Adrian Sanders MP writes: a targeted reduction in animal experiments

The numbers of animals used in experiments has been rising steadily over the past few years; up to 3.6 million in 2009 (whilst the number of individual procedures is far higher). It represents the presence of a vast amount of suffering.  In its Programme for Government the Coalition promised to ‘work to reduce the use of animals in scientific research’. Our work has been supported by the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) who warmly welcome our pledge, which is undoubtedly overdue.

But how does the Coalition intend to turn aspiration into reality? Animal experiments are demand-led and if the total amount of scientific research is on the up, it is likely that the extent of animal research will also increase. As a party, we were pleased to see that the science budget escaped cuts in the Comprehensive Spending Review. An active science sector is good for health and essential for economic growth, but we must ensure that research methods are ethical.

At this current time, there is a real in-built bias in favour of animal research, regardless of its scientific merits. There are numerous reasons for this, including reluctance to change, the conservatism of regulators and the convenience of comparing historical animal data with new data of the same kind. Despite the fact that many governments, international bodies and researchers are encouraging non-animal alternatives, they are not being implemented even though these tests are more reliable. This has to change.

It is clear that if we want to reduce the dependence on animal testing, it is up to the Government to intervene. Fortunately, there is no need for new legislation, because there is already sufficient flexibility in the cost: benefit test which lies at the heart of the UK Animal (Scientific Procedures) Act and the new European directive on animal experiments. It is this test which enabled Labour to ban animal testing for cosmetics, tobacco and alcohol products, and offensive weapons. By using this cost: benefit analysis the Coalition can enforce a ban on household products testing.

The reason that the cost: benefit test is so effective is because it is an ethical test. It is crucial that in controversial areas, public policy should reflect informed public opinion. A recent poll conducted by YouGov in the UK, Germany, France, Sweden, Italy and the Czech Republic showed that the majority of people are against the use of primates, cats and dogs in animal testing, because causing severe suffering to any species for experiments which are not for serious or life-threatening human conditions is unacceptable. There is, in fact, plenty of other evidence to show that many people oppose animal use even for this reason. On this basis, UK practice is completely unrepresentative of public opinion and needs to be changed.

An emphasis on targets will prove crucial to the fight against animal testing. Targets have to be sophisticated and must focus on suffering and purpose, as well as on numbers related to the use of animals in scientific experiments. Targets may be able to signal that less suffering will be tolerated and certain types of experiments excluded, such as experiments that are motivated by commercial advantage. We need targets to lead to closer scrutiny of the claimed benefits of using animals in research, so that we can incentivise the development and use of alternative methods of experimentation.

As a party, we should look to be the driver for real change on this issue, as we are committed to stopping animals being used unnecessarily for experimentation. It is up to us to highlight this issue in parliament and make sure that the issue is addressed soon by the Government of which we are a part.

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9 Comments

  • Lorna Spenceley 8th Nov '10 - 11:43am

    Well argued, Adrian. Perhaps we could start at home, with an initiative like the one on recycling and environmental responsibility, to make Cowley Street a cruelty free environment with a review of our cleaning materials purchasing – and maybe the Parliamentary Estate too?

  • Richard Ormerod 8th Nov '10 - 11:46am

    Excellent article – our party doesn’t pay enough attention to this issue generally. Here we have a fine opportunity to do something both ethical and popular – let’s grab it.

  • George Loizou 8th Nov '10 - 11:56am

    I am toxicologist working for the Health and Safety Laboratory, a UK government agency of the Health and Safety Executive. My area of expertise is in mathematical modelling of biolgical systems and this has great potential for the reduction and eventual replacement of animals all scientific procedures. You state in your article the following:

    “Despite the fact that many governments, international bodies and researchers are encouraging non-animal alternatives, they are not being implemented even though these tests are more reliable. This has to change.”

    This comment is misleading and as regards systemic toxicity it is incorrect.

