Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding Act) receives Royal Assent

Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding Act) receives Royal Assent

The RSPCA has expressed 'serious concerns' over the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act after it received the Royal Assent on Thursday 23 March.  

The new law allows the creation and marketing of 'precision bred' or genome-edited plants and vertebrate animals in England, removing them from the regulatory system for the release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Consequently, because of the Internal Market Act, it will also force Scotland and Wales to sell products produced by genetic engineering in England, even though both countries reject the technology.

Genome editing (GE) is a group of techniques that enable changes to be made to an organism's DNA. 'Editing' an animal's genome involves procedures that potentially cause pain, suffering, distress and lasting harm. GE was previously subject to the strict rules and regulations that control GMOs, but under this new law, GE animals and food will not be classed in England as GMOs and will not need to be labelled as such.  

David Bowles, head of campaigns and public affairs at the RSPCA, said: 

Gene editing could be a huge step backward for animals. We don't believe this Act should include animals, whether they're farm, pet or wildlife. Invasive procedures are needed to create each line of gene-edited mammals, there is no history of use for this powerful technology, and it can cause unintended changes to the genome, with unpredictable effects. The RSPCA has serious animal welfare and ethical concerns about this.

We're disappointed that the UK Government has continued to put the welfare of animals in England at risk by passing the Act before the essential safeguards for animals have been properly identified. We're expected to trust that the codes of practice that will eventually accompany the Bill will ensure that animals do not suffer, but the way this has been rushed through doesn't inspire us with confidence. The UK Government has already acknowledged public concerns about animal welfare and gene editing, so we're unsure why they've bullishly pushed ahead with this ill-judged policy.

The Act applies to all vertebrate animals, not just those in agriculture and does not include any specific restriction on the purposes for the application of gene editing. The RSPCA has expressed concerns that directly editing animals' DNA could lead to the creation of animals who can tolerate poor husbandry or veterinary care, rather than improving practices to meet animals' needs. 

We feel there's no justification whatsoever for non-farm animals to be covered by the Bill. Ongoing demands for dogs and cats with harmful physical characteristics and exaggerated conformational features and relentless pressure on sporting animals, are already of deep concern, and there's been no public consultation on gene editing non-farm animals.

By allowing the inclusion of all vertebrate animals within this Bill, the UK Government is opening a Pandora's box of what could be allowed in the future. It is also forcing genetically engineered products onto the markets in Wales and Scotland despite both countries being firmly against such technology.

The UK Government has said they want the highest animal welfare standards and to encourage agricultural and scientific innovation, but allowing the genome editing of animals could be a significant backward step for animal welfare. 

Selective natural breeding has resulted in some of the most severe welfare issues seen in farm animals. The use of technologies that could further accelerate these issues must be seriously questioned.

How we treat animals is at a critical point. Rather than obtaining ever more productivity and profit from individual animals, who are sentient and have intrinsic worth, it is time for human behaviour to change and respect animals and their welfare needs.

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