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The BBC's John Humphrys speaks to
Professor Patrick Bateson, Royal Society GM animals working group, and Professor Andrew Linzey, of Oxford University
 real 28k

Monday, 21 May, 2001, 14:49 GMT 15:49 UK
GM meat '10 years away'
Mouse BBC
It is mice that are most often modified in the lab
By BBC science correspondent Christine McGourty

Meat from genetically modified farm animals could be on sale in the UK in 10 years, scientists said on Monday.

The researchers argued that GM animals would be no different to those reared today on organic farms, which had been altered by selective breeding over thousands of years.


So far, the work that has been done on GM animals suggests there have been no big welfare costs

Prof Patrick Bateson
The technology to produce GM sausages and bacon already existed, they said, but the regulatory processes meant it would take a decade to prove the meat was safe to eat.

The scientists, who have published a report for the Royal Society, the UK's academy of sciences, also downplayed the notion that laboratories were going to create freakish new creatures for so-called "Frankenfarms".

The report said genetic modification could actually improve the welfare of farm animals and was essential for research into human diseases such as cancer, muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis.

'Lip service'

Professor Patrick Bateson, chairman of the group that produced the report, said: "There will always be people who have extreme fantasies about what goes on in this area. We're trying to allay these fears with as much good evidence as we can.

"There will be people who say we're playing God," he added. "Our response is that we've been playing God for a long time."

Fish BBC
There are concerns about the escape of GM stock into the wild
Professor Bateson said that the kind of "idyllic organic farm" owned by Prince Charles had animals that "have been genetically modified for thousands of years".

But the report was branded "disappointing", by Joyce D'Silva, director of Compassion in World Farming, which is opposed to the genetic modification of animals.

"They have paid lip service to animal welfare, but I'm afraid that's all it is, just lip service," she told BBC News Online. Far from easing welfare problems for animals, genetic modification would simply "make things worse", she argued.

And animal rights theologian Professor Andrew Linzey said the Royal Society had missed the opportunity to forge a new ethical direction.

Cow DNA

"The impetus is largely commercial," he told the BBC. "It is about making animals bigger and better meat machines; bigger and better laboratory tools.

"I think this represents a kind of spiritually impoverished view of animals and we need to get out of the existing systems of exploitation - not create new levels of exploitation."


I think this represents a kind of spiritually impoverished view of animals

Prof Andrew Linzey
Assuming they get approval, the first GM meat products to hit UK supermarket shelves could be pork. Researchers have developed pigs that contain genetic material from cows. As a result, modified sows produce an antimicrobial protein in their milk that helps prevent gastro-intestinal disease in their piglets.

It is a good example, the Royal Society group believes, of how GM can improve animal welfare. Professor Bateson said domestic chickens today had been bred to put on more and more weight and were now so heavy that their legs could not sustain their weight.

That kind of welfare problem might be prevented by using genetic modification to alter animals' genetic make-up in a more targeted way, he said.

Disease resistance

But Joyce D'Silva disputed that claim. She said the broiler chicken industry had shown no interest in tackling the problem so far and was unlikely to invest the money it would need to use new genetic techniques as a solution.

She condemned the report as "what you'd expect from a society whose job it is to support leading-edge scientific research".

Morag PA
GM technology allows sheep to make drug compounds in their milk
The report, The Use of Genetically Modified Animals, did acknowledge the potential risk from GM animals escaping into the environment and breeding with non-GM animals. It recommended that all laboratories carrying out research on GM animals should have emergency plans in the event of an escape.

And it called for a moratorium on the rearing of GM fish in marine pens. Approval for commercial production should be conditional on the rearing of GM salmon and others in land-locked facilities, the report said.

Sir Bob May, the president of the Royal Society, said he hoped research into GM animals would be funded primarily by public sources so that it could meet the needs of developing countries, rather than being driven by the desires of agribusiness for leaner meat and cheaper food.

Professor Ian McConnell, of Cambridge University, a member of the group that produced the report, said one example of the potential benefits would be the development of African cattle resistant to sleeping sickness.

Foreign imports

However, he confirmed the first commercially available GM farm animals could be up to 10 years away. And there would be lengthy regulatory procedures before meat from such animals would be proven to be safe to eat.

The report also highlighted concerns about animals coming into the UK that had been genetically modified abroad. Professor Bateson said: "If it was the case that animals came into this country that had been genetically modified somewhere else, we'd want them to be very carefully looked at."

Cow PA
GM animals could be made resistant to diseases like foot-and-mouth
He stressed that concerns about GM animals were exaggerated: "People have nightmares about it and talk of 'Frankenfarms'. But, so far, the work that has been done on GM animals suggests there have been no big welfare costs.

"It's a natural process. Humans have been doing it for thousands of years."

But Joyce D'Silva said research showed that the GM animals produced so far had "deformed organs, gastric ulcers" and a range other problems.

"I do agree with the Royal Society's call for a moratorium on the rearing of GM fish in marine pens. But we shouldn't be doing it all. Who needs genetically modified fish?" she asked.

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See also:

11 Jan 01 | Sci/Tech
GM monkey first
12 Jan 01 | Sci/Tech
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01 Aug 00 | Sci/Tech
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14 Feb 01 | Sci/Tech
'Setback' for GM fish
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