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Farmer’s Daughter: Biotech in animal agriculture becoming a reality


Biotechnology, particularly of food products, is usually a divisive issue. Debates tend to get heated, common ground is hard to come by, and compromises are rare. But what if genetic engineering could help find a truce between two groups that, to put it mildly, hardly ever see eye-to-eye?

The possibility of such a phenomenon comes as a result of the potential genetic modification of farm animals. Paul Shapiro, the head of the Humane Society of the United States’ (HSUS) farm animal protection division, recently stated at a conference that the organization could potentially support such modifications, provided that those modifications were meant to reduce perceived livestock suffering. Shapiro cautioned, however, that HSUS would oppose any animal genetic engineering that would promote animal growth.

“We don’t have orthodoxy or a litmus test for technologies,” he said. “We want technologies that are good for animals.”

Shapiro’s comments are particularly timely as the topic of using biotechnology in animal agriculture is becoming a reality. In late 2015, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first GMO animal — a genetically engineered salmon that grows faster than its non-GMO equivalent. The modification lowers the environmental impact of the salmon by reducing the overall time the fish needs to mature, thereby reducing the amount of resources required. The FDA approved the GMO salmon after being sufficiently satisfied that the modifications did not make the fish unsafe for human consumption, did not hurt the fish, and actually worked.

Biotechnology of insects has also been considered as a potential for fighting certain diseases and viruses. Genetically altered mosquitoes, mostly all male, are released in the wild to mate with non-GMO mosquitoes. The GMO mosquitoes pass along a genetic trait to their offspring that causes them to die quickly. The idea is the reduce the overall population of the specific mosquito species that carries the Zika virus, thus limiting the likelihood it can be passed to humans.

While neither of these uses of biotechnology in animals would likely qualify as one that HSUS would support, the mere chance that the organization could agree with animal farmers is a step in the right direction. But it might be hard to create a meaningful bridge between the two.

Over the years HSUS has made a name for itself by actively opposing and campaigning against animal agriculture. The organization sells its message to late night television viewers with photographs of miserable cats and dogs it claims to help. While one might assume that the money raised is then spent on funding humane society shelters around the country, that is hardly the case. HSUS operates absolutely zero animal shelters and it donates less than 1 percent of its annual budget to pet shelters.

Rather, HSUS uses the money it raises for more nefarious purposes. Since 2002, the organization has organized and funded the passage of hundreds of animal rights laws around the country that make animal agriculture just a little more onerous. Regulations have been passed in numerous states, including Florida, California, and Missouri targeting animal operations. Each election cycle brings new ballot proposals drafted by HSUS aimed at animal agriculture. To demonstrate the disdain for animal farmers, Matt Prescott, Director of Food Policy at HSUS, compared animal agriculture to the Holocaust. While working at PETA, Prescott told a reporter: “Anybody who eats meat is guilty of holding the same mindset that allowed the Holocaust to happen.”

But there is hope.

The practice of dehorning or disbudding dairy cattle is commonly performed for both the safety of the animals and farmers. There are currently several methods used. While farmers and veterinarians attempt to make the process as pain-free as possible, it isn’t perfect. But some scientists are developing a genetic solution — dairy cows that are born without the traits for growing horns. By simply changing one gene, we can have cows that no longer need to go through the process of dehorning.

Certainly, that’s a genetic solution that even HSUS can support.

The question, of course, is whether we will actually see them support genetic alterations on farm animals. Perhaps more importantly, even if HSUS does get on board with some of these GMO animals, will their dedicated followers also be supportive? That remains unanswered and something only time will tell. For now, farmers can cautiously hope that there may be a potential truce with one of their most influential foes.


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