The modern agricultural industry is plagued with problems.
The systems that have sprung up to feed our increasing demand for animal products — ranging from milk to meat to eggs — frequently involve inhumane conditions and unacceptable treatment of animals.
The UN expects demand for milk and meat to double by 2050, and many of the ethical issues with agriculture could get worse as the population grows and consumes more animal protein.
New technologies that allow us to edit the genes of animals could end some of those inhumane practices.
Take the modern dairy cow. For decades these cows have had their horns cut or burned off to prevent the animals from goring each other while in tight living conditions.
One former Nebraska farmer described the process to us by saying: “It’s rough, it’s bloody, it’s a mess.”
Recombinetics has developed a way to edit the genes of farm animals to change specific traits — and they can edit out the trait that makes cows grow horns.
This doesn’t even require genetic engineering per se, he explains, since they don’t need to introduce any new, non-cow DNA to the cattle.
Some cows naturally don’t have horns already. The hornless or “polled” trait first appeared 500 to 1,000 years ago, he says, and certain types of beef cattle were bred to stay that way.
Unfortunately, dairy cows were bred differently, and hornless dairy cows have not been created in the same way over time. But using the latest gene editing methods, they can make that one tiny section of the genome of dairy cattle resemble the genome of hornless Red Angus cattle. That means they can remove their horns without making any other changes.
“We’re simply copying the letters that are in the Red Angus book of life,” says Fahrenkrug, explaining that they are just changing the spelling of the dairy cow’s genetic code.
And the latest technologies allow them to make these changes in a precise way. Fahrenkrug says they can do this with fewer off-target or unwanted changes than the natural mutation rate. In nature, random new genetic changes — some good, some bad, many irrelevant — show up all the time. That’s how hornless cattle appeared in the first place. New technologies just allow farmers to make sure they have these traits consistently.
Although we could develop hornless dairy cows through breeding, it would take vastly longer and pose more risks. We’d have to mate cows without horns with each other for generations until we got hornless offspring — yet we’d almost certainly lose some of the traits that make dairy cows the best milk producers in the world. It’s much easier if you can just select the gene variants that make cattle hornless.
Right now, there’s a question of whether or not regulators will allow genetically modified cattle — and other creatures — to be sold. But multiple experts that Tech Insider spoke with said that they absolutely know what changes they’re making with genetic editing technology, and that there’s no reason to think that the words “genetic editing,” changing genes, imply anything unsafe. After all, genes naturally mutate all the time.
“There’s this vision of the genome as a static, pristine thing,” says Fahrenkrug. “And it’s not, frankly, it’s much seedier than that and messier than that; the genomes are in motion, that’s how we find the traits [that we want in the first place].”
Fahrenkrug hopes that a clear understanding of the genetic process that Recombinetics is using — and the fact that they could end what many agree is a cruel procedure — will convince anyone with concerns about genetics that doing this kind of genetic editing is a good thing for animal welfare.
“The simple fact is that we’ve been doing genetic modification for eons and eons and eons,” says Mark Westhusin of Texas A&M, an expert in genetically engineering animals. “We’ve just called it selective breeding.”
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