24 May 1996

Progress with bio-tech set to boost pigs

NEW biotechnological techniques could see a pig industry free from disease and where cheap feed sources yield maximum growth rates.

This vision of the future was expressed by the Cotswold Pig Development companys John Webb at a NFU seminar on biotechnology at the Pig and Poultry Fair (full report page 42).

"Breeding companies are ready to invest now in techniques such as embryo transfer, gender determination, cloning and marker assisted selection.

"The race is on to isolate genetic markers within commercial breeding company stocks that indicate traits for backfat, growth rate, litter size, intramuscular fat, immune responsiveness and coat colour," said Dr Webb.

"There is no doubt that producers could benefit from the enhancement of a pigs genetics to yield a better carcass with improved meat quality, a stronger immune system and a more efficient digestive system that could break down cheaper feed sources."

But, Dr Webb warned that it was essential for producers, industry leaders and consumers to consider the ethics, safety, welfare and environmental consequences of biotechnology before investments went further.

"The term biotechnology covers a number of different techniques, some more acceptable than others.

"For example marker assisted selection involves no surgery. The test for litter size can be carried out on a single hair and the information then used to select pigs for normal breeding programmes," said Dr Webb.

"But other techniques such as genetic modification might be less acceptable."

Trials where growth hormone genes have been micro-injected into fertilised eggs have been used to demonstrate 30% improvements in growth rates. These increases caused arthritis in the pigs on the trial.

"My belief is that this is unacceptable and that this view would be shared by other parties.

"It is, therefore, vital that the biotechnology debate is brought to the fore so that differences in techniques under this broad heading can be discussed and understood before guidelines are formed on which are acceptable to all concerned," he said.