Gene Editing panel discussion National Hog Farmer/Cheryl Day
Michael Specter, right, moderates a panel discussion on gene editing in the swine world to kick off this year's Pork Forum in Kansas City, Mo. Panel members were, left to right, Kevin Wells, Bradley Wolter, Dan Kovich and Charlie Arnot.

Language of gene editing muddles advances

Gene editing panel discussion kicks off Pork Forum in Kansas City, Mo.

Agriculture has benefited and been plagued for years by gene editing, in the plant world and more recently on the livestock front.

“GMO is not illegal in the U.S.,” says Kevin Wells, animal science genetics assistant professor at the University of Missouri, but the terms “genetically modified organism” strike fear in the minds of consumers so he suggests that agriculture and swine industry not use words to hide behind.

Wells has been working in gene editing, he prefers the term “genome editor,” since 1989, and wishes to calm fears of the consuming public by being clear that genome editing does not involve the transfer of genes from one specie into another.

“We look at the instruction manual of the giraffe and if we see a trait we like, we look for that in the instruction manual of the pig,” he says. “It’s basically, copy, paste, delete. A lot like looking through a thesaurus.”

Wells was one of four on a panel discussion to kick off the Pork Forum taking place through Friday in Kansas City, Mo.

The panel, moderated by Science, technology and global health author and journalist Michael Specter, also included:

• Charlie Arnot, CEO of Look East and an industry leader on food and agriculture issues, and he offered insight into consumer social acceptance of gene editing.

• Dan Kovich, a veterinarian and director of science and technology with the National Pork Producers Council, discussed the current regulatory environment for this emerging technology.

• Bradley Wolter, president of The Maschhoffs LLC and a pork producer in Illinois. Wolter, who has a doctorate in swine growth and development, reviewed gene editing’s potential on-farm application.

Specter, who writes for The New Yorker and is currently working on a book about the breakthrough technology of gene editing, served as keynote speaker before moderating the panel discussion.

“Gene editing is a potentially revolutionary tool that will improve the lives of humans in clear and tangible ways,” Specter says. “And we may well see the first widely accepted benefits in animals and plants. There is a clear opportunity for the agriculture industry to lead the way.”

In its simplest definition, gene editing technology allows for precise changes to be made to the DNA of living cells, which holds the potential to eradicate diseases, transform agriculture and enable massive leaps forward in environmental and life science. Specter and the panel’s presentation offered a single forum for those with a stake in pork production to share ideas on its application to the global pork industry.

“This is a conversation that we need to be having as an industry,” Wolter says, after the panel discussion. “We realize what the technology can do for us. There’s an endless spectrum of possibilities, but there are some concerns about the access to the technology.”

“We have to start now by generating social acceptance of gene editing,” Arnot says. “That means overcoming the public’s scientific illiteracy by opening a dialogue to build both acceptance and support. This will allow us to move forward as a society.”

“Acceptance of gene editing faces its distinct challenges — and largest among them is public perception,” Wells said. “What is so unique to gene editing is that there is no biological reason to regulate the technology. However, that could well be the first step in growing consumer acceptance.”

Wolter sees concrete on-farm application of gene editing despite being so early in its development and acceptance.

“It will have a positive impact on livestock production, making pigs resistant to diseases and improving food safety, animal welfare and environmental impact,” Wolter says. “However, you cannot invest in a technology without clearly understanding the regulatory environment.”

“A one-size-fits-all regulatory approach will not work for many emerging technologies, but especially for gene editing,” Kovich says. “A path forward exists, allowing for regulatory scrutiny, but trade-offs may be required. We need to establish a risk-based regulatory framework.”

Toward that end, gene editing technology will move forward in an environment that acknowledges public interest while simultaneously encouraging investment for its expansion. Wells notes that China already is looking to the future of gene editing by investing approximately $15 billion in animal sciences.

Source: National Pork Board

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