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Getting past the gatekeeper: Gene-editing may face an uphill battle with dairy farmers

Shutterstock black and white dairy cows eating from feed trough
The path forward for gene-edited genetics is going to entail juggling not just the consumer’s perception of the technology, but the farmer’s too.

By Danielle Ufer and David L. Ortega

Advances in biotechnology have been in the spotlight in recent years, especially with landmark uses of genetic biotechnology like the widely distributed COVID-19 mRNA vaccines. Outside of the medical field, biotechnologies are increasingly utilized in agricultural and environmental applications, such as the recently FDA-approved genetically engineered “GalSafe” pigs or CRISPR gene-edited microbes that can degrade plastics.

Gene-editing with techniques like CRISPR-Cas9 and TALENs are cutting-edge technologies which carry enormous potential in agricultural applications. In livestock industries alone, researchers are already working to develop gene-edited cattle that are innately polled, pigs that don’t require painful castration, and both cattle and pigs that are resistant to costly diseases. These advances could be a boon to livestock industries, or they could fall flat. Their success depends not only on developing functional technologies that provide the advertised benefits, but on their acceptance by the various players in the market.

Despite the celebration of breakthroughs in biotechnology in fields like medicine, hesitation and resistance to biotechnology in agriculture remains deep-seated in many minds. Consumers demand foods produced without biotechnology, as evidenced by the growing popularity of Non-GMO labels in a variety of food products. Because of their importance in driving food markets, consumer attitudes have received the bulk of research attention. But even before the consumer sees a product on the grocery shelf, the farmers’ decisions can make or break a technology’s chance of making it to stores. 

Our recent study surveyed over 500 American dairy farmers on their willingness to adopt gene-edited genetics in their herds. We asked farmers about a Johne’s disease resistance application in particular and found, overall, that farmers weren’t ready or willing to adopt gene-edited genetics. This resistance was motivated by a variety of factors. In our sample, 42% of farmers believed that animals shouldn’t be genetically engineered or gene-edited, regardless of the application.

This resistance to gene-editing could be tied to multiple concerns surrounding the technology. Biotechnology in the past has had varying results in the dairy industry, the prime example being recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST). Many of the concerns farmers have about gene-edited genetics are reminiscent of the issues which ultimately put an end to widespread rbST use in dairy production. At the top of the list is a concern that consumers won’t accept dairy products from gene-edited cows, a top concern shared by 63.4% of farmers in our study. Other key concerns shared by about a third of farmers are a potential loss of market access for milk from gene-edited cows from wary consumers, a reduction in milk price, and the perception that gene-edited genetics are simply unnatural. For the companies hoping to get this technology on the market, these concerns represent the main hurdles that they’ll need to address to get the technology past the first gatekeepers of the market.

Though our research revealed an uphill battle for gene-editing genetics in the dairy industry, it wasn’t all bad news for the biotech. A quarter of surveyed farmers were very accepting of the prospect of genetic engineering of animals. Choosing the right applications might also increase receptivity to the technology among farmers. We asked farmers what potential applications would be of greatest interest to them. The clear winner was resistance to mastitis, with nearly 80% of farmers expressing interest. Mastitis is found universally on dairy farms in the U.S. and poses both a health and welfare threat to a farmer’s herd and an economic threat to the farmer’s operation. Compared to applications like the polled trait, which just under half of farmers were interested in, and increased feed efficiency, which interested about 46% of farmers, the potential benefits of mastitis resistance appeared to be the most worthwhile to farmers and the most likely to outweigh some of the many concerns surrounding the technology.

The first step for a biotechnology into the agricultural marketplace is on the farm. The path forward for gene-edited genetics is going to entail juggling not just the consumer’s perception of the technology, but the farmer’s too. After all the farmer’s decision is pivotal for these products to be available. Stacking the deck in favor of a positive reception of gene-edited genetics when they do enter the market is going to require developing applications that are important to farmers while simultaneously addressing the concerns that might hold farmers back from adopting. The benefits of biotechnology don’t need to be exclusive to the medical field, but the introduction of biotechnology in animal agriculture will need careful planning and deep insight into the minds of the gatekeepers.

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