The fight over gene-edited meat, explained.
Earlier this month, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that beef from two gene-edited cattle and their offspring is safe to eat and said gene-edited beef could be on the market in as little as two years. The cattle were designed using the gene-editing tool CRISPR to grow shorter hair to better tolerate heat, which makes them more efficient for meat producers in hotter climates. An FDA spokesperson said the agency expects the announcement will encourage more companies to bring forward gene-edited farm animals for marketplace approval in the near future.
Products from such animals aren’t going to appear on grocery shelves or restaurant menus overnight; the FDA has generally moved slowly on approving new gene-edited or engineered animals. But in the coming decades, gene editing could usher in a new era for meat production, and one that, depending on the paths taken by genetics companies and the meat producers to whom they’ll aim to sell these new animals, could have lasting consequences for animal suffering on factory farms.
Want to eat less meat but don’t know where to start? Sign up for Vox’s five-day newsletter full of practical tips — and food for thought — to incorporate more plant-based food into your diet.
Down one path lies a future where industrial agriculture uses the technology of gene editing to push chickens, pigs, fish, and cows to grow bigger and faster. It would be a future of factory farming on overdrive, and a future almost certainly to the detriment of animal welfare.
Down the other path lies a more positive possibility: the use of genetic tools to alleviate some animal suffering. Editing for disease resistance, for instance, could reduce sickness as well as the need to breed more animals as replacements for those who die, while the creation of hornless calves would eliminate the need for a painful yet common farm procedure known as dehorning.
Based on what some animal genetics companies and researchers have told us — and on the hundreds of such projects underway — it’ll likely be a mix of both approaches.
“Gene editing in relation to current farming systems is interesting because there are ways in which it might alleviate suffering, but there are also ways in which it might exacerbate different aspects of the current system,” Adam Shriver, a bioethicist at the University of British Columbia, told me. “It’s something that has the potential to really profoundly affect” farm animal welfare.
The potential of gene editing has led the animal agriculture sector to largely embrace the possibilities of the technology and for some in the industry to call for a faster regulatory approval process, which could be achieved in part by granting oversight to the more agribusiness-friendly USDA.
Animal welfare advocacy groups, on the other hand, view the technology more warily. The Humane Society of the United States supports gene editing farmed animals when it’s specifically used to reduce animal suffering, while Dena Jones of the Animal Welfare Institute worries that it “allows the industry to mitigate some of the criticisms of animal farming and keep costs low in the process,” as she told me in an email.
It’ll likely be decades — if ever — until gene-edited animals become a significant part of industrial agriculture, given the current slow pace of regulation and potential scientific hurdles. But it could be speeding up. The FDA and Recombinetics, the company that made the short-haired, heat-tolerant cattle, declined to comment for this story when questioned about how many years it took for the FDA’s “safe to eat” determination. But in January 2021, Recombinetics published research on the short-hair cattle and wrote it is “currently being prepared for regulatory review in multiple countries and commercialization.”
If it only took Recombinetics around one year to earn the FDA’s “safe to eat” determination, it would stand in stark contrast to the odyssey of the AquAdvantage salmon. Genetically engineered to grow twice as fast and year-round — unlike a natural Atlantic salmon, which primarily grows in the spring and summer while out at sea — it took some two decades before AquAdvantage was finally approved in 2015.
After several more years of deliberation on how to properly label it and FDA environmental review, it’s now sold through one seafood distributor, while 85 companies, including Walmart and Kroger, have pledged never to sell it after pressure from environmental and anti-GMO activists, though the company says it has relationships with some large-scale retailers.
Public opinion, meanwhile, remains mixed on gene editing animals, with more support for approaches that promote heat tolerance or reduce pain than for interventions that can make animals grow faster.
The uncertain approval process and lingering consumer skepticism means there’s still time to shape how gene editing will be used on the farm. No one doubts the power of gene editing, nor its potential to help determine the quality of life of billions of animals in the future. But whether gene editing is predominantly employed to maximize production at all costs or as a scientific corrective to ethical woes is up to the editors — meaning us.
Factory farms are often characterized as inhumane because of the conditions in which animals are forced to live: in a tiny cage or a crate, overcrowded in a dark warehouse, and often fed a steady diet of antibiotics as a way to increase growth rates and prevent disease in unsanitary conditions, not because the animals are sick.
But a significant portion of farm animal suffering is set before they’re ever born, thanks to the way that they have been bred.
For centuries before scientists even understood the existence and function of genes, farmers selectively bred animals to produce certain traits, such as faster growth rates or resistance to disease, that would yield more meat at a lower cost. Starting in the late 1940s, animal breeders became more sophisticated and eventually figured out how to push animals to their biological limits, a project that has led to a hellish existence for most of America’s 9 billion farmed land animals (and, increasingly, for the farmed species that provide more than half the world’s seafood).
Chickens raised for meat today grow to be much larger and grow at a much faster pace than chickens did in the 1950s, causing a laundry list of welfare issues, such as leg and foot injuries, lesions, and heart and lung problems. As chickens get closer to “market weight,” many of them have difficulty even walking since their legs can’t support their unnaturally large bodies.
Creating rapid-growth chickens took breeding companies decades since they mostly relied on old-fashioned selective breeding. Genetic engineering came next in the 1970s as scientists figured out how to transfer genes from one organism into another, which led to the creation of the fast-growing AquAdvantage salmon in 1989. But newer biotechnology tools, like CRISPR, are faster and more precise because scientists can edit an animals’ genes rather than move a gene from one animal into another.
“The beauty of the newer techniques is the ability to precisely introduce a particular characteristic into already elite germplasm” or heritable genetic material, says Alison Van Eenennaam, an animal geneticist at University California Davis.
The promise of the technology is obvious for agribusiness, which naturally wants to use these new tools to boost profits by designing bigger, faster-growing animals with higher fertility rates.
But that’s not the only use of the technology. It could also be deployed to eliminate many sources of animal suffering on today’s factory farms by editing genes in ways that would make painful procedures unnecessary.
Hornless calves are just the start. For instance, male piglets are castrated, usually without pain relief, shortly after birth. If they aren’t, their meat will emit a terrible odor when cooked, leading to what the pork industry calls “boar taint.” So scientists are working on a male pig that never reaches puberty, eliminating the need for castration.
A similar advance could be made with poultry. Each year at America’s egg hatcheries, as many as 300 million male chicks are gruesomely killed — usually by being ground up alive or gassed — since they can’t lay eggs and have been bred to be too small to be worth the effort of raising for meat. Researchers around the world are using transgenic engineering and gene-editing tools in an attempt to solve this chicken and egg dilemma.
A team in Australia is using CRISPR to insert a gene from a sea anemone into a chicken that expresses a particular protein; if it’s a male, the inside of the egg will glow red when a laser is shined on it, enabling egg producers to destroy the eggs before the chicks are hatched. A team in the UK is working to stop the development of male embryos.
Straight out of a Black Mirror episode, the bioethicist Shriver has argued — in a paper that asks if “technology can succeed where morality has stalled” — for creating genetically engineered farmed animals that can’t feel pain. It’s a still-theoretical intervention that shows that the extreme environment of factory farming might demand equally extreme technological solutions.
Breeding disease-resistant animals could also reduce animal suffering in the short term and lead agribusiness to breed fewer animals overall.
In 2014 and 2015, outbreaks of the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) virus across the US resulted in more than 50 million chickens and turkeys killed or culled, using cruel methods like suffocating foam and “ventilation shutdown” — industry jargon for essentially cooking the animals alive.
Seven years later, the disease is wreaking havoc on the US poultry industry yet again; since February of this year, 4 million chickens and turkeys in the US have been destroyed due to a new HPAI outbreak. Epidemiologists worry the growing outbreak increases the chance of the virus mutating and infecting humans. A different strain of the virus, Asian H5N1, has only infected around 700 people since 2003, but it has a disturbingly high mortality rate of 60 percent.
The global spread of African swine fever has caused the death or culling of millions of pigs in recent years, while other diseases are routine problems in the industry, such as tuberculosis and mastitis for dairy cows, and PRRS, a respiratory disease that affects pigs. Researchers have created gene-edited animals immune to all of these diseases as pilot projects, but none have been approved to be raised commercially.
“Disease resistance is the big target that everyone’s after because we lose about 20 percent of animal production to disease,” Van Eenennaam told me.
While creating disease-resistant animals would certainly fatten agribusiness’s bottom line, as meat, dairy, and egg producers lose billions of dollars each year to disease, it could also reduce animal suffering in two ways.
The first is obvious: Disease and culling are painful, and eliminating them would be good. The second is that it could result in fewer animals needing to be bred in the first place because when animals die from disease, the industry has to replace them.
But the fact that such innovation could improve animal welfare and the bottom line of agribusiness is one reason why many animal advocates hesitate to buy into it as a viable solution to factory farming.
“Through genetic engineering, the animal agriculture industry can increase efficiency, all the while claiming their motivation is to improve animal welfare,” says Jones of the Animal Welfare Institute. “GE allows the industry to mitigate some of the criticisms of animal farming and keep costs low in the process. Because of this, it absolutely poses a threat to making a transition to alternative protein sources.”
There’s good reason to worry gene editing could result in further harm to animals just as much as it could be used to ease some of the pain that comes from being a cog in the industrial agriculture system. The first genetically engineered animal to be approved by the FDA for human consumption, the AquAdvantage salmon, was created to grow twice as fast as conventional salmon, and animal advocates argue the engineered fish are prone to a number of welfare issues, like jaw deformities, lesions, and higher mortality rates.
Environmentalists worry the engineered salmon could escape into waterways and disrupt wild salmon populations by outcompeting them for resources and pollute wild salmon’s gene pool, affecting their survivability, though an FDA spokesperson told me that the abnormalities “do not differ appreciably from those in comparable farm-raised Atlantic salmon.”
The former CEO of Recombinetics, the company that created the recently approved heat-tolerant cattle and is working on a hornless calf, told the Associated Press in 2018 that the firm was focused on easing animal suffering because “it’s a better story to tell.” But she added that once gene-edited farm animals are more accepted by the public, farmers will be more interested in traits that increase “productivity” — often a euphemism for animals that either grow faster or bigger, produce more milk, or have higher fertility rates.
