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Missing the point on technology

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IT IS frustrating to give advice only for that advice to be ignored — so the Farm Animal Welfare Council (fawc) could be forgiven if it feels a little annoyed at the Government's response to a report it produced three years ago on the welfare implications of animal breeding and breeding technologies in commercial agriculture.* Of the eight recommendations in the advisory body's report, the Government has rejected four, ‘partially accepted’ three and accepted only one. Most notably, it has rejected the fawc's key recommendation, namely, that ‘a standing committee [should] be established for the evaluation of new and existing breeding technologies, as well as for the consideration of welfare and ethical problems arising as a result of livestock breeding programmes’. In publishing its response last month (see VR, July 28, 2007, vol 161, p 110), the Government offered no explanation as to why it had taken so long to do so. However, when publishing a draft response last autumn, it said that this had taken longer to prepare than it would have liked due to other work priorities (VR, November 25, 2006, vol 159, p 726).

In calling for a standing committee to oversee developments, the fawc noted that breeding technologies could affect animal welfare for good or ill. There was a need for proper assessment of the implications, not just of novel or existing technologies, but also of conventional breeding programmes. While acknowledging that the scientific development of breeding technologies was adequately controlled under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, it believed that additional safeguards were required regarding the introduction of these technologies into commercial agriculture. It believed there were ‘potential gaps in control which may allow techniques and animals to be released into commercial agricultural practice unchecked’. At a time when there was ‘considerable public disquiet’ about genetic modification, cloning and other breeding technologies, a crucial role of the committee would be to be seen by the public as a trusted and reliable body.

This is not the first time that the Government has resisted calls for a standing committee in this area. In 1995, the Banner committee's report on the ethical implications of emerging technologies in the breeding of farm animals urged the appointment of such a committee, describing this as ‘a matter of some importance’. In 1998, in a report on the implications of cloning for the welfare of farmed livestock, the fawc called for a standing committee to oversee developments in cloning technology. In 2002, the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, in a report on animals and biotechnology, advised that ‘a new strategic advisory body should be set up to examine issues raised by the use of genetic biotechnology on farm animals in the context of its use on other animals and current livestock farming practices’. Given that the Government has been resisting such advice for more than 10 years now, one can't help feeling it is less than keen on the idea.

Giving reasons in its response to the fawc, the Government says that the uk has been at the forefront of the field of breeding technologies and that it does not wish to discourage innovation by creating additional burdens for industry. It believes that current legislation, animal welfare codes and a positive attitude towards animal welfare in the breeding industry provide a sound basis for the future. It argues that there is no clear role that a standing committee could undertake in the uk without being given statutory powers that would not be proportionate or necessary. It suggests that the fawc itself could fulfil the required role, which rather ignores arguments put forward by the fawc that this would not be the best approach. It also draws attention to the ‘disproportionate cost’ of a standing committee, arguing that it would not be good use of public resources to set up an entirely new body.

The Government has also rejected the fawc's recommendation that it should consider methods to close potential loopholes that would allow genetically modified or cloned animals, their gametes or embryos to enter uk commercial agriculture uncontrolled. It accepts that, in theory, it would be possible for a breeding technique developed overseas to be introduced to the uk as recognised veterinary practice without prior evaluation in the uk. However, it argues that the likelihood that a breeding technique with detrimental consequences for animal welfare would take off commercially in the uk is ‘extremely low’. Although the fawc recommended that the welfare impact of new breed types or technologies should be subject to specific, targeted surveillance, the Government believes that existing arrangements, as being developed through its animal health and welfare and veterinary surveillance strategies, are sufficient.

It is clear that the Government is determined not to be heavy-handed in its approach to regulation in this area. However, there must be concern that, in its enthusiasm not to stifle innovation or create unnecessary burdens for industry, it is missing the point. New technologies can potentially be to the benefit, as well as the detriment, of animal welfare, but a naturally suspicious public tends to tar all of them with the same brush. There is also the danger that, given the pace of technological advance, ethical debate will lag behind. There is a need to have structures in place that can allow new technologies to be assessed before they are introduced and help to engender the confidence that their successful application requires.

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