5 big reasons to say no to gene editing and #StopTheSplice

5 big reasons to say no to gene editing and #StopTheSplice

Our campaigns team weighs in on our latest campaign to protect farm animals #StopTheSplice in this blog by our campaigns manager, Shelley Phillips.

Whilst the RSPCA is known for the work of our fearless inspectors and frontline teams, our campaigning work also sits at the heart of what we do, by trying to improve the lives of animals. We work hard every day to create change and are usually running multiple campaigns at a time as while we're proud of the work we've achieved, we've still got a long fight ahead of us.

When it comes to gene editing, we think you'll agree that the UK Government needs to cut it out

One of the many reasons our campaigns team thrives is due to the variety of work we do on a daily basis. In the morning, we can be found doing our homework on genome-edited farm animals or broiler chickens (the important science-y stuff). And in the afternoon, we can be found meticulously planning activity and getting creative with our puppy trade campaign or stuck into our vital work of trying to find homes for rescue animals so that they can get the second chances they deserve.

We love having something new to stick our teeth into, and one of the trickiest but most interesting campaigns is our #StopTheSplice campaign on gene editing.

We launched our campaign after the UK Government announced a consultation on gene editing (GE) in January 2021. The Government is asking if the practice could be redefined, rules could be relaxed, and if gene-edited farm animals could be excluded from the definition of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

What is gene editing?

Genome editing is a group of technologies that enable an organism's genetic material (DNA) to be directly manipulated, for example by adding, removing or 'splicing' (breaking and joining) genetic material at particular locations. Gene editing animals is not the same as traditional selection through breeding, because it enables instant and significant changes to the genome.

Gene editing is a complicated issue, and there's no doubt that the scientific jargon can make for a tough read. Whilst we were preparing the work for this, some of us had to read the consultation response by the RSPCA Advocacy and Policy Team multiple times to fully grasp the issue and the consequences. The topic is undeniably a complex issue that can be difficult for most of us to get our heads around.

Our top reasons for supporting our #StopTheSplice campaign

We want to give you all of the information that you need on gene editing so that you can be aware of what exactly is going on and what is being proposed. We've also pulled together our top reasons for supporting our #StopTheSplice campaign. When it comes to gene editing, we think you'll agree that the UK Government needs to cut it out.

1.The welfare of farm animals is hugely compromised

The current rules and safeguarding around GMOs are intended to ensure that welfare standards are met and provide reassurance that both humans and animals are protected. Escalating technologies in this way has serious welfare implications and risks for the farm animals used to create GE lines, as well as the GE animals themselves.

Therefore, welfare standards could be at risk, as gene editing can have unpredictable effects and we have no history to show how stable the changes made are in the long term. The use of GE technologies threatens to push farmed animals even further towards, or further beyond, their biological limits.

2. Our consumer right to choose is at stake

At a time when health is at the forefront of discussion and saturating both the media and our social media feeds - diet and wellbeing are a huge concern for consumers. 

There's also a transformational shift in attitudes and many shoppers are trying their best to adapt to ethical lifestyles. We believe everyone has the right to make ethical choices about the foods we consume and the products we spend our money on.

If GE products are released from the definition of GMOs, then these products will not have to abide by the same rules or be sold with mandatory labelling.

Unfortunately, this means that the general public, who have the right to make informed, ethical choices, might be completely unaware that they're buying GE foods in the first place. We believe that independent consumer choice is important, and we're concerned that this will be hugely compromised.

3. The impact could be far and wide as Wales and Scotland may be forced to sell GE products

Whilst the decision to relax regulations and produce gene-edited products is devolved, these products could end up on the shelves in Scotland and Wales and be consumed unwittingly by people, despite devolved laws not allowing local production.

The reality could be that the devolved nations could not stop the sale of GE products and could not label them if there was no labelling of that product in England, which would confuse people and further jeopardise consumer confidence.

4. There are other ways to tackle challenges such as demand for animal products and environmental impact

Gene editing has been cleverly positioned as a tool to meet the demand for animal products and tackle sustainability but we believe there are other ways to combat these issues.

There are alternative approaches already available to achieve the proposed objectives of genetic technologies. For example, better animal husbandry and veterinary treatment and reducing food waste. With 12% of global meat and animal products lost or wasted every year, the meat wasted alone would represent millions of the 80 billion animals slaughtered annually.

5. The public doesn't want this, so why do it in the first place?

There is massive public debate on this, with a great deal of concern around 'naturalness' and the integrity of the animal. With understandable uncertainty, many people question whether technologies should be used in this way, and we believe that this liberation of innovation comes at a price for animals.

Supermarkets are also cautious about GE products and in February 2021, Co-op became the first UK retailer to reject products coming from gene-edited crops and animals. In a statement from its Chief Executive, the supermarket demonstrated a clear desire to see GE practices fully regulated in order to protect both people and the environment. GE products have also been withdrawn from approval in the USA following the Regulator's concerns on the transfer of other genes during the GE process.

With many people changing their lifestyle habits and embracing plant-based foods, there is also less reliance on animal products, and in this case, the argument for using GE techniques to meet food demand, may no longer be necessary and be considered an unjustifiable benefit.

Taking this all into account, it's difficult to see how the public would support the use of this particular innovation in a way that causes long term harm to animals. It is a real possibility that animals could suffer for seemingly little purpose.

No matter which way you splice it, the cost is too high for both animals and consumers

Time is ticking to tell the UK Government that we want a suspension on gene editing techniques, please take action now before the consultation closes on March 17.

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