GM chickens "pose greater threat to human health"

A project to create the world’s first genetically modified (GM) chicken that does not spread avian flu has been criticised.

The scheme by scientists at Edinburgh University, which was unveiled last week, “poses a greater threat to human health”, according to the Soil Association.

However, the team behind the initiative believe their work demonstrates it is possible to create a variety of GM farm animals resistant to viral diseases.

The research team inserted an artificial gene into chickens; this introduces a tiny part of the bird flu virus into chicken cells. These birds become infected, but render the virus harmless to other poultry.

The news of the GM chickens, which came in the Science journal, follows the launch of a similar experiment for pigs in Canada called Enviropig – which limits the amounts of nitrate the animals produce.

Peter Melchett, Soil Association policy director, said: "Keeping animals cramped together in inhumane factories encourages the spread of diseases such as bird flu and swine flu. This GM fantasy simply tries to cover up for flawed farming practice. 

"Experience with GM crops shows how quickly resistant super-weeds and new insect pests have developed, despite promises from the GM industry that this could not happen. Viruses are some of the most rapidly evolving organisms on earth, and they could rapidly evolve resistance to the GM chickens."

And he added: "In a race to develop new strains, viruses would get there faster than new breeds of GM chickens could be produced. Viruses could even evolve to become more virulent in response to the GM challenge, posing a greater threat to human health."

Professor Helen Sang of Edinburgh University said that genetic modification is potentially a much better way of protecting against diseases than vaccination because the GM technique works even if the virus mutates.
Sang explained: "It will protect a whole flock from avian influenza infection. This is really exciting, because bird flu is a real challenge to poultry production and if it were introduced to poultry breeding it would protect our large scale production flocks from avian influenza."

Peter Bradnock of The British Poultry Council said he believed more research was needed to assess the long-term impact on farm animals before food producers would even consider using the technology.

Supporters of GM food argue that it will help with the expanding world population.

>> GM pig project faces criticism

>> Two-thirds of UK public want their food to be GM-free