Genetic technology bill: A serious step back for animal welfare

Genetic technology bill: A serious step back for animal welfare

The government has today announced new legislation through the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill to allow regulations around gene editing of crops - and eventually animals - to be relaxed in the UK.

The RSPCA has expressed serious welfare and ethical concerns about gene editing animals. RSPCA head of public affairs David Bowles said:

"It is incredibly disheartening and frustrating to see sentient animals included in this Bill, along with crops. We understand that a regulatory framework will be set out around gene editing animals, but now is not the time to be relaxing the regulations. The animal welfare impact of directly altering an animal's genetic material can be unpredictable and we simply do not know the long-term consequences. There are potentially serious implications, for both farm animals and people who care about them and want to be ethical consumers. 

The Government claims that gene editing could provide the answer to more sustainable and efficient farming, healthier food, reduced environmental impact, reduced disease and a reduction in a reliance on antibiotics. 

All these issues are critically important but we believe there are more ethical and humane ways to solve these issues without pushing farm animals even further towards their physical limits. For example, policy measures could be used to reduce waste and improve stockmanship, 'eat less, eat better' - reducing our reliance on the consumption of animal products, and moving away from intensive farming practices.

Leaving the EU has provided an opportunity to set the highest standards of welfare and we feel that allowing gene editing would be a serious step backwards which many people would not support.  It also calls into question British exports of food to the EU which at present has a strict ban on imports of gene-edited food.

The RSPCA has numerous serious concerns about this process:

  • The drive to apply gene editing technology to farm animals has raced far ahead of public understanding and there is no evidence that the majority of people would support it
  • There is no history of safe and reliable use of gene editing in farm animals
  • Genetic technologies have been proven to cause unpredictable and unintended changes to the genetic makeup of animals, which can cause suffering
  • Not enough is known about the medium to long term effects on animal health and welfare
  • The current rules and regulations around Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), which include restrictions on their release to the environment,  are still essential for regulating gene editing animals, because it would mean the animals would be traceable and carefully monitored in a controlled situation
  • There are alternative approaches to achieving many of the proposed benefits of genetic technologies e.g improving animal husbandry and reducing food waste, with 12 per cent of all meat and animal products produced globally lost every year 
  • GE products have been withdrawn from approval in the USA following the Regulator's concerns on the transfer of other genes during the GE process
  • GE produced food could be forced onto supermarket shelves in Scotland and Wales despite those countries objecting to its production and sale.

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