Published on June 3, 2019
A recent article published by the Washington Post articulates that new gene-editing practices in farm animals may be one of the largest research breakthroughs, though society may not be prepared for such a change (Johnson, 2018). Biotechnology, the genetic manipulation of living organisms, has made progress in the animal agricultural industry, but so has the public’s opinions on its potential impact to their health. There are many advantages and disadvantages that come with one of the most efficient ways to provide the world with food in the upcoming years, when humans will need it the most. In animal agriculture, biotechnology advancements have the potential to make a useful impact on food security and the market, though there are legitimate concerns regarding public perception, human health and animal welfare.
Biotechnology in animal agriculture
The term biotechnology in this paper refers to DNA-related techniques used to manipulate the genetic composition of plants and animals in agriculture (Herdt, 2006). Improved animals are generated from biotechniques used in agriculture, such as leaner lambs, healthier pigs and heat-tolerant cattle (Johnson, 2018). An animal’s genome is its complete set of genes, or genetic makeup. Genetically modifying animal products via gene transfer involves the addition, deletion, or shift of specific genes in the genome to alter certain phenotypic factors of that animal. Gene transfer is a factor in evolution, and happens naturally (Brigulla and Wackernagel, 2010). Genomes of single-celled organisms have shown to acquire foreign DNA through many years of evolution (Brigulla and Wackernagel, 2010). In turn, transgenic animals in agriculture are produced by inserting foreign fragments of DNA into their genomes (Herdt, 2006). These transgenic animals pose benefits for farmers and the economy to alleviate concerns with overpopulation.
Benefits of bioengineered animal products
Genetically modified animal products will be very important in the upcoming years due to the population growing exponentially (Murray and Maga, 2016). With this upcoming global challenge, farmers are pushed to consider alternatives to modern farming in order to produce animals quickly and efficiently. According to Johnson (2018), more than 300 livestock animals have been created because of research jump-started by gene modification. It is possible humans could run out of food sources within the next 30 years and introducing biotechnology into animal production poses many benefits in regards to this issue (Murray and Maga, 2016).
Though genetic modification is an unnatural technique, recombination of foreign DNA is already found in the environment through evolution (Brigulla and Wackernagel, 2010). The process of gene transfer in these animals and plants is even found at a much higher rate naturally than when genetically modified (Brigulla and Wackernagel, 2010). Introducing gene transfer into agricultural animals has shown to pose no harmful effects on the environment (Xu et al., 2011). A progressive environmental impact can be observed from genetically modifying animal genomes on a farm. More specifically, genetically modified animals decrease the carbon footprint on farms (Fahrenkrug, 2010). A smaller carbon footprint from agriculture is beneficial to sustainability as overpopulation in upcoming years will do nothing but worsen this environmental impact.
Equally important, genetically modified animals can grow quicker than traditionally grown or raised products (Bawa, 2013). Maturity duration is the period of time it takes for an animal to reach a mature size or weight specific to the species. Genetically modifying animals in agriculture have shown to decrease the time to maturity (Cohrssen and Miller, 2017). Moreover, the decreased maturity duration of these animals has not been proven to negatively affect appearance, taste, or nutritional value, but has actually been shown to improve these factors (Cohrssen and Miller, 2017). Once animals have reached a certain size or weight, they are sent to market, where they are slaughtered and processed into a product. If the time to maturity is shortened, the opportunity for farmers to raise and sell more animals is greatly increased. It is estimated by Fahrenkrug (2010) that, “a small incremental increase of 2% per year in average milk production per cow globally, with no change in cow numbers, would result in a 60% increase in the global milk supply by the year 2020.” This is important, as the current rate farms produce food animals is not fast enough relative to the future population growth.
Not only does specific genetic modification enhance the yield of animals on the farm, it has the ability to provide a more stable life for farmers (Tizard et al., 2016). Producing higher yielding animals, quicker, allows farmers to sell them at a faster rate, as well. This opportunity adds to profitability in raising and selling food animals. Furthermore, quicker growth of these animals supports economic growth and sustainability. Farmers are able to produce more, increasing their yield. Because farmers are producing at a significantly faster rate, businesses can become stronger competitors in markets due to lower prices. A symbiotic relationship between farmers and the market is established in light of these technological advancements.
Biodiversity is the variety of life. Biotechnology also has the potential to increase biodiversity of agricultural animals. This is done through specific selection of physical traits. Alleles are different versions of a gene that alter genotype and sometimes phenotype, or appearance (Fahrenkrug, 2010). In the midst of genome editing, desirable alleles are selected for to decrease carriers of disease and increase yield (Fahrenkrug, 2010). Thus, the death rate is lower due to less disease among genetically modified livestock (Fahrenkrug, 2010). Reduction of disease in food animals is very beneficial in the upcoming years as resources, such as crops and meat, will be scarce (Murray and Maga, 2016). In addition, genetically modified animal products come with nutritional value to humans (Fahrenkrug, 2010). Product composition can be altered to specific human needs or disease prevention, such as milk that reduces risk of obesity or cardiovascular disease (Fahrenkrug, 2010). This is important as consumers, that avoid animal products for these health reasons, will have a wider selection of animal products. The overall potential of genetically modified animals in agriculture is demonstrated through these benefits, although there are drawbacks to consider when addressing them as well.
Drawbacks of bioengineered animal products
The recent advancements in biotechnology still raises concern regarding public perception, food safety and animal welfare. The public has influenced the incorporation of genetically modified animal products greatly over the years because of health concerns. The US Food and Drug Administration has also stagnated the growth of these products due to the establishment of regulatory laws. Johnson (2018) states that, “Now, proponents of the field say the United States is at a make-or-break moment, when government action over the next year could determine whether any gene-edited food animals make it to market.” Animal welfare is additionally brought into the conversation of bioengineered animal products. All of these issues are legitimate when considering whether biotechnology should be incorporated into animal agriculture.
