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Scientiﬁc and biotechnological advances have made it possible for us to modify the genes of organisms, including animals. There are many possible beneﬁcial applications of this technology in scientiﬁc and medical research as well as in agriculture. However, there are also many bioethical concerns related to genetically modiﬁed animals and much contention about the moral justiﬁability of applying this biotechnology. This research paper discusses the various kinds of ethical issues surrounding genetically modiﬁed animals and their use in medicine and agriculture. It addresses fundamental moral questions as well as bioethical concerns related to animal welfare, human safety, the environment, patenting and commercialization, and global inequality.
The genetic modiﬁcation of animals has many possible beneﬁcial applications for humankind as well as for animals and even the environment. However, the use of this kind of biotechnology is fraught with bioethical concerns about potentially harmful consequences for people, animals, farmers, the environment, and poorer and developing nations. There are also fundamental moral objections to genetically engineering animals. After a brief account of the historical development of the scientiﬁc and technological advances in the ﬁeld of the genetic modiﬁcation of animals, various bioethical concerns about the development and use of this technology are discussed.
History And Development
In a sense, people have been genetically modifying animals for centuries. By means of selective breeding, practiced over long periods of time, we have changed the genetic makeup of numerous animal species. The enormous variety and diversity of dog breeds today are evidence enough of how selective breeding works to select preferred characteristics in animals. Animals such as dogs, horses, and yaks have been selectively bred in order to make them more suited to fulﬁll speciﬁc roles as working animals. Others have been bred in order to enhance the products we derive from them. We have selectively bred cattle, pigs, and chickens to produce animals that provide more meat. Sheep have been bred to produce better-quality wool, cattle to yield more milk, and chickens to lay more eggs.
Humans became quite accomplished at selective breeding long before the genetic processes by which this occurs were scientiﬁcally understood.
It was, however, only after Charles Darwin’s seminal work on natural selection and Gregor Mendel’s pioneering studies of heredity in plants had been taken up by mainstream science that we began to understand these processes. By the early twentieth century, it was known that genes are responsible for the inheritability of characteristics. The identiﬁcation (in 1944) of DNA as the molecule that carries the genetic information of individual organisms provided the basis for a much clearer understanding of genetics, opening the way for research into techniques by means of which the genetic code of organisms could be manipulated or modiﬁed. These scientiﬁc advances made true biotechnological genetic engineering possible. Genetic changes could now be artiﬁcially induced in organisms.
One signiﬁcant breakthrough occurred when scientists began to be able to transfer genetic material from one organism into another. Known as transgenesis, the technique allows for fragments of DNA from different species to be combined in a laboratory, giving rise to the use of the term “recombinant” DNA to describe such transgenic genetic material (Ormandy et al. 2011). The ﬁrst recombinant DNA molecules were created in 1972 by Paul Berg, a development that quickly paved the way for the creation of the ﬁrst transgenic organism (Chemical Heritage Foundation nd). In 1973, Rudolf Jaenisch created the ﬁrst transgenic animal by introducing foreign DNA into a mouse embryo. While the transgene was successfully transferred into the genome of the mouse, it was not passed on to its offspring. Only in 1981 were scientists able to create the ﬁrst transgenic mouse, which passed on its modiﬁed genes to subsequent generations (Hanahan et al. 2007). Initially, genetic engineering entailed mainly transgenesis, but subsequent advances have enabled genetic modiﬁcations that do not require the use of recombinant genes. An organism’s genome can also be altered by the manipulation and even the deletion of existing genes (Ormandy et al. 2011).
Since these early developments, many genetically engineered animals have been created. The technology can be applied for various purposes. A transgenic ﬂuorescent zebra ﬁsh has been created and is the ﬁrst genetically modiﬁed animal to be marketed commercially. In this case, the only purpose the genetic modiﬁcation fulﬁlls is aesthetic. While similar genetically modiﬁed animals could be produced for such seemingly trivial reasons, most of genetically engineered animals produced have been created for applications in either medicine or agriculture (van Eenennaam 2008).
