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Gene editing offers huge potential but clear leadership needed to engage consumers

29th Mar 2021 / By Alistair Driver

Gene editing technology offers huge opportunities for the UK pig sector’, but clear leadership is needed to adress a number of significant barriers to its commercial use, including public concerns. 

gene editing 4Scientists have already shown that gene editing can be used to breed pigs that are resistance to PRRS and African swine fever. The Roslin Institute, in Edinburgh, recently published the findings of a review of research studies, which concluded that the technology offers opportunities to curb swine flu by altering genes in pigs that flu viruses use to establish infection. This, in turn, would reduce the risk of a human pandemic.

In January, Defra Secretary George Eustice launched a consultation on proposals intended to address this head on by changing to the law in England so certain gene editing organisms would no longer be regulated in the same way as GM.

In its response to the consultation, compiled by NPA senior policy adviser Rebecca Veale, the NPA said the technology had the potential to ‘save many lives and improve the health of millions of animals’, which could also have a positive effect on pig welfare and reduce antibiotic use.

You can view the NPA's response to the consultation HERE

The technology can be used to improve vaccine devlopment, while the NPA's response also highlighted work being done to explore producing sterile pigs to avoid the welfare compromise of castrating pigs to avoid boar taint. In addtion, there are potential environmental benefits through improving production efficiency and developing feed products that aid digestion and therefore reduce emissions.

Unlike GM, the process does not introduce new genetic material from a different species. It only produces changes that could be made slowly using traditional breeding methods.

The NPA said, given that it is ‘fundamentally different’ to GM, gene editing clearly should not be regulated in the same way.

But it said the success of the technology being adopted was entirely dependent on various ‘non-safety issues’. This includes developing a ‘fit-for-purpose regulation framework’ that supports innovation, while ensuring that any potential risk is mitigated.

The mistakes made in the original GM debate, which saw the technology demonised and ultimately sidelined for two decades, must be avoided. Efforts made by some parties already to engage with consumers need to be ‘formalised and broadened’, with a cohesive and collaborative approach across all stakeholders and the Government ‘on the front foot’.

“There needs to be clear leadership to ensure that any discussion around such technologies is based on science and evidence, backed up by clear regulation and explained in sensible and rational terms that the general public can understand and appreciate,” the NPA said.

With the rest of the UK looking unlikely to follow suit, the potential lack of consistency across the UK could also pose significant challenge, while the international trade implications of going it alone, particularly regarding EU pork exports, also need to be considered, as the UK develops new post-Brexit trading links.