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Why the Nuffield Council on Bioethics must revisit its report on genome editing in farmed animals 

Professor the Lord Trees & Lord Curry of Kirkharle 

February 2024

Science for Sustainable Agriculture

Leading veterinarian Lord Trees and veteran farming champion Lord Curry of Kirkharle explain why they have called on the Nuffield Council on Bioethics to revise and update its 2021 report on the ethics of genome editing in farmed animals. They challenge the report’s characterisation of our food production system as ‘morally indefensible and unsustainable’, citing evidence of significant and ongoing improvements in livestock breeding and welfare improvements, driven by science. They also warn of the report’s disproportionately negative impact on the political and public debate, urging Nuffield to take greater account of the ethical implications of not embracing a technology with the potential to deliver solutions to previously intractable disease problems, such as bird flu in poultry, PRRS in pigs and BVD in cattle.   


On behalf of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture, and in our respective roles as a veterinarian and lifelong livestock farmer, we issued an open letter earlier this week calling on the Nuffield Council on Bioethics to update and revise its report on ‘Genome editing and farmed animal breeding: social and ethical issues’, first published in December 2021.


We are concerned that the Nuffield report continues to have a disproportionately negative impact on the political and public debate surrounding this issue, and that it misrepresents the realities of today’s modern livestock farming and breeding industries.


We are asking for the report to be reviewed to reflect ongoing and long-term positive developments in farmed animal breeding and welfare standards, as well as to take greater account of the wider ethical implications of not embracing new technologies such as genome editing in livestock breeding.


Significantly, our letter has been signed by many leading organisations and individuals across the scientific, veterinary, breeding, farming and input supply sectors, including two members of the original steering group behind the Nuffield report.


Back in October 2022, the All-Party Group co-ordinated an open statement to highlight the high standards of animal health and welfare on UK farms, pointing to evidence that the direction of travel for animal welfare is positive and improving, for example in terms of issues such as stocking densities, antibiotic use, live transport, housing conditions, biosecurity and training.


Since that open statement was published, the evidence of improvement has continued, including a further reduction in use of antibiotics in food-producing animals to their lowest ever level, having more than halved over the past decade, as reported by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate in November 2023.  


By contrast, however, in characterising the current state of our food production system as ‘morally indefensible and unsustainable’, and in presenting conventional breeding as a major cause of poor welfare outcomes, the Nuffield report conveys a misleading impression that animal welfare standards are poor and deteriorating, and that genome editing will simply be used by livestock scientists and breeders to exacerbate or accelerate those welfare problems. 


This is simply not supported by the evidence of how these new technologies are being used in practice. UK-based research is at the forefront of genetic advances which could help alleviate serious animal welfare problems caused by intractable diseases such as Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Disease (PRRS), Avian Influenza and African Swine Fever.     


Around the world, new research breakthroughs in precision breeding are emerging on a near weekly basis which could help drive further health and welfare gains in animal agriculture.


For example, US authorities recently cleared gene edited slick coated cattle for commercialisation, a trait intended to improve the performance (and comfort) of cattle under hotter conditions. Polled gene edited cattle could follow soon, offering a major welfare benefit by avoiding the de-horning process currently used to prevent injury to other cattle or farm workers. Israeli researchers have developed gene edited hens that lay eggs from which only female chicks hatch, potentially preventing the slaughter of billions of day-old male chicks each year, culled because they don't lay eggs. And USDA scientists have developed the first gene edited calf with resistance to the deadly and highly infectious bovine viral diarrhoea (BVD) virus.


When the Nuffield report’s author, Dr Pete Mills, spoke to the All-Party Group in April 2022, he insisted that the report was ‘emphatically not antagonistic’ to the use of genome editing technologies in farmed animals. This is not, however, reflected in the way the report has been interpreted and referred to, particularly by lawmakers discussing the future regulation of these techniques.


