Salmon and Calves Reframe Biotech Debate

— Written By

Thursday, November 26, 2015
Joan Conrow

What do a fast-growing salmon and two hornless calves have in common?

In recent days they’ve ushered in a new era of food production and reframed the genetic engineering debate.

It began when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first GE animal, a fast-growing salmon, for human consumption. Then Recombinetics, in collaboration with researchers at the University of California-Davis, unveiled two healthy dairy calves that were born without horns, thanks to a new gene-editing process.

While the calves are a long way from deregulation or market, both announcements signal a shift in the decades-old regulatory logjam that has effectively blocked the advancement of animal biotechnology.

The two projects also effectively demonstrate that biotech can make meaningful contributions to environmental sustainability and animal welfare.

And they underscore a key message of the Alliance for Science: Each genetically engineered crop and animal must be evaluated on its own merits, with an eye toward the product, not the process.

Take the case of Spotigy and Buri, the two hornless calves who were recently introduced to the world in a New York Times article by Amy Harmon. Though dairy cows routinely have their horns removed to protect other animals and farm workers from injury, the dehorning process is not relished by farmers, animal rights advocates, or cows. Conventional breeding techniques for propagating the genetics of a small fraction of naturally hornless cattle are slow and imprecise.

For the large percentage of calves born without the gene, there’s been no alternative to burning or cutting off the horns — until now.

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Featured image: Graduate student Lindsay Upperman (left), and animal geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam at UC Davis with the gene-edited hornless dairy calves. Photo by Karin Higgins/UC Davis.