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Playing God - Gene Edited Cattle, GMO Dairy and Meat

This ABC article starts out in a place that is very different from where it finishes up.

For any tempted, if you are put off by the graphic description of livestock dehorning, just skim past it. It is secondary to the most important content. The ability to modify livestock genes is the core point of discussion.

Some might call it “Playing GOD”?

For consumers two observations that left me wide awake ready to fight or flight.

  • The technology used for the gene editing introduced a bacteria to the gene sequence of the modified cattle offspring.

  • The company with the gene editing technology considers the resultant mutations in the cattle to be free of regulation. IE Not GMO. Although I’ll bet they insist on ownership of the product and rights.

and be able to make an informed decision?

Wired magazine. Supplied

The great promise was that gene editing could make farming less cruel, but controversy followed the fame.

Many consumers were — and still are — fearful of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and what they might mean for their health and the environment.

In a public relations move designed to allay that fear, the company behind the breakthrough, Recombinetics, and its collaborators argued the gene-edited cattle were not GMO.

Rather, they said, the cattle were the product of “precision breeding” — different to GMO because the process replicated what nature could already do, but with more precision.

They took this argument to regulators around the world in a bid to circumvent the checks and regulations that GMOs were usually subject to.

Those who have read the full ABC supplied content may now know there are cattle, the subject of the program living in Australia.

It’s left to the imagination where this might lead if GMO livestock becomes unregulated, assuming it is ethically acceptable, and risk free.

Should gene editing which can in theory introduce the genes of any other organism to a species, ever be considered risk free and permitted without stringent controls and safeguards?


Cattle has been genetically modified by humans for thousands of years through selective breeding and artificial insemination. Nature would have never produced the modern day cow, humans created it.


Humans are what we are. So are scientists. There will always be one or some who disregard boundaries as well as dismiss ethical concerns. They proudly create and develop things but stand back with a ‘not my responsibility’ in how it is used, ever ‘uglier’ weapons being prime examples.

There will always be a rogue and it is not if, it is when one of their ‘Frankenstein monsters’ gets into the wild. No regulation, control, or safeguard will overcome the quest ‘to do it’ or when an occasion lends itself, ‘to profit from it’.


That “precision” claim could be regarded as a joke, if only it wasn’t such a serious stuff-up to create a part cow-part bacteria frankencow!


Everything has its risks. With GMOS, there’s money involved so the risks tend to metastasise.

Many years ago, there was a GMO tomato created by inserting a fish gene into the plant. A mate objected. Someone else said that it’s no different to selective breeding. His response was that he’d believe that when he witnessed a fish getting happy with a tomato.


The argument that humans have been manipulating other organisms for thousands of years comes up fairly often in this context. It is true that most of our food species have undergone considerable modification. The ancestral lettuce, maize and wheat were very much different from modern versions. We even have cattle specialised for meat or milk and chickens for meat or eggs.

This modification was done by selective breeding, that is by humans choosing the qualities they wanted and selecting the breeding stock that showed that quality and doing it for many generations until, in some cases at least, the progeny were barely recognisable as the same species as the original. Artificial selection was so prominent that Charles Darwin coined the term ‘natural selection’ to describe the evolutionary process that takes place without human intervention.

Darwin did not know much about genetics, the ‘father’ of genetics Gregor Mendel and Darwin were contemporaries but neither knew about the other. Darwin assumed there was some mechanism that contained and transferred the characteristics of living things that could be manipulated by selection but he knew nothing of genes, chromosomes or DNA. Nor did he, or any of the selective breeders until modern genetics, know that the manipulation mechanism was altering the frequency of genes in the population pool.

Here is the key point. Selective breeding works on the existing gene pool it does not create new material and it is done by choosing the breeders that exhibit desired characteristics. If the organism (the phenotype) does not possess the genes for a trait and exhibit the trait in some way you can’t breed for it, you can’t alter the frequency of the underlying genotype in the pool and so make future generations different. So this is where the comparison of selective breeding and direct genetic manipulation breaks down; direct gene manipulation does not suffer from these two limitations. The offspring may have genetic material that was not in the parent and the trait(s) may not be manifest.

So the comparison of GM organisms with selective bred lines is quite misleading. This doesn’t mean that GMO is necessarily harmful but this particular defense is weak.


The article is a segment on Landline on ABC TV at 2:30 PM today.

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Yes, all our livestock has centuries, or millennia of selection to give us today’s preferred breeds. Nature still has rules and these have predominated in providing the alternative choices for each cycle. It can also go seriously wrong, as is often evident with domestic pets. Dogs may be the most diverse, prone in many breeds to genetic weakness. While greatly deformed gold fish are a more obvious example of selectively breeding in defects.

Whether gene manipulation through direct editing should be permitted is one question.

Perhaps the bigger question concerns the management and regulation or control of direct editing.
Should direct editing of genes be subject to control, and under what conditions?

Does Australia have sufficient control to meet consumer expectations?

A suggestion in the original report was Australia has relatively weak or limited control over the application of gene editing. This makes a great starting place for any multinational seeking precedents for wider marketing.

As has been demonstrated in the plant breeding world, IP and plant varieties can be commercially protected to the benefit of the owner. Livestock follow the same value proposition.

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At about the nine minute mark, the point is made that technological advances are making gene editing easier so “all sorts” can have a crack. If there are likely to be more participants, then shouldn’t government be more heavily monitoring?

Not all gene-edited organisms are classified as genetically modified. Is it time to lobby for labelling of all products involving gene-edited sources?

One proponent likens gene editing to artificial insemination. I hadn’t heard that rationalisation before.