Why we should accept genetically modified chickens

Avian influenza, or ‘bird flu’ is a significant risk to many different wild bird species as well as to domesticated birds including chickens. The virus subtype H5NI has already killed millions of chickens especially in Asia. H5N1 has also resulted in the death of over three hundred humans who have made contact with infected birds. It has the potential to kill many millions of humans – perhaps even billions, according to an article in the American Scientist if the virus mutates to make it easier to transmit from human to human (http://www.americanscientist.org/my_amsci/restricted.aspx?act=pdf&id=3158345715265).

A recent response to this threat has the development of genetically modified (GM) chickens that do not spread bird flu. A gene inserted into the chicken prevents these chickens from infecting other birds when they are themselves infected with bird flu. This technique has the potential to protect large scale poultry production from outbreaks of avian influenza and could potentially be used in other species to imbue many different species with resistance to viral disease. See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-12181382.

Given the moral importance of reducing the current threat to humans as well as to domestic birds it seems that we have a strong prima facie moral case for ensuring that such techniques are used, assuming that any possible side effects are not severe and that these do in fact significantly reduce the risk of a bird flu pandemic and that no better alternative is available. But the use of GM techniques is controversial, particularly in Europe where debate about the introduction of GM crops has been intense. There is every reason to think that debate about to the use of GM techniques on animals will be as intense as it has been in the case of GM crops.

What reasons might there be for not genetically modifying chickens to prevent the spread of bird flu? One suggestion made by opponents of GM techniques is that we would not be faced with such a threat of a bird flu pandemic if we did not use intensive farming techniques and utilised organic farming methods instead. See, for example: http://eatdrinkbetter.com/2011/01/17/genetically-modified-chickens-developed-to-prevent-spread-of-bird-flu/ and http://www.soilassociation.org/News/NewsItem/tabid/91/smid/463/ArticleID/1511/reftab/57/t/GM-chickens–potentially-pose-a-greater-threat-to-human-health–and–an-attempted-cover-up-for-flawed-farming-/Default.aspx.

While it would be nice for chickens and enthusiasts for organic farming if we could all adopt non-intensive farming techniques and thereby reduce the risk of a bird flu pandemic, this is not a plausible solution to the problem that confronts us, which is a global problem. Countries such as China, Thailand and Vietnam where the risk of a bird flu pandemic starting is highest, have limited land and other resources and very large populations to feed. If these countries are going to be able to continue to feed their population then they are going to continue to need to practice intensive farming techniques, at least for the foreseeable future. The genetic modification of poultry to prevent bird flu spreading is a way of enabling these countries to continue to feed large populations while reducing the risk of causing millions of humans and birds to die in a bird flu pandemic and this is a compelling reason to develop and promote such genetic modification.

Because the case for accepting the genetic modification of chickens appears to be very compelling, opponents of genetic modification might be better off making an exception of it rather than trying to oppose it. They might argue that the harms of genetic modification are outweighed in this case by the risks involved in allowing huge numbers of humans and domesticated birds to die, even though they are not outweighed by countervailing considerations in other cases. To refuse to consider making such an exception would be to expose oneself to the charge of having elevated opposition to genetic modification to the level of a non-negotiable sacred value and being correspondingly callous to a real threat to human and animal life.

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2 Responses to Why we should accept genetically modified chickens

  • Matt says:

    I have no fundamental objection to GM. But:

    “If these countries are going to be able to continue to feed their population then they are going to continue to need to practice intensive farming techniques, at least for the foreseeable future”

    Given the ecological inefficiency of meat production, it makes little sense for them to practice intensive farming of chickens. Rather than using loads of land to grow grain to feed to chickens, and subsequently feed to people, they should use the same amount of land to grow grain and other plants to feed directly to a greater number of people.

  • Arif says:

    I agree with Matt. If the overriding consideration is food production levels (and I think I would probably have that as secondary to food security in any case), then the debate would be organised differently. However I recognise that there are some environments where meat may be the only option as the kinds of crops that can grow there are not sufficiently nutritious to maintain the existing population.

    I also have no principled opposition to GM foods (my concerns would be on the effects on food security primarily, for example in terms of public ownership of seeds/technological know-how and avoiding monocultures and susceptibilities to new hazards). And as long as the question is framed to take account of “the real world” where people will continue to eat less efficient forms of food (along with the high potential for animal cruelty in intensive farming), then I feel free to bring up the “real world” of corporate control of technologies which mean that poorer farmers are at a disadvantage both in terms of influencing the kinds of technologies being developed and their capacity to avail themselves of them.

    In this case, a genetic modification which is tested in every way possible for potential side effects without any cruelty in its manner, that is available equally to rich and poor and which is clearly labelled whenever sold for what it is would depress me (for the lengths that people go to in order to maintain a lifestyle which relies on the intensive rearing of chicken), but would be morally as acceptable as if it were bred without technology.

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