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Consumer acceptance of GE animals? The loaded million-dollar question

Fear trumps science. Will genetically engineered animals ever pass the government and consumer test to be available for America's pig farmers or will other top-producing countries beat us to the innovation?

Can biotechnology bring home the bacon? A question Alison Van Eenennaam, Animal Genomics and Biotechnology Cooperative Extension specialist at University of California, Davis, asks the North American PRRS Symposium and National Swine Improvement Federation Conference.

Van Eenennaam, a scientific communicator and often focusing on beef, openly admits she is impressed with the genetic milestones reached by the pork industry.

Genetic selection through precise breeding programs U.S. pig farmers with assistance from genetic companies have drastically increased the number of finished pigs per sow for over 85 years. As a result, live weight per sow per year climbed from 800 pounds to 4,200 pounds. Do the math that is 3,400 more pounds that one sow generates through increased litters, more piglets surviving along with better feed conversion. “It is pretty amazing the productivity of the sow. It kind of puts beef cattle to shame,” claims Van Eenennaam.Eenennaam

As Van Eenennaam points out if the genetics of pigs did not improve in the last 35 years then …

• Market pigs require 4% less feed today to produce 17% heavier carcasses than 35 years ago

• Of the 41-pound increase in live weight, 93% of the increase is in lean muscle per carcass, yielding more than 118 pounds of lean meat per animal

• Allowing a 28% increase in pork production with only a 10% increase in annual number of animals slaughter over the same time period

• Combine increase in sow productivity and market weight, the average U.S. pig farm is producing more than 4,200 pounds of live weight per sow per year compared to 1,770 pounds in 1980

• Without these genetic improvements, it would take an additional 9 million sows, or a total of 15 million sows to achieve the current level of U.S. pork production.

There is no arguing that conventional breeding programs have done their part to shrink the environmental footprint for the pork business. However, it is also safe to say precision nutrition, improved technology and infrastructure, enhanced animal health, enriched environment, vast knowledge and overall better pig care all contributed to the production stride in the U.S. pig business. Producing more pork with fewer resources is truly a team effort.

Still, there is always room for growth and improving the pork produced. Van Eenennaam shares three items for improvement: 1) Helping the pig to digest more nutrients, reducing the undigested nutrients in manure 2) Enhancing the health profile of pig products for human consumption and 3) Prevent sick pigs.

Heart-healthy bacon — is that possible? Yes, just ask the University of Missouri research team. Through gene editing, a pig rich in omega-3 fatty acids is possible. 

Similarly, PRRS-resistant pigs are here. A way to end reproductive PRRS is here. A disease that costs the United States easily $600 million annually could be stopped in its tracks if the genome editing animals were consumer accepted and government approved.

Theoretical concepts that scientists have already tackled through gene editing however the research sits on a shelf.

As an industry, we stand at a crossroad. The scientists are solving problems through biotechnology, but the science is falling to fear of unknown and political antics. Fear trumps science every day in the consumers’ world.

Getting the public to accept game-changing biotechnology is about making them feel safe. Unfortunately, many people relate gene editing to sci-fi movies that paint farmers and scientist as evil villains, dredging up schemes to end the world through food production.  

Basically, genetically engineered animals must go through the same approval process with the U.S. Food & Drug Administration as dog wormer. The gene alternated is tested like a drug. To date, fast-growing salmon, AquAdvantage, is the only government approved genetically engineered animal. It was founded in 1989 and reached approval in 2015 after rigid testing. It still has not reached the market today because legislation introduced by an Alaska legislator prohibiting the AquAdvantage Salmon to be sold. Consequently, the political rhetoric alone is enough to keep scientists and companies from pursuing it.

In January 2017 two days before President Trump took office, a draft FDA regulation to consider all “animals whose genomes have been altered intentionally” as drugs was proposed. As Van Eenennaam asks, is DNA a drug?  

As she carefully explains, China and other countries are already utilizing the genome editing technology in the laboratory. If it is not approved for use in the United States, then our competitors in the global pork game will have an advantage. If they can market PRRS-resistant pigs or use the same technology to end reproductive PRRS first, what ramifications will that have in the United States?

Van Eenennaam is right. Policy not based on science leaves the U.S. pork industry, and frankly all of the agriculture, at risk to losing access to innovation in agriculture breeding. We must make sure the government approval process does need to protect the consumer, ensure safety but never disregard science.

Still, we have to reflect on what message collectively we are sending the consumer? Even if we can agree on the science-based approval process for genetically engineered animals, will the consumer see it as safe?

That is the million-dollar question.

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