The majority of research using genetically modiﬁed animals is focused on medical applications. Since many therapeutic drugs require proteins that are modiﬁed to be effective in animal cells, there is signiﬁcant potential in the use of transgenic animals as a source for these proteins. The production of speciﬁc recombinant proteins in animal products such as eggs, milk, and blood could be a much more affordable way of obtaining these therapeutic proteins than the existing alternatives. The ﬁrst protein produced in this way and approved for production, antithrombin III, is obtained from the milk of genetically modiﬁed goats and is used to treat hereditary antithrombin deﬁciency (van Eenennaam 2008). Genetically modiﬁed animals might also be a viable source of various human antibodies, which could be used in the treatment of a number of conditions. The most common use of transgenic animals is in biomedical research. The use of animal models of human disease has led to an increased understanding of diseases and assisted in the development of drugs. In particular, large numbers of transgenic mice are now routinely used for research purposes (Ormandy et al. 2011).
Applications of genetically modiﬁed animals in agriculture include increasing resistance to disease, reducing environmental harm, and improving both productivity and food quality (van Eenennaam 2008). Genetically engineered farm animals could potentially yield higher quantities of products (meat, wool, milk, eggs, etc.) and could be more resistant to diseases, with mothers passing on immunity to their offspring through their milk. Animals can also be modiﬁed to produce more wholesome and healthy products. One example of this is that transgenic pigs have been bred to produce higher levels of omega-3. There are also potential applications that could reduce pollution from animal agriculture (Ormandy et al. 2011). However, despite many experimental successes, no food product from genetically modiﬁed animals has yet been approved for consumption or commercialization.
There are other possible applications of genetic modiﬁcation in animals. Hypoallergenic cats have already been created by means of genetic engineering. Pedigreed breeds of companion animals with known hereditary weaknesses could be modiﬁed to reduce their susceptibility to developing these traits. In wild animals, genetic engineering could assist in the protection of endangered species (Ormandy et al. 2011).
Scope And Definition
While there are many ethical issues associated with the practice of selective breeding, these are outside of the scope of this research paper, which focuses only on the bioethical concerns related to truly genetically engineered animals. Since genetic modiﬁcation techniques no longer necessarily entail transgenes is, it is necessary to deﬁne these in a way that includes the alternatives. A very helpful deﬁnition of a genetically engineered animal is provided by the Canadian Council on Animal Care. For them, it is “an animal that has had a change in its nuclear or mitochondrial DNA (addition, deletion or substitution of some part of the animal’s genetic material or insertion of foreign DNA) achieved through a deliberate human technological intervention” (Ormandy et al. 2011). Since cloning does not entail changing the genetic makeup of an organism, but rather making a genetic copy, there is a disagreement over whether cloned animals should be included in the deﬁnitional scope of genetically modiﬁed animals. Clearly, though, some of the ethical concerns about genetic modiﬁcation apply to cloning, too. Another use of genetic engineering related to animal genetic modiﬁcation, but distinct from it, involves the administration of genetically engineered bacteria to animals. For example, recombinant bovine somatotropin is a synthetic version of a protein that naturally occurs in cattle and is widely used by the dairy industry to increase milk production. Insulin used by diabetics is also obtained from genetically modiﬁed bacteria (van Eenennaam 2008). However, these techniques do not entail a change to the DNA of the animal or person to whom these products are administered and therefore fall out of the scope of an inquiry into the ethics of genetically modiﬁed animals.
