Recent developments in biotechnologies offer new possibilities for a number of applications for the livestock sector with potential significant impacts on animal production. However, concerns have been raised about the safety of certain techniques and the ethical implications of their applications.
Biotechnologies applied to the livestock sector embrace a wide-range of identification and gene modification techniques. They can be differentiated into reproductive technologies, such as artificial insemination, transfer and production of embryos and more controversial techniques such as, cryopreservation, cloning and genetic technologies like genome identification and transgenesis.
Biotechnology experiments have been conducted in several countries and in certain cases, their application gradually became an accepted practice in agriculture. In other sectors, such as the pharmaceutical sector, the use of genetically engineered animal products is becoming relatively widespread. A comprehensive examination of the presence of biotechnology animal products on a commercial scale should be envisaged. Public perception and regulatory framework vary across the world according to political, economic, social and cultural variations.
In the industrialized countries, biotechnologies are receiving increased attention. Controversial debate is on-going concerning the best use of the biotechnology to support livestock production. Appropriate scientific research and technological development is needed in order to allow these new technologies to become part of sustainable and viable livestock production systems. There have been lively discussions about the ethical concerns in relation to scientific experimentation and animal welfare issues, as well as the level of government involvement in regulatory activities.
Due to varying - often opposed- opinions existing around the world regarding the issue of biotechnologies in the livestock sector, the WFO encourages farmers to define a clear national position on this matter.
Potential benefits of biotechnologies
Most modern biotechnologies are aimed at the genetic improvement of livestock. Farmers are aware of the potential economic returns. Potential benefits include:
• Obtaining genetic material from around the world to be used for genetic improvement (i.e: trade of semen, ova and embryos) in a safer, more practical and economic way.
• Improvement of herd health, such as avoiding genetically transmitted diseases, improving diagnosis of livestock diseases and the production of cheaper and more efficient drugs and vaccines.
• Avoiding certain practices which are undesirable from an ethical or economic standpoint, such as avoiding the waste of male animals in dairy or poultry systems by using sexed semen.
• Increased productivity and production quality; for example, improving the genetic quality of farmed species, increasing yield, enhancing reproductive capacity, production of “nutraceuticals” .
Consideration of environmental concerns, such as decreasing animal waste and greenhouse gas emissions through genetic improvements and increasing productivity to reduce environmental impacts.
The WFO encourages improved research to provide increased scientific evidence of the benefits for the livestock sector, society and the environment for each specific technique and its application. Farmers believe that the implementation of new biotechnologies can play an important role in meeting the challenge of sustainable food production for a growing world population.
Substantial concerns regarding animal biotechnology still remain
Consumers have raised concerns about the bio-safety of animal products generated through biotechnology. There have also been criticisms regarding the ethical acceptability of the use of biotechnologies and the issue of animal dignity. In particular, animal welfare has become an issue in response to scientific studies reporting cases of increased mortality, reduced life expectancy as well as developmental and health abnormalities in cloned animals. Additionally, it has been noted that cloning and other genetic techniques tend to decrease animal genetic diversity with negative consequences such as an increased risk of epidemics. Positions in this respect differ among farmers.
The WFO believes that scientific proof regarding potential problems caused by new technologies on animal and human health and welfare are, at present, not sufficient to justify halting the development of new bio-techniques and their application in the livestock sector. On the other hand, the WFO fully respects those producers who, for ethical reasons, believe that the available evidence is not sufficient to justify producing and supplying food derived from techniques like cloning.
It is clear that new biotechnologies, including cloning, and their application in the livestock sector are still not well understood. Limited studies are available on the safety of products and their impacts on animal welfare. Long-term data on animals produced through bio-techniques and their offspring should be collected.
Concerns have also been raised regarding the inequitable distribution of benefits stemming from biotechnologies which tend to favour large multinational companies. Due to their high cost, family farmers are rarely able to afford biotechnology techniques. In addition, patents and intellectual property rights which may be associated with these products are a threat to food sovereignty.
Regulation of animal biotechnology
Farmers seek clear policies and appropriate regulatory mechanisms at the national level for the application of biotechnologies and in the trade of genetic materials, transgenic or cloned animals and of the products derived from them. Through safety and risk assessment, governments should guarantee that these products are safe for consumption and ensure that animal health and welfare standards are fully respected.
The WFO encourages the development of policies that are specific to the various bio-technologies and animal species and based on scientific and performance criteria, proportionate to both benefits and risks and adapted to the diverse social and economic situations across the world. These policies must recognize the global nature of the food chain and of the trade of livestock and genetic material.
Better information and transparency to facilitate informed consumer choice
In order to efficiently develop and adopt new biotechnologies in the livestock sector, it is necessary to increase public understanding of the associated scientific, social, economic, ethical and legislative issues so they are equipped to make educated choices. Public information and maximum transparency help build consumer confidence. Voluntary labelling could also be applied if the market demands it.
Obstacles in the application of biotechnologies in developing countries
Farmers in both industrialized and developing countries are in principle- favourable to research on biotechnologies to help family farmers access the benefits from improved productivity, resistance to disease and harsh conditions. However, in the developing countries, lack of infrastructure, scientific resources and knowledge, trained operators and investment are obstacles which limit the application of biotechnologies. It is necessary to ensure that the benefits generated from the development of new technologies will not exclude family farmers in developing countries. Industrialized countries, where most of research and development is carried out, should therefore accept the responsibilities in maintaining a rigorous science based approach and in sharing new technologies and knowledge.