A new report from Friends of the Earth and Logos Environmental reveals that the use of gene editing in farm animals poses risks to human health, the environment and animal welfare.
The report compiles evidence from peer-reviewed scientific studies demonstrating the research gaps and the unknown and unintended consequences of gene editing in animals. For example, published studies have found enlarged tongues in modified rabbits and additional vertebrae in pigs, as the Wall Street Journal reported in 2018. Recent cell studies linked CRISPR to DNA damage and cancer problems.
The work comes on the heels of an FDA investigation showing that gene-edited hornless cattle have unexpectedly antibiotic-resistant genes, despite researchers' original claims that they did not contain any genetic errors. This new report sheds light on the unintended consequences of gene editing and considers the implications for US regulations, according to a publication by Sustainable Pulse.
Many genetically modified farm animals are currently in development, funded by private companies or governments, and enabled by new gene editing technologies like CRISPR. Examples include super muscular cows and pigs, hornless cattle, chickens and pigs made to resist certain diseases, cows with human genes, and other genetic experiments. The production of these gene-edited farm animals is often done with little public awareness or input.
"Scientific evidence shows that gene editing, particularly in animals, is far from 'accurate.' Instead, it can produce unwanted changes in genetic material and disrupt genetic processes. Such effects could have far-reaching consequences for food security, so these applications will require rigorous evaluation if they are to be used in agriculture. "Said co-author Dr. Janet Cotter of Logos Environmental.
"Corporate profits are one of the main motivations behind these genetic experiments, and we must be careful with proposals for gene-edited farm animals," said Dana Perls, report co-author and senior food and technology activist at Friends of the Earth. . “The types of genetically modified animals that are being developed will exacerbate the polluting industrial agriculture model and put more money in the hands of climate-destroying Big Ag. We need sustainable and ecological agricultural systems that support animal health, preserve and restore biodiversity and protect public health ".
Studies show that, far from being "precise," gene editing can cause genetic errors, even if only a genetic "fit" is intended. Genes can be switched in additional locations, and gene editing can interfere with gene regulation.
Common gene editing traits such as hornless cows and disease resistance will perpetuate the mismanagement of animals, such as overcrowding, often found in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO). This will increase current ethical, health and welfare concerns for animals housed in CAFOs.
Genetic engineering of animals often involves cloning, leading to birth defects, miscarriages, and early postnatal death. Genetic errors can cause unexpected effects in gene-edited animals, such as enlarged tongues in rabbits and additional vertebrae in pigs. These raise concerns about animal health, welfare and consumer safety.
Unexpected effects include the production of abnormal proteins in gene-edited animals. Allergens are proteins, so abnormal proteins could create new food allergies and have significant implications for food safety.
There are significant gaps in research on how genetic errors at the cellular level manifest as unexpected effects and how these unexpected effects can affect animal health, interact with complex environmental factors, and affect food safety.
Although still in the hypothetical stage, genetic drive systems could drive a specific trait through a herd or population of farm animals and could accidentally spread to the natural population, potentially affecting biodiversity and even an entire ecosystem.
Rather than creating genetically modified animals to suit factory farming systems, it is critical to develop green and sustainable animal agriculture systems that support animal welfare, the preservation and restoration of biodiversity, and public health.
All genetic engineering techniques must be within the scope of government regulatory oversight of genetic engineering, including gene editing, using the Precautionary Principle to protect human health and the environment.
Supervision and regulations for GMOs, including gene-edited animals, should include an independent assessment of environmental and food safety and long-term impacts before entering the market or the environment. The products of all genetic engineering must be traceable and clearly labeled as GMO.
By Graciela Bizcay Gómez