Our analysis indicates that the Nuffield report was referenced more than 40 times by MPs and Peers during the Parliamentary passage of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act. Almost without exception, the report was cited either to justify calls to remove animals from the scope of the legislation, or to support tighter restrictions on the use of genome editing in farmed animals. The report was not referenced a single time to illustrate how genome editing might be used positively to improve welfare outcomes, or to alleviate animal suffering.


Indeed, the Nuffield report was used by some Parliamentarians to conjure up deliberately emotive images such as ‘cramming animals together in unsanitary conditions’ or enabling them to endure poor welfare conditions more easily, when the Act has no bearing whatsoever on existing welfare legislation, which will continue to apply whether animals are precision bred or not.


As a result, with plans now being developed for additional, unique statutory controls on genome edited animals, there is a serious risk that genetic research and innovation with potentially game-changing implications for disease control and improved animal welfare – research in which the UK is recognised as a world-leader - could be discouraged or driven elsewhere.


This itself has ethical implications which are not addressed in detail in the Nuffield report, for example in relation to not using the potential of these breeding technologies to prevent unnecessary animal disease and suffering. Importantly, this applies not only to the impact on livestock and their keepers on British farms, but also in other countries – many of whom may take their lead from the UK as a respected regulator and thought leader in the animal welfare space.


Equally disappointing is the Nuffield report’s seemingly wilful misrepresentation of the modern farmed animal breeding industry. According to breeders who presented both written and oral evidence to the Nuffield steering group, information about how the breeding industry has evolved to adapt a more balanced approach in recent decades was simply ignored or overlooked in favour of more historical data.


In response to criticisms from breeders that the report’s portrayal of conventional breeding did not reflect the modern reality, Dr Mills told the All-Party Group that while data was widely available documenting historical welfare problems caused by livestock breeding, Nuffield had struggled to get hold of data to support breeders’ claims of more recent improvements. He suggested that there was a need for reassurance on this point.   


Indeed, one notable response to the report’s publication is that livestock breeders and scientists increasingly recognise and accept the need to be more open about modern breeding programmes and objectives, and to demonstrate how a more balanced approach is delivering beneficial outcomes for the health and welfare of farmed animals. This is reflected in the breeding industry’s development and adoption of codes of practice such as Code EFABAR to demonstrate their commitment to responsible and sustainable breeding.   


Responding directly to Dr Mills’ call for reassurance, we also highlighted two recent peer-reviewed papers, both published in 2023, documenting significant long-term improvements in key welfare criteria such as birth weight and piglet survival rates in pigs, leg strength and cardiovascular function in poultry, which have been delivered as a direct result of more balanced breeding programmes.


Both papers focus on documented improvements over the past 20 years, and both emphasise that the rate of improvement has been most marked over the past 10 years, supported by an improved scientific understanding of animal biology, genomics and genetic function.      


The original Nuffield report may now be over two years old, but it is still being cited as an authoritative point of reference on the ethical considerations of genome editing in farmed animals.


Therefore, it continues to mislead the public debate in relation to animal welfare standards on UK farms, in relation to the welfare objectives and outcomes of modern breeding programmes, and in relation to the prospective applications of genome editing techniques in farmed animals.


This is why we have strongly urged the Nuffield Council on Bioethics to update and revise its report to more accurately reflect recent positive developments in farmed animal breeding and welfare standards, as well as to take greater account of the potentially adverse ethical implications of not embracing these technologies, or of adopting overly-restrictive regulations which might discourage their use.


Lord Sandy Trees is Emeritus Professor of Veterinary Parasitology, University of Liverpool and a Cross-Bench Peer since 2012. He is the only veterinarian in the House of Lords. He qualified as a vet at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, University of Edinburgh, and has worked in general practice, industry and academia. He was Dean of the Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Liverpool from 2001 to 2008, and served as President of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons from 2009 to 2010.


Lord Don Curry is a Northumberland livestock farmer who has held significant roles in both the agricultural and regulatory sectors. He has been a Cross-Bench Peer since 2011. Lord Curry chaired the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food (known as the Curry Commission) in 2001–2002. He was also previously chair of NFU Mutual and non-executive chair of the Better Regulation Executive.

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