An African swine fever (ASF) outbreak has reportedly killed 100 million pigs in China in the past year. The U.S. has fortunately never had a case of this devastating disease, which basically kills 100 percent of infected hogs. The Chinese outbreak is a huge problem since that country’s farmers raise half of the world’s 800 million pigs and Chinese consumers eat two-thirds of the world’s pork. Thanks to the epidemic, pork prices have doubled in China.
Back in 2015, researchers in Britain modified domestic pig genomes to express a version of gene that enables warthogs to resist ASF. Those researchers hoped that their disease-resistant pigs would get through all the regulatory hurdles and be commercially available in five years or so.
So far, the commercial introduction of crops and livestock improved by precise gene-editing has been stymied by overregulation in both the United States and Europe. For example, it took 24 years to get Food and Drug Administration approval for the only biotech-enhanced food animal, the AquAdvantage salmon, now on the market in Canada.
Spurred by the ASF epidemic, Chinese researchers are now using CRISPR genome editing to try to create pigs resistant to the deadly virus. In fact, China now leads the world in agricultural genome-editing research. Researchers in that country have used gene editing to create more muscular beagles, cashmere goats with finer wool, and hogs with leaner meat. For the sake of healthier livestock and more productive crops, let’s hope that Chinese regulators will be guided by science rather than succumb to the excessive caution hobbling their American and European peers.