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News Article

Genetically engineered cattle: ethical and animal breeding perspectives

Decisions on how to make use of novel techniques such as genetic modification and genome editing need to be made based not only on what is possible, but on what is reasonable to do, review concludes.

Gene technology raises practical, technical and ethical issues. Advantages and disadvantages of the different technologies should be weighed against each other in each field of application before applying them in breeding programmes. This could be done through ethical advisory committees at the breeding organizations, which could contribute to open and nuanced discussions and responsible applications. This is suggested by researchers at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in an article published in the Journal of Dairy Science.

Biotechnology creates new possibilities to change the genetics of farm animals. The authors consider two potential applications: genome editing to create cows without horns, to dispense with dehorning and lowering the risk of mastitis in cows by transferring genes from humans through genetic modification (GM).

To date there are no genetically modified or genome edited farm animals in food production and it is uncertain how the future legislation will regulate the application of those techniques. If such applications will be permitted, the techniques will probably be used in large-scale breeding programmes, which will raise new questions – both practical and ethical. Can we, do we need to, and should we use these techniques in commercial breeding? Does it matter what reproduction technology we use, how we handle cows and embryos, or what trait we change? Are there alternatives ways to reach the same goals?

In their article, the SLU researchers describe the scientific literature, and contribute with ethical reflections on this topic. They say that ethical questions regarding animal welfare are important. Values and views on the integrity of animals, naturalness and risk assessments are other factors that affect how the new technologies could be assessed and could be received in society.

Knowledge in the area of genetics is expanding at a fast pace, but we still have limited understanding of how complex traits are regulated at the genetic level. To change individual genes with known effect is currently closer at hand than changing genes at several places in the genome to affect complex traits. The techniques can be used to different extent and for different purposes, which will determine to which degree the animals are affected. In the article the researchers suggest that the new techniques should be evaluated within the breeding context they are to be applied in, before being used on a larger scale. In this process an advisory committee with researchers, industry representatives, representatives of the public, as well as ethically or philosophically educated persons, could provide valuable views.

“These are complex issues, but they will be easier to manage if we focus on specific applications,” commented Susanne Eriksson, one of the authors of the article.

Article: Invited review: Breeding and ethical perspectives on genetically modified and genome edited cattle by S. Eriksson, E. Jonas, L. Rydhmer and H. Röcklinsberg, published in Journal of Dairy Science, online 25 October 2017, doi: 10.3168/jds.2017-12962

Article details

  • Date
  • 06 December 2017
  • Source
  • Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
  • Subject(s)
  • Food Animals