“I don’t want to assume that I can peer into [Recombinetic’s] mind,” says Shriver. “I definitely am extremely worried about the idea that the initial genetic modifications that are approved are ones that are either welfare neutral or welfare positive, but they’re going to open up the floodgates for a lot of gene interventions that have very negative impacts on animal welfare.”
Recombinetics declined to comment for this story.
Despite Shriver’s fear over how the technology could be used in the future, he notes that public support for the technology is higher when it’s being used to improve animal welfare. But public support isn’t enough. The future of farmed animal gene editing will be largely shaped by the FDA and genetics companies, two bodies that animal welfare advocates have largely neglected to lobby on the matter.
One thing to keep an eye on is how the regulatory landscape for gene editing animals shakes out. In 2017, the FDA announced plans to treat gene-edited animals designed with newer technology, like CRISPR, the same way they treat new veterinary drugs, which means the approval process is slow. According to the Animal Health Institute, an organization that represents veterinary drug companies, it takes around 8.5 years for a livestock drug with a new active ingredient to come to market.
Animal geneticists like Van Eenennaam argue that this classification doesn’t make sense. “They’re regulating all alterations in DNA as a drug, and DNA is not a drug,” she says. “If that’s the only way [the FDA] can regulate it, then everything that’s genetically altered is a drug because then” the agency can maintain oversight.
The seemingly quick “safe to eat” determination of the short-haired cattle could portend a faster process moving forward, but it’s “a bit wobbly,” Van Eenennaam says. That’s because the FDA didn’t say all heat-tolerant cattle designed in the way Recombinetics did are safe to eat — just the two cattle and their offspring that Recombinetics brought forward before the agency. If the FDA handles other projects the way it did Recombinetics’ cattle, the process will be “one by one by one. … It’s not sustainable.”
Instead of regulating gene-edited animals as drugs, she says products should be regulated on the basis of safety to animals, consumers, and the environment — not on the type of technology being used. “Regulations should be risk-proportionate. They shouldn’t be triggered by the use of a [specific] technology.”
The slowness cuts both ways. “This protracted process is a good thing if you want to delay or stop potentially harmful uses of GE,” says Jones of the Animal Welfare Institute. “But it also means a very lengthy process for beneficial applications, such as hornless cattle or eliminating males from [egg] layer breeding.”
In the final weeks of the Trump presidency, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue proposed a rule change that would give the agriculture agency primary oversight of gene-edited farmed animals.
That hasn’t happened, but if it does, it would likely speed up the approval process, potentially in ways that bode poorly for animal welfare. The USDA is notoriously industry-friendly, which explains why groups like the National Pork Producers Council ardently support the USDA taking over the regulation of gene-edited animals raised for food, and why groups like the Animal Welfare Institute just as ardently oppose such a move.
Van Eenennaam is cautiously optimistic that handing over the regulatory job to the USDA would lead to a more streamlined process, mostly because the USDA wouldn’t regulate genetic alterations in farmed animals as drugs. Rather, according to Van Eenennaam, it would look more like its process for approving genetically altered crops: conducting a safety assessment with a focus on whether the genetic alteration could increase the animal’s susceptibility to pests or diseases, and then a pre-slaughter food safety assessment to ensure slaughter and processing doesn’t result in unsafe food products.
But animal welfare advocates worry the treatment of animals isn’t likely to be a top priority in the review process no matter which agency oversees it. “I have little to no confidence that a case-by-case review of the impacts of proposed GE applications on animal health and welfare will occur under either the FDA or the USDA,” says Jones.
When questioned about how the FDA factors animal welfare into its review process for genetic alterations to farmed animals, a spokesperson told me, “Our review includes an evaluation of animal safety in which we take into account physical health and, to the degree that it can be measured in a species, behavioral health. To the extent that animal health encompasses animal welfare, our approval process does include it.”
Shriver hopes that, at the very least, there’s more public discussion about gene editing farmed animals.
“There are a lot of these technological solutions on the horizon: Plant-based alternatives are getting better every year, and cultured meat is something that’s being worked on and gets a lot of discussion in the press. But I feel like gene editing is not debated as much in public, yet it also could have really dramatic implications,” he says. “There needs to be a robust debate about what the future could look like.”
The present is untenable; the global factory farming of tens of billions of animals each year accelerates climate change, endangers public health, and has reduced feeling beings into little more than mere machines.
Despite more awareness than ever of the ills of industrialized farming, and increasingly stronger moral pleas to end it, it pushes forward unabated: US meat consumption is at an all-time high, and the United Nations anticipates the global appetite for meat is expected to rise 73 percent by 2050. Gene editing animals to reduce their suffering may appear to be an extreme response to an extreme situation, but it’s one that should at least be on the metaphorical table — and perhaps, the dinner table too.
Will you support Vox’s explanatory journalism?
Millions turn to Vox to understand what’s happening in the news. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower through understanding. Financial contributions from our readers are a critical part of supporting our resource-intensive work and help us keep our journalism free for all. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.
Check your inbox for a welcome email.