February 5, 2003…Washington, D.C….The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) is releasing a scientific paper today that provides policymakers and others with an overview of existing and emerging biotechnologies in animal agriculture. Written by a task force of nine scientists and three reviewers, the new issue paper suggests that research on biotechnology in animal production is leading to breakthroughs on many fronts, which raises questions of the comparative risks and benefits as well as ethical considerations. Consumers, farmers, and the environment have the potential to benefit from this research, according to Terry D. Etherton, Department of Dairy and Animal Science at Pennsylvania State University, and chair of the CAST task force.
“Scientists have been making impressive strides in developing animal biotechnologies,” Etherton says. “Some of the newest approaches involve animals as sources of pharmaceuticals for human medicine or of organs for people awaiting transplants. Then there is the issue of animal biotechnology helping to maintain food safety or contributing to farming practices that are economically and environmentally more sustainable.” The CAST paper, Biotechnology in Animal Agriculture: An Overview, (Issue Paper 23) addresses several aspects of animal biotechnology and attempts to increase public understanding on related scientific, economic, legislative, ethical, and social issues.
According to Teresa A. Gruber, CAST Executive Vice President, “Livestock have a long history of use in the production of medicine for humans. For example, animals have traditionally been used to produce anticoagulants, heart valves, antisera and sera, and collagen for medical purposes. But now biotechnology presents the opportunity for more economical, ethical production of these and other important medical products.”
Several companies are producing human proteins in milk and in eggs, which will be used to benefit biomedicine. Another biotechnology under development uses animals to produce donor organs for human transplant. It is possible that genetic engineering can be used to produce immune, rejection-free organs in increased quantities.
Advances in biotechnology research have allowed significant improvements in diagnostic approaches to food safety, as well. “Advances in biotechnology, especially in the last five to ten years, have transformed approaches to assuring the microbial safety of foods,” states Etherton. Microbial biotechnologies are currently being used to screen for Salmonella, Escherichia coli, and Listeria monocytogenes.
Producers and regulators are looking for ways to identify high quality, biosecure products. The potential for livestock producers to use DNA “fingerprints” to determine herd identity or to track a product from producer to consumer is being explored.
Biotechnology provides a way for farmers to change the genes of animals to achieve better health and production. It also offers a way of improving animal feed, which makes up approximately 70% of the cost of farming. Compounds called metabolic modifiers have been created through biotechnology. A commonly used modifier called bST is used in dairy cows to increase milk yield, to achieve unprecedented improvements in milk-to-feed ratio, and to decrease waste. Approximately half of U.S. dairy herds are receiving bST supplements and nineteen countries around the world have approved this biotechnology for commercial use.
Biotechnology also offers farmers a chance to decrease the amount of manure produced, as well as the amount of nutrients and odors from manure. Animal manure, especially swine and poultry manure, is high in nitrogen and phosphorus. Both nutrients contribute to surface and groundwater pollution and to poor air quality and to offensive odors.
The authors suggest that as we explore the benefits and risks of applying biotechnologies in animal science, we need to continuously weigh the ethical and social consequences.
The complete text of Issue Paper 23 is available at https://www.cast-science.org along with other CAST scientific publications. This paper is the first in a series on the topic “Animal Agriculture’s Future Through Biotechnology.” CAST is an international consortium of 37 scientific and professional societies. It assembles, interprets, and communicates science-based information regionally, nationally, and internationally on food, fiber, agricultural, natural resource, and related societal and environmental issues to its stakeholders-legislators, regulators, policymakers, the media, the private sector, and the public.
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