First and foremost, the public has its misconceptions about any genetically modified product for consumption. There are many factors that play into swaying the public one way, which can pose intimidating perceptions on these products. Social media, politics and news media have confused the public in regards to biotechnology’s impacts on animal agriculture (Runge and Brossard, 2017). In addition to social media platforms, culture can influence one’s perception of these products as well. Many religions and cultures see these animals as unnatural, and thus refuse to buy or consume them (Bawa, 2013). Cultural aspects of this argument are difficult to address as they are a part of people’s morals.
As a result, businesses likely struggle because of the consumer’s preconceived thoughts about genetically modified foods. The economic impact can be expected to increase profitability to businesses if consumers were open minded. But the public currently shares a generally unsympathetic approach to these products as there are no genetically modified animal products on the market yet (Wells, 2016). The public’s perception of genetic modifications is not the only concern when considering the future of animal agriculture.
Regulation of bioengineered animals has not been consistent enough to stimulate growth in the industry. The timeframe in which these products can be introduced into the United States market can be very elongated. Research has been difficult to progress due to the FDA’s strict regulations on genetically engineered animals (Cohrssen and Miller, 2018). If further research is prohibited, it could take years for products to hit the market. The inconsistency of the FDA regulation is mainly because these bioengineered animal products are recognized as “new animal drugs” (Cohrssen and Miller, 2017). This limit placed on biotechnology in the industry serves as a strong barrier for any new expansions in animal production.
Moreover, another concern that arises in regards to incorporation of genetically modified animal products is human health. It is possible that genetically modified foods can pose health threats to humans (Bawa, 2013). These potential threats range from long term health issues to cancer (Runge and Brossard, 2017). Using transgenes in animals involves inserting a gene into an animal’s genome that was not previously there. Spontaneous food allergies can be caused by presenting transgenes in genetically modified animals when expressed unexpectedly (Bawa, 2013). Some of these long-term health effects are hard to identify or study because many people avoid genetically modified foods. Because of these reasons, the FDA has to strictly regulate these new technologies.
One more important factor involved in this debate is concern for animal welfare, or the well-being of animals, deemed that animals have shelter, food, water and are free of discomfort (Hewson, 2003). Welfare could be increasingly compromised as advances in biotechnology become more popular (Paarlberg, 2009). One way that welfare is compromised is the size of genetically modified animals. As biotechnology advances in animal agriculture, many farms are pushing for heavier animals, in order to increase yield, and in turn, increase profits. Heavier animals can affect their long-term health (Greger, 2010). It is possible these animals grow too large to support themselves independently anymore. Because of this, exponential growth may be beneficial to farmers and markets, but not to these food animals. The incorporation of genetically modified animal products into markets brings legitimate concerns to consumers.
With the upcoming contention of overpopulation, food alternatives need to be considered while weighing their benefits and drawbacks. New technologies such as gene transfer can allow for faster growing, larger food animals in the industry. This then gives the animal agriculture industry room to grow, as these products have the potential to be relied on heavily due to depleted natural resources. There have been no unfavorable environmental impacts documented from any genetically modified livestock (Fahrenkrug, 2010). In addition to this, the taste or nutritional value of these modified products is not weakened, but rather improved (Cohrssen and Miller, 2017). This is important as the public is wary of unnatural food products to consume (Bawa, 2013). Plus, fewer animal deaths on the farm leads to more animals being sent to market, due to the ability to select for disease-free animals (Fahrenkrug, 2010).
In contrast to these assets of genetically modifying animal products, there are multiple concerns that rise to the surface. The overarching issue involves public misconceptions. It can be difficult to sway the public one way when social media and other platforms sway them the opposite way, whether the claims are correct or not (Runge and Brossard, 2017). Another one of the extensive concerns that comes with introducing bioengineering into the animal agriculture industry is overall human health. Some cancers, long term health effects and spontaneous food allergies are a few of the risks these foods can pose to humans. Also, the lack of regulation from the FDA has prohibited further industry research. These technologies recognized as “new animal drugs” halt any advancements potentially made, until the FDA starts to further legitimize these practices (Cohrssen and Miller, 2018). Plus, animal welfare could be compromised as the system leans more towards technological advancement.
Genetically modified animal products should receive a fair chance to feed the world in the future, and improve sustainability. It is predicted that the world’s food production is needed to increase 70% by 2050 (Murray and Maga, 2016). This is an inevitable issue humans will have to face soon. Genetically modified foods may be the only answer to this problem, as it allows faster, more efficient production of animals and thus, food. Humans are extremely dependent on animals as a major food source today, and in the next 30 years it will be hard to make a short-lived change without adequate preparation. That is why it is crucial to start planning alternatives to food sources now, because soon humans may not have enough time to develop a plan and be successful as a population.
Not only would giving these genetically modified products a chance aid the upcoming overpopulation issue, it would also benefit the economy. The market for animal products would improve greatly due to the increase in supply, restoring businesses around the country. Farmers would produce higher yielding animals quicker than ever. This would allow them to send more quality animals to market. The efficiency of the biotechnological processes alleviates any previous lack of positive supply and demand in animal agriculture.
Lastly, the sustainability of our planet’s resources would improve as biotechnology is introduced into modern agriculture. As mentioned before, the carbon footprint on farms is reduced as genetics of these animals are modified (Fahrenkrug, 2010). This is important because this issue ties in with others, such as global warming and pollution. If the animal agriculture industry can do anything to improve the sustainability of this planet, then genetically modifying food animals should be considered in the future without hesitation.