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Is it ethical to genetically modify farm animals for agriculture?

Genetic engineering refers to the direct manipulation of an organism’s genes to alter or enhance certain characteristics.

The number of genetically modified animals used in agriculture has increased significantly in recent years. Researchers have genetically engineered a number of mammals, from laboratory animals to farm animals, as well as birds, fish and insects.

The most widely used genetically modified animals are laboratory animals, such as the fruitfly (Drosophila) and mice. Genetically engineered animals enable scientists to gain an insight into basic biological processes and the relationships between mutations and disease.

However, farm animals, such as sheep, goats and cows, can also be genetically modified to enhance specific characteristics. These can include milk production and disease resistance, as well as improving the nutritional value of the products they are farmed for. For example, cows, goats and sheep have been genetically engineered to express specific proteins in their milk.

The majority of work on genetically modified farm animals is still in the research phase and is yet to be used commercially. Below are some of the advantages and disadvantages associated with genetically modifying animals for agriculture, divided up into four key areas: 

Do the benefits of genetically modified farm animals outweigh the risks? 

  • Yes
  • Genetic engineering holds great potential in many fields, including agriculture, medicine and industry.
  • Genetic modification can increase the yield from farm animals, for example cows can be engineered to produce more milk for the same size of herd. 
  • Genetically modified farm animals are being used to produce important medicinal products, such as antibodies, in large quantities. These products can be used for the treatment of many different human conditions. The current production system for such products is donated human blood, which is in limited supply due to a lack of donors. 
  • Sheep and goats can be modified to produce medicinal products in their milk. This has no negative impact on the animal but the product can help to treat human diseases.
  • No
  • The transfer of genetic material from one species to another raises potentially serious health issues for animals and humans.
  • There is a risk that new diseases from genetically engineered animals could be spread to non-genetically engineered animals, and even humans.
  • In many cases, selective breeding is just as effective as genetic engineering and doesn’t carry the same risks.
  • We don’t yet know if eating the products of genetically modified animals could potentially harm us.

 Is genetic modification of farm animals ethical?

  • Yes
  • Genetic engineering is a logical continuation of selective breeding, which has been done by humans for thousands of years.
  • Genetic engineering of animals is strictly controlled by animal cruelty legislations in many countries and is always carefully scrutinised by teams of experts before being approved for wider use.
  • No
  • Many of the embryos that undergo genetic engineering procedures do not survive.
  • Genetic modification can put animals at risk of harm. For example, transgenic pigs were found to be arthritic, partially blind and infertile when a human growth hormone was inserted into their genomes to make them grow faster.

Is it morally acceptable to genetically modify farm animals?

  • Yes
  • Not all genetic engineering directly benefits humans. Some genetic engineering is to improve resistance of livestock to disease, for example, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (‘mad cow disease’) in cattle. It can also be used to remove characteristics that cause injury, for example, selecting for cattle without horns.
  • Animals have been used to help humans for millennia. Many would say that human lives are of higher moral value than animal lives.?
  • The percentage of genetically modified farm animals is tiny compared to the number of animals slaughtered for humans to eat. This practice is widely seen as morally acceptable. 
  • No
  • Research could use other organisms such as plants and bacteria to mass produce therapies for human medicine. For example, genetically engineered cereal grains to produce human proteins.
  • The cost to the animal always outweighs the benefits as, by carrying out genetic engineering, we are violating their rights.
  • Genetic engineering often involves modifying animals for reasons that have no benefit for that species, and could potentially cause them pain and discomfort.
  • We shouldn’t be attempting to ‘play God’. Life should not be regarded as a product that can be altered and played with for economic benefit.

Is there a thorough regulatory process for genetic modification of farm animals? 

  • Yes
  • It has been suggested that, as a rule, genetically engineered animals should be no worse off than the equivalent stock would be if they were not genetically engineered.
  • The Animal Welfare Act, a federal law passed in the UK in 1966, requires all entities looking to carry out research with animals to have their programme reviewed before they go ahead, have veterinary care programmes in place and staff that are qualified to care for live animals.
  • The UK Home Office Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 has set out guidelines for research involving animals.
  • The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) in the USA regulates genetic engineering with animals and their products under the new animal drug provisions of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). It helps monitor and maintain certain standards, including input from the public, when it comes to genetically engineering animals.
  • The ‘new animal drug’ provisions of the FFDCA focuses on whether the new animal drug is safe for the animal and if it is effective. If the drug is for a food-producing animal it also focuses on whether the resulting food is safe to eat. 
  • No
  • Genetic engineering of animals is a relatively new practice and is mainly used in research. As a result regulations for its use in farming are minimal.
  • For regulations that have been put in place for the use of animals in research, it is often unclear how they would be applied to genetic engineering of farm animals and few guidelines refer to it directly.

This page was last updated on 2017-02-17