Responsible animal genome editing
‘Genome-editing’ is claimed to offer great potential to address societal challenges in animal husbandry, but such claims depend critically on the technology being aligned with societal needs and values. This project develops a Responsible Innovation approach to guide the development of the technology and support decision making processes for scientists, breeding companies and policymakers.
Genome editing is a novel technique for making changes (in the form of additions, deletions, and modifications) to an organism’s entire set of genetic material – the genome. Even though the debate on genome editing on farm animals is less mature than the debate on genome editing in the context of human health and food crops, the possible applications of the technique in this context are various. There are applications that promise improvements in yield (such as chickens that produce only female offspring for egg laying), applications related to the health and welfare of animals (such as ‘hornless’ edited cows who no longer have to suffer the painful experience of dehorning), applications to engineer disease resistance in livestock (such as edited pigs with resistance to African swine fever virus), as well as applications aimed at improving product quality and beneficial ecological effects.
While genome editing on animals produced for food promises benefits, it also raises important ethical and societal questions, not least because we have a duty of care to animals, as well as because meat is of deep social and cultural significance. This raises the question as to whether, and if so, under what conditions the technology can become embedded responsibly and acceptably in society.
The research project aims to develop an ethical framework that is able to embrace the nuance and complexity of societal concerns. It will address, amongst others, questions concerning risk and safety, animal welfare, political economy, justice, instrumentalisation, naturalness, trust and hubris. The researchers will analyse the role that potential risks, unintended consequences and uncertainty play in the ethical evaluation of animal genome technology. Further, they will reflect on the use of the technology in the context of a changing evaluation of the moral standing of animals and on the ethical distinction between animals and humans. Addressing these ethical and societal issues at this stage of the development of animal genome editing is important since it may help to avoid controversies and impasses similar to those in the debates on human and plant genome editing.
The aim of the project is to develop a general framework that is useful to evaluate animal genome editing technology in different contexts. The framework aims to take on board the needs of, for example, the European Forum of Farm Animal Breeders, but also addresses the needs of stakeholders that include NGOs, corporate actors, farmers and government.
Social scientists, ethicists, animal scientists, molecular biologists, toxicologists, and breeding companies will work together to understand, anticipate, reflect and respond to ethical and societal concerns. It is essential to understand the conditions under which the technology of animal genome editing is able, if at all, to be responsibly embedded in society.
This NWO-MVI research project is inked to the ‘Building Blocks of Life’ project ‘Unravelling the functional dynamics between the human gut microbiome and intestinal inflammatory responses’ that is being coordinated by dr. ir. Hans Bouwmeester at Wageningen University & Research. Given that the debate on human genome editing is more advanced, the comparison between human and animal applications of this technique will add clarity and insight.Official project title: