Enhance understanding to quell fears: professor

CALGARY — Conventional animal breeding allows selection for certain traits in livestock, but full application of genomics technology can take the process further.

Breeders could select for certain traits with greater accuracy using their knowledge of the cattle genome. At its fullest extent, genomics would be a tool to genetically modify animals to meet animal production or economic goals.

The social and legal implications of that activity were the focus of one session at Genome Alberta’s April 23 conference.

Ed Pajor, professor of animal welfare at the University of Calgary, said animal breeding concepts including genomics have been studied for more than 20 years, which would suggest general acceptance of the technology.

“But there really isn’t,” he said.

“There’s all kinds of controversy about this issue. We’ve had all this investment, people are developing these types of animals for potential consumption, but we don’t have, necessarily, the amount of public support that’s required to move forward, or to move forward quickly and easily and efficiently and economically.”

Literature suggests people are more willing to accept GM animals if they are used for non-food purposes, such as pharmaceuticals, organs or models for human disease cures.

He said reactions are much different when people consider GM animals as a food source.

“We really have to be prepared, as we move forward with GMO animals as food, to understand where the arguments are coming from, to understand, if you will, the social sciences around public acceptance of this technology.”

In food animals, genetic modification might be undertaken to improve growth rate, feed conversion or meat quality.

However, Pajor said those things don’t resonate with the public, which is more concerned with animals’ natural behaviour.

A more urbanized population views all animals through a “pet filter,” said Pajor.

Pets are the closest relationship many people have with animals so they extend those attitudes toward livestock.

“Public awareness levels about transgenic animals are low,” said Pajor.

“When we start developing animals for food use that don’t fit into that traditional model around animal husbandry, potentially, then we’re going to have a real challenge in terms of society and having them understand where this technology is taking animal agriculture.”

Ubaka Ogbogu, a University of Alberta assistant professor who studies health law and bioethics, said genomics is a two-edged sword that might do some good for society but is also likely to raise fears.

“We very often respond to technologies without a very good understanding of what they are actually about,” he said.

He said it will be important for society to understand from the start what is being done before genomics progresses further.

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