When Emily Metz talks to lay audiences, people who are not at all connected to animal agriculture, she often tells them porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome doesn’t discriminate.
“It affects large farms, small farms, outdoor farms, indoor farms, farms in China, farms across the board and the toughest diseases tend to follow that pattern where they don’t discriminate,” says Metz, director of New Product Marketing, Genus PLC. “They (pigs) catch diseases just like the best-kept children in daycare are going to get sick. Kids get sick, animals get sick too, and PRRS is one of those diseases that doesn’t discriminate.”
PRRS can also lead to a lifetime of secondary infections for the farm and additional antibiotic use to treat those infections. As Metz points out, consumers don’t want to see antibiotic usage go up in their food system but are naïve to the impact viruses such as PRRS have in the barn. In the United States alone, the virus costs the pork industry more than $600 million in losses every year.
A significant global disease, PRRS could potentially be irrelevant if the industry wasn’t caught in a “catch 22.” Through gene editing work with Genus, researchers at the University of Missouri have found that mothers without the CD163 protein are resistant to the PRRS virus and give birth to healthy, normal piglets. At The Roslin Institute, researchers used gene-editing techniques to remove a small section of the CD163 gene and found that none of the animals became ill when exposed to the PRRS virus, as blood tests found no trace of the infection. However, the technology still needs to get through a lengthy and expensive approval process through regulatory as well as gain consumer trust.
The Food and Drug Administration has jurisdiction over food derived from gene-edited animals and the process — by design — is rigorous and deliberate. It’s an 11-step process and Genus has been working with the FDA to submit the required data and information to meet each step of the process.
“We obviously are not huge fans of the fact that this is being regulated as a new animal drug. The protocol doesn’t exactly match up one-to-one with what we’re doing,” Metz says. “That said, I think there’s a lot of opportunity to work with FDA to really help shape that framework and that regulatory authority in a positive manner. Genus strongly believes that products that are derived from gene-edited animals should be regulated. We believe it’s important both from a responsibility standpoint and from a communication standpoint.”
While the FDA is really the “linchpin” in this technology ever hitting the U.S. market and subsequently the global market since it watches the U.S. market so closely, consumer acceptance will have to go hand-in-hand.
Since joining Genus over a year ago, Metz has found that while it’s often said that consumers don’t understand animal agriculture, they really don’t understand how animals are bred.
“That’s something that’s sort of gone on since the dawn of time to be more efficient, to be healthier,” Metz says. “But when we start to have this discussion with consumers, we’re going to have to start all the way back at the beginning and talk about why we breed animals, because gene editing is really an advanced tool in that breeding process. It’s really an evolution, not a revolution.”
Metz says it’s important to convey to consumers these points regarding gene editing technology.
- It is not GMOs. It is not genetic modification. It’s going in and very precisely making a targeted edit in the DNA of that animal turning on or off a sequence of genes that makes that DNA function in a certain way.
- Gene editing is focused on diseases in particular that don’t have a cure. PRRS not only does it not discriminate; it also doesn’t respond to vaccines. There’s been no effective vaccine.
- The technology is a natural evolution of that breeding process. Gene editing is not being used to insert foreign DNA into the DNA of a pig or any other animal. It is not transgenic.
- Gene editing is not being used to create animals for human amusement or to create designer animals, nor is gene editing being used to create animals that can withstand abuse or neglect or mistreatment of any kind. This technology is really to eradicate disease and create healthier animals.
- While the industry has made strides in biosecurity, it hasn’t been enough to combat PRRS or other viruses such as African swine fever. We have to do more.
“Gene editing has been described a lot of ways. The way that I like and the way that Genus likes talking about it is think of it as a word processor,” Metz says “It’s basically your ‘find and replace’ function. You find what you want, you go in, you cut it out and then you paste in something new to sort of heal that and bring that genetic sequence back together. It heals itself and operates as if it was never there in the first place.”
Metz says so far traditional media has been largely neutral on gene editing and she credits the technology’s widespread human application for this. However, while agriculture is standing next to human medicine in this regard, she advises all agricultural stakeholders to work together to advance the science, whether they use it or not.
“I think the No. 1 thing that we do when it comes to bringing this innovation to market is not tear each other down. We need to stand together on this,” Metz says. “Even if there’s members of the supply chain that don’t accept it. At the end of the day, let’s not demonize the technology because one of the things that I think is so important is that technology begets technology. Innovation brings more innovation. We need innovation in agriculture and we need innovation in U.S. agriculture to continue to be competitive.”