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New technologies, new concerns

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A RECENT opinion from the Farm Animal Welfare Committee (FAWC) on ‘the welfare implications of breeding and breeding technologies in commercial livestock agriculture’ is useful both in providing an overview of the current state of play regarding the application of different breeding techniques in livestock farming as well as in highlighting areas of concern.

The FAWC advises the Government on animal welfare matters. In 2004, when it last reported on this subject, it highlighted a number of concerns about the way technologies were being and might be applied to livestock, given general trends in breeding and the commercial pressures on farmers and breeders. It also called for more oversight in this area, although a number of its recommendations on this were subsequently rejected by the Government (VR, August 4, 2007, vol 161, p 145).

Against this background, it is perhaps notable that, in its latest opinion, the FAWC should report that ‘today, matters are improving’ in relation to breeding trends and that, although it still has concerns, it is encouraged that many breeding goals now include aspects of animal welfare, such as disease resistance. It notes that, although previously breeding for productivity was almost solely the focus, many large breeding companies have realigned their breeding goals to give greater prominence to traits such as health, fitness and welfare, as well as environmental impact, and it congratulates the companies on the progress being made. At the same time it makes clear that there is still some way to go in terms of breeding for better welfare and that, while there has been progress in some areas, new concerns continue to arise. In particular, it points out that the current drive to feed the growing world population while limiting environmental and other impacts will again see emphasis being placed on production efficiency, and that genetic selection of livestock will play an important part in this. In this context, it makes the important point that, ‘in pursuit of sustainable intensification, production should not be promoted at any cost’, and that ‘the concept of sustainability must include the welfare of farm animals’.

The FAWC makes clear that both traditional breeding and new techniques can affect animal welfare for good or bad, depending on how they are applied. For example, it notes that, although genetic modification of commercial farm animals is not allowed in the UK, it has the potential to improve animal welfare in some cases. It suggests, for instance, that it would be beneficial to insert specific DNA coding for polledness into horned populations of cattle, to avoid routine disbudding or dehorning of calves. Discussing the use of genomic breeding values to predict the genetic merit of dairy cattle, it notes that this offers considerable advantages to the livestock industry through improved efficiency and faster genetic progress for any trait that is recorded accurately to allow reliable predictors to be developed. At the same time it expresses concern that ‘easy-to-measure (largely production) traits are being implemented in advance of those for functional fitness, due largely to a lack of good data on health and fitness’.

A key message from the document is that genotypes must be suitably matched to the conditions and the environment in which the animals are reared.

The FAWC makes a number of specific recommendations. Among them are that breeding companies should work with farmers to make sure that health traits are recorded well on farm to facilitate and maximise their value in breeding programmes for fitness, and that farmers have a responsibility to ensure that appropriate animals are sourced for their situation. It also recommends that government and industry should support research to quantify the short- and long-term consequences of dystocia in farmed livestock so that farmers can make better decisions when choosing genotypes for use in extensive systems. ‘Elective caesarean operations are not acceptable,’ the FAWC says, ‘and the industry's aim should be that all females should give birth naturally and with minimal assistance.’

On the question of oversight, the FAWC recommends that the Government should ‘consider anew how to assess the creation and introduction of new genetic material for animals, which should include rigorous scientific and ethical evaluation’. This is an important recommendation, and one the Government should act on. Ethical debate should precede the application of new breeding technologies, but the reality, given the pace of technological advance, is that it often lags behind. Despite potential benefits, the public remains distrustful of developments in this area. It is important to have transparent structures in place to assess new technologies, not only to ensure that they are applied appropriately, but to help engender the public confidence that will be necessary if the benefits are to be fully realised.

■ ‘Opinion on the welfare implications of breeding and breeding technologies in commercial livestock agriculture.’ Available at www.defra.gov.uk/fawc

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