Scientists’ successful development of a novel and efficient method for creating genetically modified animals is unlikely to be welcomed by those who are unthinkingly opposed to what is often described as an unnatural interference with the human food chain.
For some, the term GM has come to symbolise all that is wrong with modern food production – intensive, commercial and, in the case of livestock, cruel. Before this latest technique is condemned out of hand, however, it is as well to consider some of the details, both as to what is involved and as to how it might be used.
So-called “genome editing” is not only far more efficient than existing GM technology, it is extremely precise in the genetic changes it brings about. There is also no need for the antibiotic resistance genes that have caused such controversy, raising fears that these “marker” genes might spread to animals and to people, rendering antibiotic drugs unworkable.
The most important aspect of the new development, though, is that it will make it easier for scientists to engineer improved domestic livestock. Given that some 17 per cent of farm animals in the developed world, and as many as 30 per cent in the developing world, are lost to animal diseases, any progress in that regard cannot easily be dismissed. And although conventional plant and animal breeding has improved both food crops and farm livestock immeasurably over the centuries, it will not continue to do so at the rate required to feed the ever-growing human population.
Cattle in particular could benefit from next-generation genetic engineering conferring resistance to animal diseases such as bird flu, say, or foot-and-mouth disease. These diseases, and the viruses that cause them, are, indeed, natural. But if we let nature take its course, we will starve. The alternative is simply to do what generations of farmers have done by breeding animals with genetic improvements – but this time with the help of DNA science.