ArticleVolume Number July 19, 2019

Is dehorning using gene modification an acceptable practice?

L’écornage par modification des gènes : acceptable ou non ?

In North America, the dehorning of cattle is still a common practice because horns can potentially injure both animals and animal handlers. New dehorning methods, such as gene modification, are becoming available and making an informed decision requires ample reflection and analysis. 

Traditional dehorning

The common dehorning method of cauterizing the horn buds of young calves has come into question from an animal welfare point of view, as can be painful for the calves. To address this point, pain management has become mandatory for this procedure, and a requirement for the proAction program (a mandatory certification in Canada). Many other countries, however, do not require pain relievers to be provided for the animals.

The polled gene

The polled (hornless) gene already exists in some animal bloodlines and can be used in reproductive strategies. This process, however, may not always coincide with other genetic strategies targeted by a farm. Researchers have now successfully been able to isolate and modify the genetic code of a given animal to make them polled. This option resolves the problem of dehorning on the farm and improve the animal welfare situation.

This solution may be legitimate but the subject of genetic modification, and genetically modified organisms is a sensitive one with the public.

Study results

Researchers from British Columbia took a closer look at people’s attitude toward this « precision reproduction » technology.

In this study, McConnachie’s research team surveyed 434 Americans about this practice.  Here are the findings:

  • Close to 66% of people saw this way of doing things in a positive light, whereas 23% thought this practice was wrong;
  • Only 22.6% of respondents asserted that they would not consume animal products resulting from this technology whereas 66% said that they would.

Study results gene modification for dehorning

How about you?

The explanations provided by those who look at this technique favorably showed that they did so for reasons such as animal welfare, animal handler welfare or economic motivation. Social acceptability definitely remains an important consideration; it is never easy to find unanimous solutions!

Would you be ready to adopt this practice and eat food sourced from genetically modified polled animals?

Source : McConnachie E, Hötzel MJ, Robbins JA, Shriver A, Weary DM, Von Keyserlingk MAG (2019) Public attitudes towards genetically modified polled cattle. PLoS ONE 14(5):e0216542.