Fundamental Bioethical Issues
Some of the bioethical concerns about genetically modiﬁed animals are of a fundamental nature: they call into question the morality of entertaining the possibility of genetically engineering animals in any form. Strong proponents of these views assert that the entire practice is ethically unjustiﬁable and should be prohibited. There are moral philosophers who argue that all animal farming for human consumption and all experimentation using animals are ethically wrong. Clearly, if we ought not to produce animals for food, at all, and if we should never use animals in research, there could be no justiﬁcation for genetically modifying them for either agricultural or biomedical purposes either. Peter Singer argues that what matters bioethically is sentience. It is an organism’s ability to experience pain and pleasure that is most signiﬁcant in determining our moral obligations toward that organism. Singer asserts that there is little doubt that the kinds of animals generally produced for food or used in experiments are capable of suffering and that “if a being suffers, there can be no moral motivation for refusing to take that suffering into consideration, and indeed to count it equally with the like suffering (if rough comparisons can be made) of any other being” (Singer 2003). He proceeds to argue that modern animal farming, slaughtering, and experimentation practices entail systematic suffering for animals and should therefore be rejected entirely as unethical (Singer 2003). Tom Regan comes to much the same conclusions as Singer, but on different grounds. He asserts that what is basically wrong about how people routinely treat animals is “the system that allows us to view animals as our resources, here for us – to be eaten, or surgically manipulated, or put in our cross hairs for sport or money.. ..” (Regan 2003). Regan claims that just as we generally think that persons “all have inherent value, all possess it equally, and all have an equal right to be treated with respect, to be treated in ways that do not reduce them to the status of things, as if they exist as resources for others,” so do many other kinds of animals (Regan 2003). For Regan, any animal that is an “experiencing subject of a life,” any being with consciousness and a welfare that is important to it, irrespective of its usefulness to others, and any being capable of wanting and preferring certain things and capable of being interested in its own “pleasure and pain, enjoyment and suffering, … satisfaction and frustration,… continued existence and … untimely death” is just as entitled as persons to be recognized as having an inherent value and ought to be treated with respect (Regan 2003). On this basis, Regan asserts that the kinds of animals we raise for food or use in experiments (all of which would satisfy his criterion of being an “experiencing subject of a life”) have a right not to be caused to suffer and not to be killed for human interests (Regan 2003). If we ought not to use animals as our resources as food or for experimentation for human interests, then, we obviously ought not to be genetically modifying them for the purposes of rendering them even more useful to us for these purposes.
Regan and Singer’s views have been challenged. In particular, the notion that animals can be said to have rights, including a right to life, has been questioned by theorists. R.G. Frey argues that animals cannot have interests, and only beings with interests can have rights (Frey 1980), and Michael Leahy claims that only beings able to use language are capable of self-consciousness and moral agency. According to him, since animals are not capable of these things, they have no moral status (Leahy 1994). These authors deny that there is anything fundamentally wrong in using animals for our own ends, but they agree with Regan and Singer that we do have a duty to cause animals as little suffering as possible.
Another fundamental objection to genetically modifying animals is grounded in the idea that transgenesis entails crossing the barriers between species, which is akin to playing God (van Eenennaam 2008). Clearly, this view relies on some sense that it is morally wrong for humans to interfere in “creation,” as this is the domain of God, a sense that many secularists would not share. One obvious rebuttal of this claim is that people have been doing much the same thing for centuries: cross breeding, even across species lines, is not new, as the continued practice of breeding mules demonstrates. Traditional cross breeding and transgenetic modiﬁcation have the same effect and differ only in terms of the technique used.
A similar, but less religiously grounded, fundamental objection is based on the Aristotelean notion of “telos.” On this view, all creatures have a basic essence or nature and a speciﬁc purpose – a telos. Genetic modiﬁcation would alter the telos of animals, creating a new creature with a different telos, which constitutes a basic moral wrong. Opponents of this view claim that, once again, this is nothing new, as humans have been changing the telos of animals and plants for centuries, through selective breeding. Furthermore, what makes it fundamentally immoral to change the telos of creatures in the ﬁrst place? Bernard Rollin responds to the telos argument by asserting that as long as the interests of the animals concerned are taken into account when changing their telos, there is no moral wrong in doing so (Ormandy et al. 2011).
