are more ethical or humane ways to solve these previously intractable, and devastating, health conditions which affect animals reared in all types of farming systems. Regulatory safeguards are already in place to maintain high standards of welfare – from early-stage research to on-farm production. The Precision Breeding Bill also includes provision for additional welfare assessments applied specifically to gene edited animals, so from a scientific perspective it is difficult to understand the RSPCA’s position,” she said.

 

Professor Sang issued an open invitation to discuss the application of these techniques with senior RSPCA staff and Board Members, and to help explain their potential to improve livestock health and welfare, prevent future zoonoses, and reduce drug use in farm animals.

  

Livestock breeder Dr Craig Lewis, chair of the European Forum of Farm Animal Breeders (EFFAB), emphasised the positive changes that have taken place in breeding programmes over the past 20-30 years, from targeting a limited number of production-related traits to now focusing on a much broader range of some 30 characteristics, many of which are directly related to animal health, welfare and sustainability.

 

“Growing up on a small family pig farm I have seen first-hand the impact of the PRRS virus on both pig and farmer welfare. The emotional toll of dealing with sick animals, and also the impact on farmers’ mental health, like my father, who want the best for their animals, is real. Disease impacts animals, households, and entire rural communities. Now in my current role working as part of a breeding industry that can successfully gene edit pigs to deliver effective resistance to the devastating PRRS virus in pigs, which impacts both intensive and extensive production systems, it could be viewed as unethical from an animal welfare and community standpoint not to support the application of these more precise and accelerated breeding technologies in UK agriculture,” he said.

 

Rob Beckett, of YorkWold PigPro, a livestock farmer with over 35 years’ experience in the industry, said the direction of travel for farm animal health and welfare in the UK is undeniably positive, with significant reductions in antibiotic use, stocking densities and surgical procedures. Much of this progress is due to improved genetics, he said, driven by a collective approach involving consumers and retailers, processors, farmers, vets and breeders. The two-thirds reduction in antibiotic use by the UK pig industry since 2014 can be attributed not only to better standards of management and husbandry, but also to the development of more resilient and disease resistant breeding lines, he added.

 

“The Covid pandemic should be a reminder of the need to embrace new knowledge and technology to protect human and animal health. UK-based scientists at places like Roslin and Pirbright are world leaders in gene editing research to improve livestock health and welfare and prevent future zoonoses. In my view it would be unethical to restrict or discourage such research due to out-of-date or ill-informed prejudice against the livestock sector,” he said.

 

ENDS

 

 

Notes to Editors

Science for Sustainable Agriculture (SSA) is a new policy and communications platform, offering a focal point for information, comment and debate around modern, sustainable agriculture and food production. Supported by an independent advisory group of political, scientific and industry leaders from a range of sectors and backgrounds (listed below), SSA’s aim is to promote a conversation rooted in scientific evidence, rather than ideology. Science for Sustainable Agriculture will provide a platform for like-minded individuals and organisations to champion and explain the vital role of science and technology in safeguarding our food supply, tackling climate change and protecting the natural environment. SSA also stands ready to expose, comment on and challenge unscientific positions or policy decisions in relation to sustainable agriculture.

Advisory Group members

Matt Ridley – science writer and farmer

Professor Tina Barsby – plant scientist

Dr Julian Little – science communicator

Graham Brookes – agricultural economist

Lord Rooker - politician

Professor Helen Sang – livestock scientist

Helen Munday – food industry scientist

Dr Helen Ferrier – scientific and regulatory affairs adviser

Dr Craig Lewis – livestock breeder

David Hill – arable farmer

Paul Temple – mixed farmer

Professor Johnathan Napier – plant scientist

Julian Sturdy MP – politician and farmer

Alex Waugh – primary food processing

Dr Alastair Leake – agronomist and conservation scientist

Karen Holt – regulatory consultant

Nigel Moore – plant breeding

Daniel Pearsall – co-ordinator

 

Contact:

Daniel Pearsall, co-ordinator

E: press@scienceforsustainableagriculture.com

Unethical not to embrace gene editing for improved farm animal welfare