While humans can lobby to protect their food safety, livestock animals—already subject to great stress, discomfort, and frequent abuse—have no such voice and currently no federal government regulations protecting their welfare. Moreover, the genetic engineering of animals threatens to exacerbate factory farm problems and introduces new potential hazards to animal well-being.
One primary risk, according to Joy Mench of the University of California at Davis, is the lack of precision in DNA microinjection (1), the technique used to produce GE animals. When injecting DNA into an animal, scientists have no control over where the genes go, and errors can cause deformities and other genetic defects in the animals. The techniques used can be extremely inefficient, with fewer than four percent of the animals surviving the process. Of the animals that do survive, many do not express the gene(s) properly and have physical or behavioral abnormalities. These differences in gene expression cause difficulty for both for the animals and for assessing the technology. Efficiencies of production range from 0 to 4 percent in pigs, cattle, sheep, and goats, with about 80 to 90 percent of the mortality occurring during early development (2). These “no take” animals could be put into the food supply unless better regulations are put in place.
Reproductive technologies commonly used in genetic engineering, such as in vitro culture, semen collection, egg collection, and cloning can cause stress in animals. In vitro culture methods and cloning, for instance, have been associated with “large-offspring syndrome” in cows, which can cause complications in birthing and developmental problems in offspring. Nearly half of cloned animals have a large-offspring syndrome problem. Given that many GE animals are cloned or offspring of clones, they may have an even greater likelihood of this condition, putting survival of both the surrogate mother and the GE animal at considerable risk.
1 Andrew Pollack, “Cancer Risk Exceeds Outlook in Gene Therapy, Studies Find,” New York Times, June 13, 2003.
2 National Research Council of the National Academies, Animal Biotechnology: Science Based Concerns (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2002).