Bioethical Concerns Relating To Animal Welfare
While ethicists disagree about whether or not animals can be said to have rights, especially the right to life, there is far greater consensus about there being a moral obligation not to cause unnecessary suffering or harm to animals. Prior to the work of Regan and Singer, which sparked the so-called animal rights debate in ethics in the 1970s and 1980s, there were still some philosophers who claimed that we have no direct moral obligations toward animals themselves and we are free to treat them as we choose. What the animal rights debate gave rise to was a shift away from this sort of thinking, in favor of a general agreement that we ought not to harm animals without good reason. Even R.G. Frey, who most strongly argues against animal rights, concedes: “I have allowed that the “higher” animals can suffer unpleasant sensations and so, in respect of the distinction between harm and hurt, can be hurt; and wantonly hurting them, just as wantonly hurting human beings, demands justiﬁcation, if it is not to be condemned” (Frey 1980). Lori Gruen describes the shift to a general agreement on anti-cruelty as follows: “The burden of proof shifted from those who want to protect animals from harm to those who believe that animals do not matter at all. The latter are now forced to defend their view against the widely accepted position that, at least, gratuitous animal suffering and death is not morally acceptable” (Gruen 1993).
It is possible to hold the view that it is morally permissible for us to use animals for food and in experiments as long as we avoid causing them unnecessary harm. This is a position most likely to have much popular support. However, those who argue in this way are logically committed to justifying the harms (including death) that we cause to animals in our practices. It is incumbent upon them to require that we cause as little harm to animals as possible and that our reasons for causing them any harm at all are not trivial. Thus, to hold such a view necessitates considering the ways in which our treatment of animals might affect their welfare.
One inﬂuential approach to the ethics of using animals in experiments that tries to provide a systematic, principled framework for ensuring that as little harm is done to animals as possible is that proposed by Russell and Burch. They propose what has become known as the “three Rs”: replacement, reduction, and reﬁnement. They suggest that as far as possible, the use of sentient animals in research should be replaced by other methods. Where this is not possible, every effort should be made to use the smallest number of animals possible to obtain valid data (reduction). Finally, the methods of conducting research, sourcing, and caring for research animals should be reﬁned to ensure minimal distress to the research subjects (Russell and Burch 1959). This approach accepts that some harm to animals may be necessary in research, in order to promote human interests, but also acknowledges that such harm requires justiﬁcation and can only be justiﬁed on the basis that the least harm possible should be done in order to achieve the objectives of research.
In considering how the welfare of animals might be affected by genetic engineering, it is necessary to take into account how animal welfare is affected in the process of producing genetically engineered animals, as well as the possible welfare consequences for the offspring of genetically modiﬁed animals. One major concern relating to the process of creating new genetically modiﬁed animal lines is that it generally requires large numbers of animals to be created by means of genetic engineering as only a small percentage will actually successfully be genetically altered in the way intended (Rose et al. 2013). According to Ormandy et al., many of the embryos that are altered do not survive, and “of those that do… only a small proportion (between 1 % and 30 %) carry the genetic alteration of interest. This means that large numbers of animals are used to obtain genetically modiﬁed animals, hence, contradicting efforts to minimize animal use” (Ormandy et al. 2011). Furthermore, generating new animal lines causes some pain and distress for the animals used to provide the necessary genetic material. The processes of obtaining sperm from males and embryos from females and implanting fertilized embryos into surrogate dams all entail some animal welfare concerns (Rose et al. 2013). Another cause of harm to animals occurs because of the necessity to genotype animals. In mice, for instance, tail or ear clipping is sometimes used to obtain tissue for this purpose.
