SLU news

Genetic engineering in large-scale cattle breeding raises ethical and practical questions

Published: 28 November 2017

Gene technology raises practical, technical and ethical issues. Advantages and disadvantages of the different technologies should be weighed against each other in each field of application before applying them in breeding programmes. This could be done through ethical advisory committees at the breeding organizations, which could contribute to open and nuanced discussions and responsible applications. This is suggested by four SLU researchers in a new multidisciplinary article.

Novel development of biotechnology opens up for new possibilities to change the genetics of farm animals. Through the use of so called molecular knives and genome editing the cows can be edited to be born without horns, and thus will not have to be dehorned. It is also possible to lower the risk of mastitis in cows by transferring genes from humans through genetic modification (GM). Those are just a few examples on possible applications for new technologies in animal breeding.

To date there are no genetically modified or genome edited farm animals in food production and it is uncertain how the future legislation will regulate the application of those techniques. If such applications will be permitted, the techniques will probably be used in large-scale breeding programmes, which will raise new questions – both practical and ethical. Can we, do we need to, and should we use these techniques in commercial breeding? Does it matter what reproduction technology we use, how we handle cows and embryos, or what trait we change? Are there alternatives ways to reach the same goals?

In a new interdisciplinary article, researchers describe the scientific literature, and contribute with ethical reflections on this topic. Ethical questions regarding animal welfare are important. Values and views on the integrity of animals, naturalness and risk assessments are other factors that affect how the new technologies could be assessed and could be received in society.

– We have had many and lengthy discussions in the author group, says Susanne Eriksson, researcher at the Department of Animal Genetics at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and one of the authors of the article.

The knowledge in the area of genetics is expanding in a fast pace but we still have limited understanding of how complex traits are regulated on the genetic level. To change individual genes with known effect is currently closer at hand than changing genes at several places in the genome to affect complex traits. The techniques can be used to different extent and for different purposes, which will determine to which degree the animals are affected. In the article the researchers suggest that the new techniques should be evaluated within the breeding context they are to be applied in, before being used on a larger scale. In this process an advisory committee with researchers, industry representatives, representatives of the public, as well as ethically or philosophically educated persons, could provide valuable views.

– These are complex issues, but they will be easier to manage if we focus on specific applications, says Susanne Eriksson.

The research is done within Mistra Biotech at SLU.

Additional information

Susanne Eriksson, researcher
Department of Animal Breeding and Genetics
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
+46(0)18-67 20 07,

Research paper

S. Eriksson, E. Jonas, L. Rydhmer, & H. Röcklinsberg. Breeding and ethical perspectives on genetically modified and genome edited cattle. J. Dairy Sci. 101:1–17

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