A potential roll out of gene editing could bring opportunities for the livestock sector if the technology is used ethically and responsibly, industry bodies have said.
Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference, environment secretary George Eustice announced the launch of a consultation into future regulation on gene editing.
Mr Eustice voiced his support for gene editing technology regulation to be reviewed in England, saying it could unlock substantial benefits to the environment, produce healthier food and help farmers with crops resistant to pests, disease or extreme weather.
The move has been largely welcomed by livestock industry bodies which feel the technology could bring opportunities, so long as it were carefully managed.
Phil Stocker, National Sheep Association chief executive, said gene editing technology could provide ‘significant opportunities’ to improve sheep health and productivity, if it were used responsibly.
He added that the association was pleased Government had made a ‘clear distinction’ between gene editing within a species and genetic modification.
Mr Stocker said: “It [gene editing] could increase parasite resistance, reduce lameness and possibly address some iceberg diseases. There are also potential end product gains for meat and wool quality.
“But it must be used with absolute care and strict governance controls, and the only way this could work is if it was on a UK basis.”
Texel Sheep Society chief executive John Yates also felt there could be opportunities for breeders.
Mr Yates said: “Recent investment by the society in research and development projects has focussed on hard to measure health and productivity traits and the exploitation of genomic selection within the breed.
“Adding gene editing to that work could give breeders access to animals that are naturally resistant to diseases, helping reduce antimicrobial use while also improving animal welfare and productivity and ensuring the UK sheep sector remains competitive globally.”
Holstein UK too felt it was important the UK remained competitive worldwide.
A Holstein UK spokesperson said: “It is imperative that we maintain a high level of consumer confidence in the British dairy industry. However, it is equally as important that UK genetics should not fall behind the rest of the world.”
National Pig Association senior policy adviser Rebecca Veale said the body welcomed the consultation launch, although ‘wider factors’ like effective communication were crucial.
Ms Veale said: “Tools such as gene editing offer the opportunity to tackle devastating diseases such as African Swine Fever and the ability to further reduce emissions from pig production or exploit nutritional availability in feed better.
“While any future policy must be clear not to breach ethical boundaries, it must have flexibility to allow the technology to be exploited to its full potential. There must be clear understanding of the safety and value of this technology for all stakeholders.”
News of the consultation launch however was not welcomed by the RSPCA, with RSPCA chief executive Chris Sherwood branding it a ‘huge mistake’ for the Westminster Government to water down legislation.
Mr Sherwood added that it could lead to food from genetically altered animals being offered for sale on supermarket shelves or in restaurants, a move he said would be an ‘unwanted and unacceptable development, even if the food were labelled.’
Research into how the technology could be used in practise is already underway.
One example being a ‘surrogate sires’ project to produce animals that generate sperm carrying only the genetic traits of elite donor animals - as reported by Farmers Guardian last year.
The study is the result of six years of collaborative work among researchers at Washington State University, Utah State University, University of Maryland and the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh.
In the study, the gene-editing tool, Crispr-Cas9, was used to remove a gene specific to male fertility in the animal embryos that would be raised to become surrogate sires.
Male mice, pigs, goats and cattle in the study were born sterile but otherwise healthy. When they received transplanted sperm-producing stem cells from other animals, they started producing sperm derived from the donor’s cells.
The surrogate sires were confirmed to have active donor sperm and the sperm they produced held only the genetic material of the selected donor animals.
Researchers said the development could speed up the spread of desirable characteristics in livestock.
British Veterinary Association president James Russell said that while there was a role for new technologies, it was crucial that animal welfare was not compromised.
Mr Russell said: “It is essential that animal health and welfare is never unnecessarily compromised in any move to progress and improve agricultural systems. The health and welfare for farmed animals must be recognised as a key sustainability objective.”