By Kevin Waetke

When Randy Spronk took a seat as a panelist at the annual CRISPRcon event in Boston in June, one thing was clear: Defining the societal benefits of gene editing is not easy, but it has to begin now. For Spronk, it meant relating to professors, ethicists, researchers, medical professionals and world health leaders – many who have no background in agriculture – on the tangible animal welfare benefits.

“Acceptance of gene editing faces challenges, and hurdle No. 1 is public perception,” said Spronk, a pig farmer from Edgerton, Minnesota. “I appreciated having a seat at the table to help guide the conversation to overcome scientific illiteracy.”

Spronk represented the farm perspective during an ethics discussion at the second annual CRISPRcon.

CRISPR is an acronym for the science of editing genomes, the DNA make-up of plants, animals and humans. It stands for “clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” The CRISPR technology is a simple, yet powerful tool for editing DNA, the genetic make-up of all things.

The event, billed as a CRISPR conversation, offers a forum for gene editing stakeholders to share ideas, ask questions and explore the technology’s future. The National Pork Board and the National Pork Producers Council were among the event sponsors, which also included academics from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, as well as the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT.

Hands down, gene editing will benefit livestock producers, starting with mitigating costly diseases such as PRRS,” Spronk said. “Side benefits may include improved food safety and reduced antibiotic use.”

Potential benefits move beyond plant and animals to human health, prompting a higher level of attention at the Boston event and a second event in July in Washington, D.C. Staged by the Farm Foundation®, the D.C. event, was titled Gene Editing: Opportunities and Challenges.

Disease Control and More
“Before gene editing, there was no effective cure for PRRS, which results in tremendous suffering and often premature death of affected pigs,” Spronk said.

“Through gene editing, genetic resistance to PRRS can be created through a process that mirrors what happens naturally or through traditional genetic selection,” he said. “Fewer PRRS cases would alleviate pig suffering, reduce use of medically important antibiotics and help farmers keep pace with the growing demand for more and better food, while using fewer natural resources.

“Gene editing offers more options in how we produce pork responsibly for people, pigs and the planet,” said the third-generation farmer who, along with his son, raises pigs, soybeans and corn.

Gene editing can benefit people through improved health and food, pigs through enhanced animal welfare and the planet by producing more food with reduced natural resources, he pointed out.

Spronk discussed gene editing’s potential on a panel at the Boston event. From left are Spronk; the Rev. Kevin Fitzgerald, Georgetown University; Nnimmo Bassey, Health of Mother Earth Foundation; George Church, Wyss Institute, Harvard Medical School; and moderator Tamar Haspel, a Washington Post columnist.

Open Dialogue
“As a farmer and pork producer, I believe we should openly and transparently communicate the potential benefits and responsible use of gene editing,” Spronk said.

“I welcome every chance I get to talk to people about how I farm,” he said. “The U.S. pork industry’s commitment to sharing farm stories at the national level is important work. I look forward to training other pig farmers about how we can use gene editing to improve food production.”