The welfare of the offspring of genetically modiﬁed animals is also a concern. It is not possible to predict with complete certainty what the effect of a transgene may be and whether the genetically modiﬁed animal and its offspring could experience pain and distress. A now notorious project from the 1980s aimed at producing pigs, genetically engineered to increase productivity, resulted in severe, unforeseen physical abnormalities and other health problems for the transgenic offspring (Greger 2010). While the technology has improved signiﬁcantly since then and such serious congenital harms have not been experienced again, the case highlights the need to consider possible unintended consequences for the health and well-being of transgenic animals.
Those who support the continued development of new animal lines often justify these endeavors on the basis of the potential good that can result from the research in terms of promoting human health or increasing productivity in farm animals.
In the context of research, it is argued that as long as the three Rs are implemented and research projects are subject to the approval of formalized research ethics committees who monitor the work undertaken, ensuring compliance to guidelines and best practice, continued work of this kind is justiﬁed. Regarding agricultural animals, it has been argued that the application of genetic engineering has the potential to be beneﬁcial to animals, for instance, in producing cattle that are resistant to mastitis, an udder disease that severely affects the well-being of dairy cows. Research into genetic modiﬁcation that could lead to cattle that are resistant to mad cow disease is cited as another example of how these technologies could be beneﬁcial to animals (Maga and Murray 2010).
Bioethical Concerns Related To Human Safety
Another major area of bioethical concern about genetically modiﬁed animals revolves around potential risks to human health. Research suggests that there is less resistance to the use of genetic engineering for medical purposes than for purposes of producing food or increasing productivity in agricultural animals. This reﬂects public uncertainty about the safety of meat, dairy products, and eggs from modiﬁed animals. In a context in which consumers are increasingly demanding information about food products and how they are produced, genetically modiﬁed animal food products are a matter of much public controversy.
It is, therefore, unsurprising that no genetically engineered food animals have yet been approved for the market. The example of widespread resistance to genetically modiﬁed crops is an indication that as long as there is strong public disapproval of genetically modiﬁed animals, it is unlikely that this technology will be viable for commercialization.
Some scientists are of the opinion that much of the public’s concern about genetically modiﬁed food (both crops and animals) is unfounded and based on highly exaggerated assessments of the potential risks to human health (Vàzquez-Salat and Houdebine 2013). It is also claimed that if the facts about actual risk were effectively communicated to the public, some of the resistance to genetically modiﬁed food would dissipate. However, research into current attitudes suggests strong disapproval of around 65 % among global consumers to using biotechnology to enhance the productivity of farm animals. Some studies suggest that resistance to genetically modiﬁed animals is increasing, rather than decreasing, and just as public opinion (especially in Europe) has seriously impeded the widespread use of genetically modiﬁed crops, the current views of consumers are likely to be a major stumbling block in the way of the commercialization of genetically modiﬁed animal food products (Greger 2010).
Bioethical Concerns About The Environment
The predominant environmental ethical issue with genetically modiﬁed organisms relates to fears about the risk of genetic contamination or of transgenic organisms proliferating in the wild. This has been a serious concern with respect to genetically modiﬁed crops, because containing the spread of their modiﬁed genes is almost impossible. With agricultural animals, particularly mammals, containing these risks is much easier. Nonetheless, in animals where there is a strong possibility that transgenic ones could escape into the wild, survive, and breed, the environmental risk must be considered. Of major concern are transgenic ﬁsh, especially salmon. Of all of the possible genetically modiﬁed food animals, salmon, modiﬁed to grow more quickly, are closest to being commercially produced. Should these transgenic ﬁsh escape into the wild, the environmental impact could be very serious indeed, as they could easily threaten and even displace native non-transgenic ﬁsh – they would likely be at an advantage because they grow faster than conventional salmon. There are also concerns that some genetically modiﬁed salmon exhibit maladaptive characteristics such as inferior swimming performance, increased oxygen needs, and some physical deformities (Benfey n.d.). Furthermore, there is a risk of transference of pathogens and parasites into wild populations. Absolute containment of these transgenic animals is not easy to ensure, even where considerable effort is expended to this end. Any accidental escape could result in these modiﬁed species proliferating in the wild. A mooted solution to this problem is to produce ﬁsh that are reproductively sterile, but it is not yet certain whether this would be completely successful (Benfey nd).
