New gene editing technology should not be used to breed farm animals with traits that mean they can endure poor welfare conditions, an independent report has said.
And food retailers should commit to only selling meat from animals that are bred responsibly, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics urged in a series of recommendations on genome editing and farm animal breeding.
The council warned that while biotech could offer potential “marginal benefits” in cutting greenhouse gases and tackling other environmental impacts of livestock, it will not make a substantial difference without changes to food and farming systems – and probably a reduction in demand for meat and dairy products.
Genome editing – the precise, targeted alteration of DNA to change the function of genes – is at the research stage for food sources including animals such as chicken, pigs and cows.
The council’s report said it could bring real benefits for food production, such as reducing disease in livestock, but could also be used to increase unethical practices such as intensive farming that worsens welfare, or breeding that results in animals that have lost the physical capacity to have a good life.
The UK Government recently signalled its intention to relax regulation for animals bred using genome editing techniques, which would only apply in England.
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics is calling on the Government to urgently engage with the public on the issue before any changes to permit the sale of genome edited (GE) food take place.
A report from the council calls for the Government to put animal welfare at the heart of its approach to the new technology, and for strong regulation and incentives to encourage ethical breeding practices.
Food labelling should allow the public to access information such as breeding practices, living conditions and diet of animals, and the Government should bring major food retailers together to ensure all animal products offered for sale come from animals that have been responsibly bred.
There also needs to be a “traffic light” system to assess the impact of breeding programmes, and the red category – covering the development of traits that make it difficult for them to enjoy a good life, such as fast-growing broiler chickens – should not be used in commercial farming.
Public funding is needed to support voluntary changes in people’s diets towards consuming animal products at sustainable levels and only when they are responsibly bred, the report says.
It says that overall the global food and farming system is “morally indefensible and unsustainable” and the ways in which we produce and consume food must adapt to provide a secure and sustainable supply of nutritious food.
GE could be used in ways that improve animal welfare and health and provide economic benefits to farmers, such as breeding pigs that are resistant to deadly disease or producing hornless cattle that do not need to be “dehorned” for safety reasons.
Or it could be used to put genetic markers on male chickens so they are disposed of as eggs, rather than killed as newly hatched chicks, in egg-laying farming systems, which only require female hens.
But the experts warned that editing genes to tackle health issues in animals could also be used to increase stocking densities of livestock in intensive systems that would undermine their welfare.
They also warned of the potential negative outcomes of breeding for “production traits” such as faster growth, bigger final weights of animals, the size of litters or efficiency of producing milk.
Professor John Dupre, chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ working group and professor of philosophy at the University of Exeter, said: “The potential of genome editing offers a new approach to bring about genetic changes in farmed animals much more quickly than is currently possible through selective breeding.
“Whilst some applications of genome editing – such as disease resistance – sound great for animals in theory, if they were to lead to further intensification of farming then that may well be harmful to the quality of animals’ lives in other ways.
“Under no circumstances should new breeding technologies be brought in to perpetuate unsustainable food and farming systems,” he said, adding that now was the moment to act to prevent it.
Danielle Hamm, director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, said: “It may not be long before genome edited meat ends up in the supermarkets and on people’s plates.”
She said the report found that the public was generally more concerned about how and why new breeding technologies would be used, rather than the nature and safety of the techniques.
She also said: “The public recognise that our food and farming systems need to change, and it is clear they will not tolerate the introduction of any new technology that takes us further away from high-welfare, sustainable farming.
“Before any regulatory changes are made, the Government should be making it a priority to speak with the public to help develop a clear plan for the ethical use of this technology.”
A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesperson said: “We are taking a step-by-step approach to enable gene editing, starting with plants only and then reviewing the application to animals and microorganisms later.
“We are committed to proportionate, science-based regulation and we will not reduce safety or animal welfare standards.”