New livestock breeding technologies could accelerate unethical practices if the government does not adopt regulation to guide its development, an ethics body has warned.
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics said that 'under no circumstances' should genome editing be introduced to 'perpetuate unsustainable food and farming systems.'
The independent ethics body said while it recognised that the technology could bring benefits to farming, there was the potential for it to be used unethically.
It said there was a need for urgent public dialogue and strong regulation to guide the development of this new technology.
Genome editing is the precise, targeted alteration of a DNA sequence in a living cell, to alter the function of a gene.
In the breeding of farmed animals, the use of genome editing could give farmers and breeders an opportunity to exercise more control over the genetic traits of future generations of animals.
For example, it could be used to make animals that are resistant to viruses that cause devastating disease outbreaks such as the pig disease Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS).
Proponents of the technology say this could save the lives of many thousands of pigs each year and bring substantial economic benefits for farmers.
However, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics said there were also some potential pitfalls that needed to be avoided.
For example, it said that the reduction in the risk from disease should not be used as a reason to increase the scale and intensity of farming systems or to pay less regard to animals’ needs for appropriate care.
Genome editing techniques are not currently being used in the breeding of animals that are sold for food, but research in this area is well advanced.
Several research groups have successfully demonstrated the use of the techniques to make functional changes to animals’ genomes, without any adverse effects.
The UK government has recently stated its intention to relax regulation for animals bred using genome editing techniques. The proposed changes only apply in England and would require new legislation to come into effect.
But the Nuffield Council’s report, released on Wednesday (1 December), says that before any changes in regulation are introduced, the government should conduct a full policy review, including conversations with the public.
The report explains that this will help develop a plan for how this technology will be used ethically in the UK's future food and farming systems.
Professor John Dupré, chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ working group, said now was the moment to act.
"Whilst some applications of genome editing - such as disease resistance - sound great for animals in theory, if they were to lead to further intensification of farming then that may well be harmful to the quality of animals’ lives in other ways.
"Under no circumstances should new breeding technologies be brought in to perpetuate unsustainable food and farming systems."
Danielle Hamm, director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, said it may not be long before genome edited meat ended up in the supermarkets and on people’s plates.
"The public recognise that our food and farming systems need to change, and it is clear they will not tolerate the introduction of any new technology that takes us further away from high welfare, sustainable farming.
"Before any regulatory changes are made, the government should be making it a priority to speak with the public to help develop a clear plan for the ethical use of this technology.”