Snapshot: Animal Biotech

catfish-geWhat's the deal with animal biotechnology?

From Eric Hallerman, PhD, Professor and Head of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech University: 

Animals long have been selectively bred for agriculture, leading to dramatic improvement in growth rate, milk or egg yield, and other productivity-related traits. With advances in gene transfer techniques comes the prospect of producing animals with improved nutrition, safety and quality, made possible through biotechnology, or genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is the use of recombinant DNA techniques to insert DNA from one plant, animal, or microorganism into another. Genetic engineering may be used to enhance food production or quality (e.g., faster growth, improved disease resistance); to produce pharmaceutical products for therapeutic use; to enhance human interaction with animals (e.g., new color varieties of aquarium fish); to develop animal models for biomedical research; or to produce industrial or consumer products (e.g., fibers for multiple uses).

Many different animal species have been genetically engineered. Examples of interest to agriculture include: fast-growing Atlantic salmon; pigs and tilapia fish with enhanced ability to utilize soybean meal while reducing phosphorus excretion; and catfish and carp with enhanced resistance to bacterial diseases. In 2009, the FDA approved the first genetically engineered animal producing a pharmaceutical product: a goat that produces recombinant human antithrombin III - an anticoagulant, or blood thinner - in its milk. In November 2015 FDA also determined that Genetically Engineered salmon is as safe to eat as non-GE salmon.

Why use animal biotech?

From Eric Hallerman, PhD, Professor and Head of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech University: 

Some animals produced through biotechnology pose benefits for improved food production, animal welfare, and food security. Production of some genetically engineered animals, such as pigs that utilize soybean meal more effectively, pose clear improvements in agricultural sustainability. Some genetically engineered animals, such as the fast-growing Atlantic salmon, will need special production systems in order to advance sustainability.

survey-biotechHow do people feel about animal biotech?

From the 2014 IFIC Food Technology Survey:

  • More than half (52 percent) of Americans have heard or read at least a little about animal biotechnology.
  • Favorability of animal biotechnology has remained about the same as 2012 levels, with about one-third favorable (31 percent).
  • Lack of information (55 percent) and not understanding the benefits (42 percent) continue to be the primary reasons consumers cite for not having favorable impressions of animal biotechnology.
  • The FDA has determined that meat, milk, and eggs from animals enhanced through genetic engineering are safe. Knowing this, more than 60 percent of consumers say they are somewhat likely or very likely to buy these products.
  • People tend to be more favorable toward animal biotechnology when they understand the benefits it can provide. For example, when provided with the statement “Animal biotechnology can increase farm efficiency; that is, increase the amount of food produced while decreasing the amount of resources needed, such as animal feed (i.e., corn, water, etc.)”, more than half of Americans (53%) reported a positive impact on their impression.