Twenty Years Ago, Dolly the Sheep Led Her Flock Astray

07/07/2016 09:52

It is 20 years since the birth of Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal from an adult cell. It took 277 gruelling attempts, but when it was at last successful, it was a truly pivotal moment.

The creation of Dolly was hailed as a triumph for science, and although there was a wave of public mistrust in the procedure, we were soon being told how cloning would revolutionise medical research and treatment for humans. For animal welfare, on the other hand, it was a disaster.

Cloning involves great suffering. The surrogate mothers who carry clones often undergo difficult births and Caesarean sections. Many clones die in the early stages of life from cardiovascular failure, respiratory difficulties, abnormal kidney development and defective immune systems.

Dolly's birth made cloning, and a range of associated biotechnologies, acceptable - even glamourous. It lent credence to the view that animals may be regarded as 'things' placed in this world simply for our convenience. We can treat them as machines that can be fine-tuned to make them more efficient. It took us further away from the notion that animals should be allowed to take pleasure in life without being confined in cages or overcrowded sheds, or manipulated to make them ever more productive.

Which animals will be cloned? The highest yielding cows, the fastest growing pigs, and the sows with the largest litters. Traditional selective breeding has already driven many farm animals way beyond their physiological limits. Cows have been pushed to produce such high milk yields that after just three to four years many are spent, and because they can no longer produce enough milk, they are prematurely culled. Chickens have been bred to grow so quickly that their legs often cannot properly support their bodies; as a result many suffer from painful leg deformities. Cloning will exacerbate all these issues, as the industry will seek to clone animals from the most extreme end of the spectrum of fast growth and high yields.

Genetic engineering, or genetic manipulation (GM), comes from the same stable as cloning. It is no longer part of a disturbing future: it's hard upon us. US regulators have already given the go-ahead for GM farmed salmon to enter the human food chain.

Now, scientists have developed gene-editing, and with just a snip here and a slice there, we can make animals even more suitable for our use. They claim this will be used for benign purposes, such as developing hornless cows, but harsh experience of biotechnologies suggests this too will be used to push animals to greater productivity with predictably harmful effects on their well-being.

In the UK and the EU, Government pours taxpayers' money into agri-tech determined to drive animals to higher yields and to shore up the crumbling edifice of factory farming. A government body called Innovate UK uses public money to fund chromosome manipulation in farmed salmon, to increase the viability of industrial pig production and to accelerate the rate of genetic improvement in chickens, even though this 'improvement' has led to millions of chickens suffering from leg and heart disorders over the last four decades.

Instead of pushing animals to their limits and modifying them at will, we should develop farming models that truly respect animals, and enable them to live lives with positive experiences. Making animals suffer for human benefit is simply not a sign of a civilised world, however lucrative and beneficial to humans that suffering may be.