Published 2018-05-24

This post is also available in Swedish

Mistra Biotech: breeding industry needs ethical committees for genetic engineering

Modern genetic engineering creates many opportunities for breeding enterprises, but also raises ethical questions. Establishing ethical review boards may be a solution for determining whether and when technology can be a real alternative to traditional breeding. This is set out by researchers in Mistra Biotech, in an article published in a reputable American journal.

In the latest issue of Journal of Dairy Science, researchers at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) who are active in Mistra Biotech raise questions. These concern what we can do with genetic engineering and modern breeding technology, but also what we should do.

Should calves be born with horns when they are going to be dehorned anyway, at the calf stage, to avoid injuries to the animals and those who work with them? This is despite the fact that today, using gene editing, producing hornless cattle is possible.

Genetic engineering can also be used to protect animals from diseases. For example, the risk of cows suffering from udder inflammation may decrease if human genes are inserted into them. Moreover, genetic engineering makes it possible to breed pigs with a better capacity to digest phosphorus in their food, which would reduce the environmental impact of rearing them.

One of the big questions is how to use the technology. Today, it may not be used for food production involving farm animals, and use of the new gene-editing tool known as ‘molecular scissors’ is currently not regulated by legislation.

‘We had a broad discussion with experts from various places, and didn’t always agree. But what we concluded was that these issues must get closer to those who work on food and animal husbandry,’ says Susanne Eriksson, an animal agronomist at the Department of Animal Breeding and Genetics at SLU.

Breeding with genetic engineering may, for example, conflict with our sense of dignity when humans intervene and modify animals they will later eat. In addition, many may perceive the methods as infringing on the rights of other living creatures.

But doesn’t animal husbandry already mean interfering with the natural order?

‘You can, of course, question whether it’s ethically correct and natural, and we had big discussions about this in the group. However, we decided to start with what we do today.’

Just like other technologies, genetic engineering requires some tricky considerations. For example, many embryos may have to be used before the desired result is achieved. If genetic engineering is used to change more complex characteristics, it may also be difficult to survey the potential consequences.

The step from laboratory experiments to large-scale production is important, and here the industry needs to get involved and take more responsibility, Eriksson argues. The technologies should be improved further and, before there is any talk of large-scale use, tested in the breeding contexts where they are intended to be used.

The research group proposes that the breeding companies establish ethical committees consisting of researchers, representatives of the public, and ethicists who will help them make balanced decisions. Examples of this already exist in the Netherlands, for example, Eriksson reveals.


Text: Thomas Heldmark