The British government claims its new plans to allow gene-editing are nothing more than traditional breeding methods sped up by modern technology. But some experts are disputing this, arguing the technology is imprecise and will open the door to the “wild west” of genetics.
The plans, laid out in the Genetic Technology Bill on May 25, have been broadly—if not uniformly—welcomed by the farming community including the National Farmers Union.
If the government gets its way, the production of genetically-engineered animals and plants is just around the corner.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) promises food producers will be able to “develop plant varieties and animals with beneficial traits that could also occur through traditional breeding and natural processes but in a more efficient and precise way.”
These changes, the government insists, would only be those which could be produced through conventional breeding methods or naturally over time—just fast-forwarded in the lab.
‘It’s Not Precise’
But this characterisation, and the claim that any “undesirable” gene can just be “snipped” out without additional implications, is disputed.
“It’s not precise, so the term ‘precision breeding’ is a complete misnomer,” Dr. Michael Antoniou, lead geneticist in gene expression and therapy at King’s College London’s Faculty of Life Sciences and Medicine told The Epoch Times. “In addition to any intended genetic modification you invariably have large numbers of unintended alterations to the organism.”
These could include the production of toxins and allergens in plants or crops, he suggests, adding, “It’s a ‘wild west’ of gene-editing of crops, plants and animals and even bacteria that are going to be released into the environment in an uncontrolled way.”
Antoniou calls the process genetic modification under another name. Indeed, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in his maiden speech to parliament, setting out his post-Brexit vision in July 2019, said, “let’s start now to liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti genetic modification rules.”
Three years later, Antoniou disagrees with how the process is being interpreted to the public. “The mindset is, oh, it’s just a gene working in isolation. I’ll get rid of that and nothing else changes. This is not the way life is wired up to work. Gene systems work like integrated networks, like an eco system.”
He points to the case of a “gene-edited” pig in South Korea. “It had a gene destroyed which normally controls muscle growth. In the absence of that gene function their muscles grow grotesquely large so you see these highly-deformed animals. Are these animals really in a healthy physiological state? I very much doubt it. Their muscle mass is so exaggerated they must have trouble.”
This is, perhaps, quite an extreme edit, he accepts, but he is worried about too much control being vested in food producers. He thinks it will lead to a lack of transparency in the field and for what ultimately gets to market, though supermarkets have not yet said if they will sell the foods which could eventually include gene-edited beef, pork, and chicken.
Liz O’Neill, director of GM Freeze, a non-profit group campaigning against such foods, is also worried about the leverage producers will have over what we eat. “These technologies are patented,” she told The Epoch Times, ”so in law they are an invention and what that does is give the inventor a great deal of control.”
O’Neill believes the bill will “supercharge the industrialization of agriculture” and shares the concerns about animal welfare. “Every failed experiment will be a miscarriage. An animal born with a deformity could be incredibly painful. Take the idea of removing horns from cattle. If cattle are happy and have plenty of space, they don’t harm each other with their horns. The horns are only a problem if the animals are stressed. So what we’re in effect saying is we want the animals to be unable to express their stress.”
Combatting Bird Flu?
The government argues the changes will support animal welfare through genetically reducing susceptibility to illnesses such as avian flu. The not-for-profit organisation Compassion in World Farming accepts that combatting bird flu may be an advantage but says the way to prevent diseases in livestock is through better animal husbandry and less crowded conditions rather than tweaking their genes.
“I think this is a very grim moment for animal welfare,” their chief policy adviser Peter Stevenson told The Epoch Times. He expresses disappointment at a government he feels has done some good things such as the bill to ban live animal exports for slaughter or fattening.
Stevenson reels off the problems resulting from traditional selective breeding which he says could be amplified exponentially by the bill.
“Modern meat chicken broilers were bred to grow so quickly their legs can’t properly support that weight. Literally, tens of millions are suffering from painful leg disorders every year. Some of the birds succumb to heart disease when they are only five or six weeks old.”
Selective breeding in cows has been just as damaging, Stevenson believes.
“A cow with her calf would naturally produce just over a thousand litres of milk in her 10-month lactation,” he said. “Modern dairy cows have been bred to produce ten or twelve thousand. There’s so much pressure on them that after just three or four milk cycles, many are utterly worn out—in very poor condition and infertile—an infertile cow can’t produce milk so she’s put down. If you take an animal and push it to yields or growth rates that are way beyond its normal capacity this is going to cause huge metabolic strains.”
The government insists it is taking a step-by-step approach but Stevenson rejects this. “The bill permits the use of gene-edited animals on our farms and the sale of meat, milk, and eggs from them in our shops. It is taking the gene-edited animals out of the lab and putting them into farms and onto supermarket shelves.”
There are no plans for labelling the genetically-altered produce even though eighty-eight percent of those responding to the government’s public consultation last year were against that. What’s more, the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales oppose the genetic technology legislation.
DEFRA says the government is first introducing enabling legislation for plants and that there would be no change to the regulation of animals until a regulatory system outlined in the bill is developed. They stress safety and animal welfare will be key criteria for granting permission for each case.
DERFA did not respond to a request for comment from The Epoch Times about the specific concerns that the gene-editing process was imprecise and the implications that raised for animal welfare.