Meat and milk from farm animals such as cattle and poultry contain high quality protein, essential amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and more, said the ISAAA (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications), a not-for-profit international organization. Presently, biotechnology is being leveraged in the livestock industry to make breed development faster to enhance animal health and welfare. It can also improve reproduction and enhance the nutritional quality and safety of animal products.
US Respondents’ Perception of the Genetic Engineering of Animals
Cary Funk and Meg Hefferon of Pew Research Center, a non-partisan fact tank, found in their 2018 study that 70% of Americans believed that it was appropriate to use technology to limit the reproduction of mosquitoes to prevent the spread of disease (versus 29% of those who answered “taking technology too far”). 57% said it was appropriate to use technology to enable animals to grow organs/tissues for humans needing a transplant (versus 41%).
For 55% of Americans, genetically engineering animals to increase protein production for higher nutrient content was seen as taking technology too far. However, only 43% said it was appropriate. 32% believed that genetically engineering a closely-related species to bring back an extinct animal was appropriate, compared to those who said it was taking technology too far (67%). 77% said causing aquarium fish to glow through genetic engineering was taking technology too far, compared to 21% who believed it was appropriate.
Of those who objected to the genetic engineering of meat, respondents cited the following concerns: messing with nature (13%) or God’s plan (9%), risks to human health (11%), and animal welfare (9%). However, 12% argued that people should rely less on meat or that genetically-engineered foods may not be safe for consumption. Emilie McConnachie and colleagues of PLOS ONE, a peer-reviewed open access scientific journal, found that 80% of the surveyed US citizens had heard or read “nothing” about genetically modifying cows to be hornless. According to the researchers’ 2019 research, 61% had heard or read “nothing” about dehorning cows.
Overall, 66% of respondents argued that genetically modifying cattle to be hornless was a good thing. 66% said they were willing to consume products from cattle that were genetically modified to be hornless. Meanwhile, 23% stated that genetically modifying cows was a bad thing whereas 23% said they were not willing to consume them. Regarding their perception of animal welfare, 8.1% said it was not “important/slightly important” and 25.8% said it was “moderately important.” Only 66.1% said it was “very important/extremely important.”
How Can Biotechnology Improve Livestock?
1. Quality of Livestock Products
Major genes for meat quality provides farmers ample opportunities to increase the quality of animal meat and reduce variability, said Swati Gupta and C.V. Savalia of Veterinary World, an open-access, peer-reviewed journal portal in the field of veterinary and animal science. Prior to slaughter, some of the genes that affect a meat’s tenderness are CLPG in sheep, myostatin in beef, and RN in pork.
2. Enzyme Production
To produce cheese in bulk, the dairy industry needs large amounts of rennet. Although it is traditionally sourced from calves, there is a need to explore alternative sources of rennet due to the global imbalance between cheese production and calf slaughter and shortage of calf rennet. However, in some countries like India, religion has prompted individuals to assert their need for rennet alternatives.
Hydrolysis of lactose occurs when milk is treated with galactosidase results. This makes milk digestible by lactose-intolerant people. Galactosidase, which is an enzyme, hydrolyzes lactose into glucose and galactose. Unfortunately, these enzymes are expensive so biotechnology can aid in its production and application
3. Transfer of Embryos
Transferring the embryo from one mother to a surrogate mother can help farmers produce several livestock progenies from a superior female. Females chosen for the transfer are induced to superovulate hormonally. They are inseminated at the right time relative to their ovulation, which depends on the female’s species and breed.
When embryos are a week old, they are flushed out of the donor female’s uterus and isolated. The embryos are examined using a microscope for number and quality. Then, the embryos are inserted into the lining of the uterus of the surrogate females. Embryo transfer increases the reproductive rate of selected females, minimizes the transmission of disease, and promotes the development of “rare and economically important genetic stocks.” This can also aid farmers in producing several “closely related and genetically similar individuals” that are critical in the facilitation of livestock breeding research.
4. Documentation of Undesired Genes
Genetic diseases and physical defects can be tracked and recorded in livestock using molecular markers. The root causes of these problems can be traced to genetic changes and DNA mutations as soon as they manifest in the protein structure and function. Using genetic testing, livestock that carry defective genes can be identified by farmers, culling the animals from the farm’s livestock breeding program.
There Are Concerns Surrounding the Use of Biotechnology On Cattle and Livestock
Cattle contribute to climate change, noted Dyllan Furness of Singularity Hub, a news and insights website from Singularity University. Livestock comprised about 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, with cattle being responsible for about two thirds, said the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a specialized agency of the UN.
One way to address climate change is to consume less meat, but meat consumption is forecasted to increase, including the world's population and average income. In fact, a 2012 report by the FAO said that meat production will rise by 76% by 250 while beef consumption will increase by 1.2% each year. Alison Van Eenennaam, an animal geneticist at the University of California, Davis, said farmers should produce more efficient cattle that help them to use fewer resources. She added, “Anything you can do to accelerate the rate of conventional breeding is going to reduce the environmental footprint of a glass of milk or a pound of meat.”
While modern gene-editing tools can hasten conventional breeding, the problem with bioengineering livestock is overcoming regulations and public skepticism. Even if farmers and scientists are utilizing biotechnology, there are still questions surrounding its use in the cattle industry, as well as its impact on the environment. While climate change is a pressing issue, Bhanu Telugu, an animal scientist at the University of Maryland and president and chief science officer RenOVAte Biosciences, reminded, “We cannot breed our way out of this.”
Genetically engineering farm animals may be criticized by animal rights activists. Biotechnology is beneficial to the livestock industry, but the ethical aspects of its use may have to be tackled by farmers and industry experts.