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Sept. 22 — Genetically modified livestock and wildlife are quickly becoming a non-theoretical reality, according to the biotechnology industry, and their impending movement out of the lab and into the world has the potential to scramble environmental politics.
Green groups that now have an almost reflexive opposition to GM plants will soon have to decide how to respond to genetically modified animals that can help them achieve their goals, such as conservation or reducing animal cruelty.
The impending commercialization of these animals must be handled carefully, though, to avoid worsening the existing stigma attached to the industry, speakers at a biotechnology conference in Bethesda, Md., said.
“If we don’t pay attention to this we run the risk of doing the exact same things wrong that happened in the early stages of the introduction of [genetically modified organisms] into the plant world,” Ryan Phelan, the co-founder of a start up that’s trying to use genetic engineering to rescue endangered and extinct species, said.
Phelan’s company, Revive & Restore, is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to find ways to add genetic diversity to a nearly extinct population of prairie ferret.
Wildlife officials have struggled to revive this species, because all existing specimens of these ferrets are descendants of fewer than a dozen animals that were saved from the brink of extinction in the 1970s, she said. As a result, Phelan said, the ferrets are highly susceptible to disease.
Phelan said this is the type of environmental problem biotechnology may be especially well suited to solve. New genome editing techniques allow scientists to make hyper-precise changes to the DNA of an organism, whether plant or animal, that can confer disease-resistant traits or even eliminate invasive species.
However, Phelan said she has been disappointed that the environmental community isn’t backing these techniques. She said protests greeted a recent conference she organized in Hawaii that was examining the use of bioengineering to eliminate an invasive mosquito that is threatening some of the islands’ wild birds.
Paul Shapiro, the head of the Humane Society of the United States’ farm animal protection division, said at the conference that his group has a pragmatic approach to the genetic modification of animals.
The Humane Society is enthusiastic about using bioengineering to reduce livestock suffering, he said, citing recent scientific work on developing new hornless breeds of cattle that wouldn’t need to undergo the painful dehorning process.
However, Shapiro also said his group would likely oppose genetic modifications that are designed to promote animal growth, saying overgrown livestock is already a problem that he fears biotechnology could worsen.
“We don’t have orthodoxy or a litmus test for technologies,” he said. “We want technologies that are good for animals.”
The first genetically modified animal intended to be used as food has already received approval from the Food and Drug Administration. A breed of quick-growing salmon developed by the company AquaBounty Technologies has been cleared for commercialization, though lawmakers in Congress fearful of the effect this could have on the seafood industry have passed several measures seeking to limit sales of the salmon.
Also, the British company Oxitec is nearing its first field trial of a mosquito that has been genetically modified to be sterile and, when released in the wild, could reduce populations of the disease-carrying insects. The company is already deploying these mosquitoes in Brazil and other tropical countries where the Zika virus outbreak is widespread.
Ultimately, the adoption of GM animals may not depend on how environmental groups react to them but, rather, how consumers feel. Constance Cullman, president of the agricultural think tank Farm Foundation, said the public will need to change its attitudes toward GMOs before even the most promising bioengineered livestock can have a future on the farm.
“Farmers are not going to be comfortable buying something they can’t sell,” she said.
To contact the reporter on this story: David Schultz in Washington at dSchultz@bna.com
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