What if we could breed cattle without horns? Or cows without white eye pigment? Or lambs without tails? And do it in a single generation – where every calf born from your sire (regardless of the dams’ genetics) had the feature and they, too, would pass it on to their own calves.
Traditional breeding methods can take many generations to have an impact on specific traits. Often the animals with the new trait have other less-desirable characteristics that may take the herd backwards in other traits. But the value of establishing this trait in the herd is high, so the breeder takes the hit on other traits.
With gene editing, you don’t take that hit on your other desirable traits.
Gene editing alters the animal’s own genetic make-up. Critically, it does not introduce new genetic material, as is the case with genetic modification.
It’s done via a process called gene editing. Gene editing simply uses a pair of ‘molecular scissors’ to snip and tweak bits of DNA for a trait. For some traits, it’s very simple. For more-complex traits – with many genes underpinning them – it’s harder, but still possible.
Essentially, gene editing alters the animal’s own genetic make-up. Critically, it does not introduce new genetic material, as is the case with genetic modification. This is why the United States has relaxed regulations around gene editing for food production.
So what’s the problem? Why aren’t we doing it?
The issue is that society is worried about the implications.
Gene editing gets associated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – eg: inserting a fish gene into a tomato to give it higher tolerance to cold and frost.
While gene editing is none of these things, the consumer does not understand that and is worried about the creation of Franken-fish-matoes.
Basically, science is developing faster than the societal conversation. And that conversation does need to happen.
The public needs time to understand the positive animal welfare benefits that gene editing could make a reality – such as lambs that don’t need docking or calves that don’t need de-horning.
From a farmer’s perspective, there are other benefits alongside animal welfare and the cost savings that accompany not docking or de-horning. For instance, we could improve meat yield, make marbling happen in younger animals, or breed BVD-resistant cattle.
The sooner we start talking about gene editing, the sooner it will be an option.