It’s no longer surprising to hear that scientists have figured out how to alter animals in new, creative ways — that’s how precise genetic engineering has become.
But you also might have noticed that this news pretty much never goes beyond the laboratory. As of yet, there has only been a single genetically engineered animal that’s made it to the dinner plate (a salmon, in Canada). In the U.S., a complex regulatory process from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has hindered those who wanted to bring gene-edited (GE) livestock to market.
But if industry officials have their way, that won’t be the case much longer.
MIT Technology Review reports that gene editing companies and biotechnology lobbyists are trying to convince the Trump administration to move the regulation of GE animals to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). If that happens, genetically modified meat might soon show up in grocery stores near you.
But why does the system have to change for us to eat this most modern of meat? And should we want it to?
Today, a law called the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act gives the FDA the jurisdiction to regulate all genetically modified livestock. The agency does so using the same certification procedures required of drugs — “Altered genomic DNA in an animal that is intended to affect the structure or function of the body of the resulting animal meets the definition of a drug,” FDA spokesperson Juli Putnam said in an email to Futurism.
The FDA’s rules encompass all editing processes, from transgenic editing (in which genes from one organism are introduced into another) to gene editing (which includes more precise editing techniques like CRISPR that simply “snip” portions of DNA to remove, relocate, or duplicate a useful trait).
Many geneticists argue that the gene editing done on animals today is so sophisticated that its outcome is no different from targeted breeding, which has allowed farmers to produce animals with specific traits for centuries. But some scientists note that the regulations around these animals haven’t changed since the early 1980s, when the process was less precise and poorly understood.
Functionally, these regulations mean that researchers developing genetically modified livestock must be rigorously tested to show that their animals, and the products that come from them (like milk or eggs), are safe for humans to consume. Because animals are living organisms, they don’t affect the body as predictably as a chemical might, animal geneticists say. Plus, most research facilities don’t have the funds to prove they’re safe in spite of that variation.
Little wonder, then, that only one animal, the AquaBounty salmon, has ever made it through the FDA’s system. And that isn’t even available in the U.S. because congress can’t agree how to label it.
The USDA, on the other hand, already handles the regulation around GE plants. It does so with nuance, separating the requirement for transgenic plants and gene edited plants. And its rules do little to inhibit the sale and use of gene-edited crops.
Biotech companies are hoping that if the responsibility for gene-edited animals is shifted to the USDA, the agency might look at gene-edited livestock with a similarly liberal lens.
If they do, Tech Review reports that activist groups that oppose the sale of GMOs, such as the Center for Food Safety, are already prepared to fight it.
It’s probably unlikely that GE animals will ever be looked at the same way as GE plants. Though the leading science suggests GE foods are safe to eat, anyone bringing an animal to market should still have to prove their gene change doesn’t produce any other unexpected effects in the final organism. After all, animals are much, much more complex than plants.
Regulators also have to think about biodiversity, especially for aquatic animals raised in or near the water. Special measures will need to be taken to ensure human-modified animals don’t escape and mate with native ones.
Still, there are compelling arguments to be made for why we should genetically edit livestock to supply humans’ desire for meat. Genetic modifications can make it easier for animals to handle the intense heat of climate change, ensure fewer creatures die needlessly by giving them disease resistance, and reduce animal distress by eliminating body features that are often painfully removed on a farm (like cows’ horns or pigs’ tails). Gene editing, then, might not only make meat more sustainable — it would make it more ethical, too.
Since much of the world looks to the U.S. to take the first leap in new fields, doing so could start the proliferation of genetically modified animals to the places in the world that need it most.