Salmon and Calves Reframe Biotech Debate

by Joan Conrow

November 26, 2015

What do a fast-growing salmon and two hornless calves have in common?

In recent days they’ve ushered in a new era of food production and reframed the animal biotechnology debate.

It began when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first GE animal, a fast-growing salmon, for human consumption. Then Recombinetics, in collaboration with researchers at the University of California-Davis, unveiled two healthy dairy calves that were born without horns, thanks to a new gene-editing process.

While the calves are a long way from deregulation or market, both announcements signal a shift in the decades-old regulatory logjam that has effectively blocked the advancement of animal biotechnology.

The two projects also effectively demonstrate that biotech can make meaningful contributions to environmental sustainability and animal welfare.

And they underscore a key message of the Alliance for Science: Each genetically engineered crop and animal must be evaluated on its own merits, with an eye toward the product, not the process.

Take the case of Spotigy and Buri, the two hornless calves who were recently introduced to the world in a New York Times article by Amy Harmon. Though dairy cows routinely have their horns removed to protect other animals and farm workers from injury, the dehorning process is not relished by farmers, animal rights advocates, or cows. Conventional breeding techniques for propagating the genetics of a small fraction of naturally hornless cattle are slow and imprecise.

For the large percentage of calves born without the gene, there’s been no alternative to burning or cutting off the horns until now.

In a perfect example of a public-private collaborative research project, scientists at Recombinetics used a new gene-editing process to essentially silence the gene that makes a cattle’s horns grow, and researchers at the UC-Davis laboratory are boarding and analyzing the resultant calves. The bull calves and the offspring that will inherit their altered genetics will be spared the discomfort of dehorning. Dairy farmers and their cows directly benefit, and dairy production becomes a little more humane.

While this hornless application illustrates how biotech can potentially provide animal welfare benefits, the AquAdvantage salmon shows how the technology can contribute to the twin goals of environmental sustainability and food security. By adding a growth hormone gene from a Pacific Chinook salmon and a promoter from an ocean pout to an Atlantic salmon’s 40,000 genes, researchers created a fish that reaches maturity in half the time of other farmed salmon, while consuming 25 percent less feed.

The fish are raised in land-based freshwater tank systems that physically contain the fish and eliminate some of the environmental and disease transmission concerns associated with net-pen based aquaculture.

The fast-growing AquAdvantage salmon. Photo courtesy of AquaBounty Technologies.

While the AquAdvantage approval was for a grow-out facility located in Panama, subject to FDA approval, production facilities could be constructed near urban markets, providing a local source of fish and reducing the carbon footprint currently associated with importing Atlantic salmon over 95% of which is produced outside of the U.S.

Despite these environmental and economic benefits, and a slew of studies that show the salmon is safe to raise and eat, it took AquaBounty Technologies nearly two decades to move its AquAdvantage salmon through a federal regulatory process that is not required of other breeding methods used to produce fast-growing farmed salmon that pose equivalent or greater environmental risks.

These complex national and international regulations, which are triggered by the use of modern biotechnology in the breeding process, rather than by an evaluation of potential risks and benefits posed by the resulting animals themselves, are thwarting efforts to develop healthier and more productive food animals through genetic engineering, argues Dr. Van Eenennaam in a review paper published Nov. 23 in the open-access journal Agriculture and Food Security.

Her admonishment bears consideration, especially since other biotech projects with important environmental and animal welfare benefits are waiting in the wings. These include cattle resistant to sleeping sickness, pigs resistant to swine flu and poultry resistant to avian flu; pigs and cattle that can more efficiently digest feed, reducing both feed consumption and greenhouse gas emissions; and one of the first GE animals developed: pigs with a gene that allows them to produce enough milk to feed their entire litter, thus greatly reducing piglet mortality.

As Van Eenennaam observes, more than 20 percent of the world’s animal protein is lost to disease. This creates suffering and hardship for both livestock and those who tend them, especially in developing nations, and it contributes to the use of expensive and potentially dangerous antimicrobial drugs for treatment.

Given the advances in modern biotech, it’s time to reassess how GE animals are evaluated and regulated, and the hornless dairy calves and AquAdvantage salmon are good starting points.

These animals also have the potential to reshape the public conversation around biotechnology. The calves and salmon are not commodity crops, and they do not require pesticides or any other proprietary ingredients developed by their manufacturers. Neither are products of multinational corporations. In short, they do not fit any of the usual biotech bogeymen memes.

That one-size-fits-all argument against GMOs has never been valid, and it becomes even more specious now that hornless calves and the AquAdvantage salmon are on the scene.

As the New Year approaches, the Alliance for Science looks forward to shaping a new dialogue around biotech that better fits new technological advances, new players, and a host of new opportunities to solve problems and help address the world’s food security crisis.

Photo credit: Graduate student Lindsay Upperman (left), and animal geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam at UC Davis with the gene-edited hornless dairy calves. Photo by Karin Higgins/UC Davis.