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High Tech Animals Stuck On the Shelf

August 31, 2016
David Warmflash writes for the Genetic Literacy Project about the challenges being faced by innovators using genetically engineered animals to solve some of the world’s most pressing health, environmental and societal problems.  Warmflash is an astrobiologist, physician and science writer:

If genetically modified (GM) and genetically edited (GE) plants face an uphill battle in moving from proof-of-concept to the dinner tables of consumers, then GM and GE animals are up against a proverbial Mount Everest.


GM and GE animals that have made it to the market, thus far, include fluorescent glowing fish, drugs made in the milk of GE goats and GE rabbits, and the GM mosquitoes being tested in Brazil and elsewhere to suppress populations of Aedes that carry Zika virus, as well as dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever. But high tech animals going into the food supply are another matter.

Thus far, only AquAdvantage GM salmon is at the finish line in the pathway to market, and that’s after a history that started as early as 1989. Imagine, if those large, chunky cell phones conceived in the era when pop singer Madonna was the new rage were just becoming available to the public today. That’s how things are with the GM salmon, and even those fish still have more hurdles before you can actually find them in the store.

Other GM and GE animals have shown excellent promise in research, with potential advantages such as efficient food production (similar to the GM salmon), decreased environmental impact, improved animal welfare, and health benefits for humans who consume the meat. But they wait in the wings with no certainly of whether they will ever make it as far as the salmon.
Biotechnology-generated animals can stall in research stages, or be prevented from entering the food market, for a variety of reasons. Many promising GM animals have been developed only by public sector scientists, so there’s a lack of funding to scale up the project sufficient for getting it into consumer markets. In other cases, the obstacles are purely political.

If the AquAdvantage salmon is the model in the United States, other GM/GE animals intended as food sources could face a long road of hurdles and twists before they ever get to market. Some may never get there and could remain on the shelf in somebody’s lab indefinitely.

In the full article, Warmflash describes some examples such as hornless cattle, bird flu-resistant chickens, omega-3 pigs, mastitis-resistant cows and the Enviropig, designed to make pork production more environmentally friendly.  All of these – and other GE/GM animal technologies – show excellent promise in terms of their advantage, IF they ever find a way to consumers.