Pigs could be genetically edited to not have tails under government’s plans, scientists have warned.
Plans to relax gene editing rules following Britain’s departure from the EU should not lead to a loosening of animal welfare regulations, an influential scientific panel has said.
A report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics warned that careful regulation was needed to avoid a move towards more intensive farming practices and ensure that farmed animals still had a good quality of life.
Pigs bite each others’ tails, especially when kept in close confinement with others – which means they often end up having them docked.
Breeding pigs to be without tails could be one way of addressing this problem but would be “morally problematic”, the council warned. It could also make it more likely that pigs are kept in confined conditions, because the tail-biting problem would no longer arise.
Historically, animals have been bred for more productivity. However, this has led to welfare problems – something which could accelerate as regulations are loosened around genetic editing, the report warns.
While the technique could be helpful for animal welfare by creating animals resistant to diseases such as Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome, it could also be used as a pretext for putting animals in closer and less humane living environments, the group said.
Only sell meat from animals bred responsibly
John Dupré, chairman of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ working group and professor of philosophy at the University of Exeter, said the council was “deeply concerned that the technology not be used to adapt animals to conditions that could not conceivably provide them with a life worth living”.
He added: “So for example, the problem of pigs so crowded and bored that they turn to chewing one another’s tails should not be solved by breeding pigs either lacking tails or so docile as not to be bothered by boredom.
“In the concluding part of the report, we propose a series of policies with these aims in mind, that should apply not just to genome editing, but to any technology used to direct the course of farmed animal breeding.”
These include introducing food labelling which allows the public to access information about breeding practices, living conditions and diet of animals, and consulting properly with the public before changing the law.
Food retailers should also only sell meat from animals that are bred responsibly, the group said.
Genome editing could help tackle some of the ‘biggest challenges we face’
Genome editing, which involves the precise modification 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 UK Government recently suggested it plans to relax regulation for animals bred using genome editing techniques, which would only apply in England. A consultation ran earlier this year.
At the time George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, said the technology was “a tool that could help us in order to tackle some of the biggest challenges that we face – around food security, climate change and biodiversity loss.”
Professor Helen Sang, head of division of functional genetics and development at The Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh, said she was “confident that any changes in regulations that facilitate the use of these technologies will result in genetic improvements that positively impact both animal welfare and productivity.”
The Roslin Institute has used the technique to produce pigs potentially resistant to Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome.
She added: “The UK research community, animal breeding companies and producers/farmers are well-established as having high standards of animal welfare and there is no expectation that the use of an additional genetic technology will result in applications that are to the detriment of farmed animals.”
A Defra spokesman 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.”