Perhaps a Road Best Not Travelled

As genetic engineering capabilities vault forward, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) recently initiated the steps to start developing regulations governing the production of genetically modified animals, and the meat they produce.

The advance public input process undertaken by APHIS presumes that meat from genetically engineered animals will soon ben headed to retail meat cases and restaurant menus. But the “Notice of Advance Rulemaking” APHIS issued a few months ago also assumes that genetically engineered meat and poultry will only be coming from animals classified as amenable species…beef, pork, chicken, and other mainstream livestock commodities. Bison aren’t included.

For once, being excluded is just fine with me.

NBA Assistant Director Jim Matheson and I had an opportunity to tell that to APHIS officials when they scheduled a recent Zoom meeting to gain our input. We informed the officials of the NBA Code of Ethics prohibiting genetically modified bison for use in food production, as well as the code’s prohibition on crossbreeding with other species and use of artificial reproduction technologies. Our relationship with our customers, we told the officials, is based in large part on respecting the work that Mother Nature performed over thousands of years in perfecting the animal, and its relationship to the ecosystem.

Some may consider the NBA’s position to reflect an opposition to technological advances. After all, I’ve had some pointed conversations with some within our business who argue the benefits of being able to genetically engineer an animal that can finish for harvest more quickly, produce a consistently even ribeye area and other factors that can provide potential market profitability.

Yes, those characteristics are all possible, as are genetic manipulation to create disease resistance, lower methane emissions, pre-sexed offspring and other traits.

It’s possible, but is it wise?

If we were to head down that road, how far would we travel before we cross the line from actually raising an animal to simply producing cultured meat on the hoof? After all, if we want to engineer the genetics to the extent of producing all of the qualities we want while reducing the costs and other factors we don’t want, what’s the advantage of raising an actual animal over producing meat in a laboratory?

That’s a question that our friends in the beef, pork and poultry industries may have to answer sooner, rather than later.

As for me, I’ll stick with nature’s original plant-based protein…bison.