This Scientist Might End Animal Cruelty—Unless GMO Hardliners Stop Him
Maybe you've watched the undercover video: A farmer presses a hot iron into the scalp of a wide-eyed calf, burning away tissue that is beginning to turn into horns. She writhes, moaning pathetically, and collapses in the dirt.
When Scott Fahrenkrug saw that footage, released by Mercy for Animals in 2010, it made him sick to his stomach. Most of the roughly 9 million dairy cows in the United States have been dehorned—with an iron, clippers, or caustic paste—to protect handlers and other cows.
Fahrenkrug knew that some breeds of cattle naturally don't grow horns; the problem is that these "polled" cows traditionally have been lousy milk producers.
Fahrenkrug, who specializes in a newly developed genetic modification technique known as precision gene editing, realized it would be a snap to rewrite the corresponding DNA in an embryo of a dairy breed. Presto: Hornless cows that give a lot of milk.Before this can happen though
Many people see GM foods as a symbol of all that's wrong with the industrial food system. Fahrenkrug will have to convince them that it offers the surest and fastest route to more ethical and sustainable farming.This isn't Big Ag scoring big bucks. This is helping to provide food for an 8 billion person planet.
Because hornlessness is a naturally occurring gene variant, it cannot be patentedThese scientists aren't going to get rich, but a lot of dairy farmers will have high milk producing cows without the horns that endanger handlers and other cows.
But that's just a hint of what's possible, if only someone would let it happen.
Scientists at the University of Guelph in Ontario at one point created the Enviropig, a transgenic hog with a mouse gene that produced less water-fouling phosphate in its manure. That project ran out of funding and backers while awaiting regulatory approval, and the last Enviropigs were slaughtered in 2012.Pigs have another problem,
Because the meat of sexually mature male pigs can develop a funky locker-room smell called boar taint, male piglets raised for pork routinely have their testicles removed to prevent puberty. Like dehorning, it's a painful procedure that costs farmers money. Soon, farmers in some countries will be required to provide pain-killers to their pigs, upping the expense and complexity of castration.Or
In a barn in Wisconsin live a different group of male pigs that are missing a gene called KISSR, which controls sexual development hormones. As they grow up, their testicles will never enlarge and descend and they will never develop that unmistakable ripe smell of an adult boar. As commercial animals, they would save farmers the cost of castration, and they would maintain the superior "feed conversion rate" of prepubertal animals—meaning that they get fatter more quickly on less food.Organic farmers should be paying attention
Fahrenkrug thinks that organic farmers have the most to gain from his technology, because it offers a path to healthy, high-producing animals without using hormones or antibiotics.I'm very skeptical. Like the deniers of global warming, those opposing GMO's aren't up on the science. Unlike me though
Fahrenkrug is confident that even the people who don't currently like the idea of genetic modification will come around once they see the benefits. It's not that he expects people to change their minds about GM corn or Monsanto. He just wants them to see that this time, the equation is different. "I'm not ignoring the challenges, but I think the moral argument surpasses the challenges," he says. "It's going to happen."If he's right, the levels of starvation we can expect in the decades to come could be considerably reduced, maybe eliminated, as the Green Revolution did for us in the last century in the face of the Population Bomb.