EAAP-FABRE TP Session on ''Gene editing: Can we afford (not) to use precision technologies in livestock breeding?''
FABRE TP had a very enlightening and highly interactive session about gene editing at EAAP 2019 conference on 28 August in ICC Ghent, Belgium. The session was led by the FABRE TP chairman Johan van Arendonk and we welcomed speakers to discuss the techniques, opportunities and boundaries of Genome Editing in animal breeding, as well as current and potential future legal framework and ethics.
The large gap between the consumers' needs and animal genetics was mentioned by almost all of the speakers. Tad Sonstegard expressed that Acceligen works on having naturally hornless cattle and naturally castrated swine. Acceligen is also involved in the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) project about gene editing to end surgical castrations in swine. Sonstegard underlined the importance of a safe regulatory framework to clean the pathway for commercialization.
Mike McGrew (The Roslin Institute) took the floor to talk about genome editing techniques. He explained the TALEN and CRISPR9 methods in gene editing and mentioned that gene editing is a straightforward process in livestock species. He added that resistance to animal diseases such as avian influenza, PRRS, bovine tuberculosis is among the most important opportunities, as increasing disease resistance is directly related to animal health and increasing animal welfare.
Philippe de Jong (Altius) explained the legislative framework of gene editing in Europe. He told that because of the ruling of the European Court of Justice, Genome Editing is under the scope of the GMO directive. It means that it has a process rather than a product-based approach, which is more hazard than risk-based. He underlined that legislative clarification is necessary for non-transgenes, a global view is needed and identifiable risks need to be regulated. Philippe’s final remark was that political support is crucial to make regulation better adapted to GE and that EFFAB/FABRE TP is already working on it.
Phil Macnaghten (WUR) explained the ethics, scientific and societal/farmers controversies of gene editing. He explained back in 1996 they set focus groups in the UK and informed them about food, biotechnology, etc... It was very instructive research to understand the society, public reactions and public responses. He also talked about new lines of questioning on responsibility aligned with public concerns, which are questions related to product, process and purpose. He highlighted the ''Just Editing'' project which is a comparative responsible innovation approach to animal genome editing. Lastly, he mentioned the 28 interviews done with breeding companies and academic scientists, asking a broad range of questions about science, gene editing, governance, etc. There were positive thoughts about gene editing and its importance, but also negative thoughts on its long-term effect and public acceptance. In general, there is a lack of involvement of the public in an early stage.
The last speakers of the session reflected a different point of view to initiate the panel discussion. Emily Metz (Genus PLC) and Jaana Kiljunen (Proagria) presented their own personal and professional perspective on New Animal Breeding Techniques. Metz said that animal diseases have a direct effect on animals, farmers, consumers, food companies and the environment. Genus PLC is working to make piglets resistant to PRRS and it could be achieved faster by using genome editing techniques. To introduce these technologies and new products, several meetings have been scheduled with the food industry. Metz also mentioned that according to the outcome of the animal welfare researches, consumers would be more supportive to gene editing if it prevents animals suffering, improves animal welfare, eradicates diseases in livestock and reduces the usage of antibiotics in livestock. She concluded her speech by telling the importance to take the consumers' concerns seriously.
Jaana Kiljunen underlined the importance to focus on consumers’ perception and trust, as animal breeding is a part of the food chain. New animal breeding technologies (NABT) are counted as GMOs by society, and farmers have concerns about applying NABT as they are unsure about their welcome by consumers. She pointed out that solutions for global threats are expected from companies, rather than issuing regulations. She finalized her presentation by telling that transparency is needed in the whole food system, opening the farms to people would provide trust to society and animal breeders should explain the role of genetics.
During the panel discussion, the first question from the audience was about off-target effects as a consequence of the gene editing. Speakers explained that off-target genetic variants occur also naturally in the genome and thus it is difficult to distinguish off-target effects caused by editing vs naturally occurring variants. It was also noted that using new editing methods these off-target effects happen less when compared to older mutagenesis techniques.
It was explained that people would like to know about certain conditions related to gene editing such as the purpose of it, trust towards industry and distribution that shows the party who benefits from it. Engaging consumers, stakeholders and society in research issues right from the onset carry a lot of importance. It was underlined that innovation works better when scientists produce knowledge and collaborate with society. Politicians and the public should be informed about the innovations sooner than later. Regulations are running behind the innovations and the speed of governance should be tuned in with the speed of innovation.
The timing is now right to explain what animal breeding is and the importance to speak as one common voice as an industry. EFFAB/FABRE TP should continue, moving further coordinating actions at EU level. Also, breeding companies have to take part in the debate on their activities. The breeding sector is the most competent source to explain what animal breeding is and the tools that breeders use or could use in the future for a more sustainable livestock sector.