GMOs : ambiguity of the animal breeding industry

For some European animal breeding industries, new genetic modification techniques can contribute to a sustainable food system. But, they say, their use must be done with great care, so as not to jeopardise food safety and animal health and welfare. This precaution is coupled with a call for « a legal framework on imports to ensure transparency on the introduction of GM animals and products into Europe », a transparency already provided for in the current GMO regulation.

Since 2020, the European Commission has been consulting on a possible proposal to deregulate GMOs obtained by "directed mutagenesis and cisgenesis" [1]. Among the actors in the GMO dossier who responded, there are some who have not been heard from publicly during the two decades of debate on transgenic GMOs, those actors are in the animal sector.

No commercialisation "for the moment"

Whether or not to use new genetic modification techniques is a different question for animals than for plants, according to an animal industry organisation. In 2021, in response to the consultation organised by the European Commission, the European Forum of Farm Animal Breeders (EFFAB), representing the animal breeding industries, explained that "some of EFFAB’s members are using this technology as a research tool, with, for the time being, no intention of commercialising any product" [2] It also stated that it had doubts about the acceptability of such genetically modified products by the public, surreptitiously adding that "they are legally GMOs".

Furthermore, obtaining a new characteristic in an animal using a genetic modification method is difficult. As the EFFAB points out, "single gene traits are good targets [...] but many traits are polygenic". Beyond this complexity of having to modify several gene sequences for a new trait, companies using these techniques must also take into account unintended effects which, for their part, plant biotechnology promoters dismiss as "plant « suffering » is not taken into consideration whereas animal suffering is. Thus, "extensive scientific research must be conducted. The identification of long-term and off-target effects as well as residues in the genome [...] need to be further studied".

Traceability and transparency demanded... and possible

The industries represented by EFFAB want to be protected from imports of GM animals into Europe. At a seminar in March 2021 [3], the European organisation FABRE-TP (Farm Animal Breeding and Reproduction Technology Platform), also representing animal breeding industries, called for "a regulatory framework on imports to ensure transparency on the introduction of animals [genetically modified by new techniques] or their products into Europe. Otherwise, ’European producers and breeders will be unfairly put in competition with these [...] imported products’.
These industries explain that they have the tools to ensure transparency and traceability. In 2021, EFFAB explained that companies and breeders’ organizations have ’a long experience in traceability of animal semen, pedigrees and performance records [...] All data are recorded in global / national / private databases [4]. Not to mention the need for transparency to ensure that the European industry is not left alone in the face of external competition.

[2Questionnaire on new genomic techniques to contribute to the study requested by the Council, EFFAB Contribution, 15 May 2020.

[4EFFAB contribution, Ibid.]. Therefore, it would be "easy to collect (if available) and store additional information about [new genetic modification techniques] to ensure traceability as well as assessment of long-term impacts". Indeed, obtaining this information requires companies from outside the EU to provide information on the genetic modifications carried out, the modification methods used and the detection and differentiation processes for their products. EFFAB has told the European Commission that companies in the sector are already discussing "the feasibility of introducing specific legal clauses in their contracts to avoid importing animals and animal seed obtained by these [new techniques] from third countries".

Although possible, such traceability procedures applied to new techniques would be based " on the goodwill of economic actors" according to EFFAB. The organisation therefore suggests that an international initiative should be put in place which, although costly and non-exhaustive, could "enhance the sequencing of the complete genomes" of all marketed bulls, for example, making it possible to detect any new sequences and recombinations referring to a genetic modification event.

An industry not affected by the forthcoming legislative change

Unlike the seed industry, the animal breeding industry is not calling for the removal of labelling and traceability, which it considers possible. This difference in positioning probably explains why the European Commission has restricted its potential proposal for a new framework for products obtained by "directed mutagenesis and cisgenesis" in 2023 to plants only. It would indeed be impossible to propose legislation that would suit the plant and animal sectors, which have opposing demands in terms of traceability and transparency.

Rather than asking for the application of the current regulation, which nevertheless meets their expectations in terms of transparency and traceability, the animal breeding industries represented by EFFAB have seized the opportunity to demand their own legislation. This legislation would aim to protect European stakeholders from their non-European competitors, while ensuring a certain freedom of use of these technologies within a framework of ethical rules. In March 2021, at the seminar organised by EFFAB, FABRE-TP explained that "this technology should not be prohibited by legislation. However, [...] it should probably be regulated to ensure that its users follow strict ethical and food safety rules"[[EFFAB, 2021, Ibid.