In contrast, some research into genetically engineered animals is speciﬁcally focused on reducing environmental harms, especially agricultural pollution. One example of this is a genetically engineered pig, modiﬁed to reduce the amount of phosphorous excreted in its manure (Ormandy et al. 2011, p. 546).
Nonetheless, unease about the environmental impact of genetically modiﬁed animals persists. Perhaps, the most pressing concerns with respect to negative environmental impacts of transgenic animals lie in the uncertainty about what these impacts could be and the possibility that once genetically modiﬁed lines escape into the wild, there would be no way to reverse the situation. For these reasons, many would advocate extreme caution.
Bioethical Concerns Related To Patents And Commercialization
A further set of ethical issues associated with genetically modiﬁed animals relates to patenting and commercialization. Given how contentious these issues have been with respect to genetically modiﬁed crops, it might be expected that similar concerns will arise with transgenic agricultural animals. Since research into genetically modiﬁed animals is expensive, developers of this technology will almost certainly want to recoup their development costs as well as make some proﬁt from their discoveries. An obvious fear is that farmers will be required to pay large license fees to be able to breed proprietary animal lines. Amidst widespread allegations of big industry players in the genetically modiﬁed crops arena engaging in exploitative and coercive business practices to the detriment of farmers, some skepticism and suspicion about patented genetically modiﬁed animal lines are very likely.
Bioethical Concerns Related To Global Inequality
A last area of broad bioethical concern relates to our context of extreme global inequality. The pharmaceutical industry has, in the past, come under ethical scrutiny for charging high prices for patented drugs in poor and developing countries. While it is reasonable for these companies to seek to recover the extremely high costs of developing and testing new medicines, they have faced moral condemnation for seeking high proﬁts from lifesaving drugs sold in poorer countries. It is to be expected that similar concerns could arise surrounding medications and other treatments derived from research using genetically modiﬁed animals.
With respect to genetically modiﬁed animals developed for food or other improved products, there are obvious concerns about farmers in poorer nations being deprived of access to these animal lines as a consequence of not being able to afford them. This might be said to exacerbate existing inequalities in the market, making developing world farmers even less globally competitive. What is more is that should research into genetically modiﬁed animals result in the development of animal lines that could signiﬁcantly improve agricultural outcomes, a conﬂict could arise between food-insecure countries and the wealthier nations. Commercialization of these potentially very advantageous transgenic animals may well be in the interests of those countries struggling to feed their human populations. But it can be foreseen that citizens of the wealthier nations, which will ultimately decide whether or not these animals get to market, might resist the technology, depriving poorer nations of what might be considered a signiﬁcant beneﬁt to them.
Contrary to this view, it can also be argued that since there is so much uncertainty about the safety and the possible risks of transgenic animals, it would be unethical to export these animals to poorer countries until these concerns are resolved.
If the richer nations, who have developed these genetically modiﬁed animals, are not yet prepared to legalize their use by their own populations, it might be construed as an injustice to expect the poorer nations of the world to take on these risks.
It is by no means obvious that, just because humankind has developed the knowledge and skills to be able to genetically modify animals, we actually ought to do so. The potential beneﬁts of genetically modiﬁed animals do not necessarily outweigh the potential harms or overcome fundamental moral objections to the practice. Furthermore, popular resistance to the application of these technologies cannot be ignored and might ultimately prevent widespread use of this kind of biotechnology, not necessarily to the beneﬁt of all. In light of how contentious the genetic modiﬁcation of animals is, it seems prudent that research and development in this ﬁeld should be approached with caution and that it ought to be subject to the regulation and oversight of ethics boards, committees, and regulatory agencies that take cognizance of the many bioethical quandaries inherent in the application and commercialization of genetically modiﬁed animals.
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