Breeding for productivity or animal welfare?

Ethical questions also an issue | Cattle scientist says producers may have to consider welfare in selecting genetic traits

CALGARY — Should animal welfare trump productivity when it comes to trait selection in livestock?

Dr. Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein says yes.

Speaking at an April 23 Genome Alberta meeting, the Agriculture Canada beef cattle welfare research scientist said knowledge of genomics allows breeders to select for specific productivity traits, such as carcass quality, feed conversion and milk production.

However, selection for those specific traits could come at the cost of animal health and welfare.

For example, selecting and breeding dairy cattle that produce more milk resulted in the unintended consequences of higher incidence of mastitis, lameness and fertility problems.

“Successful livestock production will only be accomplished through welfare-conscious management, and I’m going to stick my neck out and say that health and welfare traits should take precedence over production traits,” Schwartzkopf-Genswein told her audience of animal researchers, geneticists and economists.

They were gathered to explore the ethical, environmental, economic, legal and social implications of livestock genomics.

The technology has the potential to produce animals with better resistance to disease and stress, for example, but that also has implications for welfare.

The researcher posed a hypothetical situation in which chickens genomically selected to be blind were less prone to stress. That might be better for the bird and for the producer in one sense, but there are ethical questions.

“How far do we go, and who de-cides?”

Similarly, animals could be selected to thrive in sub-optimal conditions or to be more docile and less sentient. They could then be raised under poor conditions at less financial cost, though the ethical question also comes to bear.

Schwartzkopf-Genswein said in a later interview that she introduced the welfare-over-production debate to generate discussion.

“I did it to be a bit controversial, actually. Honestly, do I think that we’re going to forgo production for welfare? It hasn’t happened in 100 years, so is it going to happen now? No.”

However, she also said animal welfare concerns are gaining prominence, forcing retailers to set animal management policies for suppliers on areas such as open sow housing and free-run chickens.

Livestock producers might one day have to consider how to apply genomics technology so that welfare is also a consideration, she said.

Producers might be willing to select for optimal animal health if they could do so with minimal reduction in productivity, she added.

“I think you have to look at a sliding scale on either side, where there is some balance between optimal welfare and optimal production that both fit together, and it’s not good welfare at the cost of production,” she said.

“If you have optimal health and welfare, how can you not have better productivity, at least overall?”

Dr. Joe Stookey, who studies and lectures on animal behaviour at the University of Saskatchewan, rejected the idea of choosing welfare over productivity in trait selection.

“I really do believe selection can improve and sort of address welfare issues,” he said.

For example, the need for dehorning, which is a painful procedure for cattle, could be addressed through selection for polled traits.

Tail docking, a painful procedure done to pigs to prevent tail biting, could be eliminated if animals were genetically selected against such behaviour.

In her presentation, Schwartzkopf-Genswein said animal health and welfare can be hard to measure, such as fear, boredom and depression.

That, in turn, makes it difficult to select for certain traits with confidence that results will not increase animals’ non-physical experience.

Andrew Kernohan, a philosophy professor at Dalhousie University, said he embraces the notion that animals should not be worse off as a result of genetic selection.

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