Examination of Witnesses

Part of Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 28th June 2022.

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Roger Kerr:

In terms of the disease-resistance issue, we have to be really careful about how we approach this. What we have seen, albeit through the use of antibiotics, is the reduction of disease. Again, unfortunately, I am referring back to the dairy industry. We have seen farmers driven to reduce cell counts in dairy cows to a point where the cow’s immune system has been suppressed to such a degree that the more virulent diseases come in, because there is not the natural, more benign flora around any more. Therefore, you have cows going down with E. coli and other things, which is killing them. We have seen this continual drive to reduce the immune system and reduce the cell count.

What we have found more recently is that allowing the cow to have a more natural immune system actually allows it to live a longer and healthier life. We have to be really careful when we start talking about disease that we do not start messing with something but then find that we end up with a whole lot of unintended consequences in terms of opening the animal up to other disease implications. Ultimately, we will just end up on the same old wheel of trying to continually firefight because the animal is going down with disease.

On the yield aspect, again, we can keep saying, “Oh, well, we can genetically breed them to produce high yield,” but what we find is that the longevity of the animals is massively impacted. These cows that can produce 12,000 or 15,000 litres of milk do not live very long because, unfortunately, cows are just not designed to do that. We have to be really careful about what we consider to be a farm animal and what it is there for. If we continue to drive it, we are effectively supercharging its physiology, and therefore it will ultimately not be able to live as long.

Using cows as an example, if you go into a collecting yard or a cubicle shed, you will see the cows breathing really quickly, even though they are lying down, because their physiology is going so fast. What we are effectively doing at the moment is turning what was a very low-input, low-output animal into a Formula 1 car. Unsurprisingly, they do not cope with it and they fall over. What we are doing now in terms of genetically editing is stepping that up a whole other gear. We have to be really careful about what it is that we are seeking to achieve here, and I think we have to look, in terms of welfare, not only at disease resistance but at longevity, quality of life and ability to withstand other disease impacts.