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Israeli Scientists “Edit” Hens to Lay Eggs that Hatch Only Female Chicks

Nearly 7 billion unwanted male chicks are destroyed each year globally in the agricultural industry…until now. Israeli scientists announced Tuesday that they have developed a gaggle of hens that can only hatch female chicks.

Thanks to gene editing technology developed by the researchers at Volcani Center in partnership with Poultry by Huminn, a flock of hens called Golda (after the color of their feathers, not the former prime minister Golda Meir) became the first in the world to only be able to hatch female chicks. The project has been seven years in the making, according to team leader and embryology expert Dr. Yuval Cinnamon.

“The size of the egg-laying market in the world is estimated at about 7 billion laying hens, and for each hen, a male chick is culled,” Dr. Cinnamon said. “The production of table eggs in the world is estimated at over two trillion eggs per year — over 80 million tons.”

“We are very happy to be able to provide a viable solution to… the most devastating animal welfare issue in the livestock industry worldwide, for the benefit of animals and humankind.”

You may wonder why the males of laying hens are killed. Can’t they just be raised and used for food? The “bottom line” is the bottom in this case—it costs more to feed and care for a male chick from a laying hen than the price they would sell for to make it to your dinner table. Meat chickens—“broilers”—are a larger breed of chicken and come from a different line of hens. “Broiler” hens lay less often than their leaner counterparts, “laying” hens (the ones that produce the eggs you get in cartons at the market).

With the Golda hens, Cinnamon and his team have found a way to “edit” the genetics of the females to where any eggs with a male embryo won’t develop. A little biology lesson: roosters carry the Z chromosome; hens carry a Z for males and a W for females. Two Zs make a male chick. A W and Z make a female. The researchers discovered a way to edit the hen’s Z chromosome so that any male embryos stop development at an early stage.

As with any technology like this, ethics are always an issue. Isn’t it cruel to keep the egg from ever developing? On the one hand, yes…but then you have to weigh the present fate of male chicks born to laying hens. Currently, in the egg production industry, the male chicks are sorted out for destruction, often by suffocation, gassing, or even being ground up alive.

The female chicks are not considered genetically modified because they inherited an unaltered W chromosome. Now, how this plays out long term remains to be seen—will it be like China’s “one child” policy that led to a dramatic shortage of girls after a few decades. Where will the laying breed roosters come from if they are all selected out?

The European Union’s Health and Food Safety director has approved of the technology. Israel’s Agriculture Ministry and the US FDA are still reviewing the protocol.

“In recent years, we have witnessed a change in awareness around the world regarding animal welfare, but on the other hand, no practical solutions have been identified to stop the unfortunate phenomenon of killing the male chicks,” said Yaarit Wainberg, Poultry by Huminn CEO. “We are proud and excited to be the first in the world to offer an effective solution, with a significant contribution to the entire value chain — all this based on Israeli science and innovation.”

The demand for eggs worldwide is expected to increase by almost 50 percent by 2035.

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