    I am currently an invited expert preparing a document for the European Commission which is considering postponing the ban on the use of animals in the development of new cosmetic products set for 2013 because reliable alternatives for acute and chronic systemic do not exist.

    The reality is that this is a poorly funded area of research. In my opinion the investment in research in this area by governments and industry is inadequate and serves only the purpose of public relations.

  • I have major issues with this article – although I am not as senior as the scientists who have so far posted, being a mere post-grad, I find this kind of ideological anti-animal testing stance to be quite concerning.

    “At this current time, there is a real in-built bias in favour of animal research, regardless of its scientific merits.” the reason why animal testing is favoured is because there is simply no other model possible at this time. Cell cultures are only useful up to a point and modelling of biological systems is many decades away from being a viable alternative to actual animal testing. The scientific merits of animal testing are that it is, in most cases where it would be useful, the only option.

    Seeking to suppress animal testing will simply lead to senior scientists out-sourcing their animal labs to countries like China with few restrictions on animal testing and will actually increase animal suffering. This actually already happens now, although I’m not aware of it being very widespread under the current legislation.

    “Despite the fact that many governments, international bodies and researchers are encouraging non-animal alternatives, they are not being implemented even though these tests are more reliable.” I don’t know where you got this information from – . If animal testing was consistently less reliable then an alternative then very little of it would actually be done – mammalian-based testing in particular is apparently very expensive and there are many hoops to jump through to do it. Put bluntly, if it’s being done by scientists, particularly younger scientists, then it’s necessary.

    As for governments suggesting moving away from animal testing – why should that matter a jot? Governments are not largely made of scientists and the merits or otherwise of medical animal testing are scientific only. There’s no reason for animal testing in cosmetics but let’s not conflate animal testing in that field with actual science.

    “It is this test which enabled Labour to ban animal testing for cosmetics, tobacco and alcohol products, and offensive weapons. By using this cost: benefit analysis the Coalition can enforce a ban on household products testing.” Let’s not conflate these with medical science.

    “A recent poll conducted by YouGov in the UK, Germany, France, Sweden, Italy and the Czech Republic showed that the majority of people are against the use of primates, cats and dogs in animal testing, because causing severe suffering to any species for experiments which are not for serious or life-threatening human conditions is unacceptable.” Very few primates, cats or dogs are used in animal testing. With mammals it tends to be rodents that are tested on – and even rodent testing is a very small proportion of animal testing.

    The real bulk of animal testing are on things like naemotode worms, fruit flies, zebrafish or tree frogs. You never see animal rights protesters showing holding placards with suffering specimens of C. elegans or pictures of Drosophila melangogaster being kept in terribly cramped and inhumane conditions. This is because the whole anti-medical vivisection campaign is based off false facts about the scale of animal testing, what animals are tested on, how easy it is to test on animals and most importantly how necessary testing is for scientific studies.

    The whole animal rights crusade against medical testing seems absurd to me – focusing on the one area where animal tests are not only doing good for the world but also the only area where they are actually needed. I’m actually very sympathetic to their banning animal testing in, say, cosmetics – they are just wrong on this topic and it boggles my mind why they waste their time on this counter-productive campaign when they could be tackling actually unnecessary suffering on a much grander scale by, for instance, attempting to ban factory farming.

  • Malcolm Todd 8th Nov '10 - 11:47pm

    DunKhan:

    the merits or otherwise of medical animal testing are scientific only.

    Well, that’s just not true, is it? It’s also an ethical issue, even if you’ve already made up your mind on the ethics.

    There’s no reason for animal testing in cosmetics but let’s not conflate animal testing in that field with actual science.

    Again, that doesn’t stack up. There are indeed reasons for animal testing in cosmetics — the same reasons in essence as for testing medicines, i.e. to rule out potential harm to humans from the products. And the fact that you don’t agree with using animals in that context is, again, a matter of ethics — it does not mean that the testing involved is any less scientific than what you do.

    In fact, I agree almost entirely with your actual stance on this: there are far greater and less justifiable harms done to animals than their use in medical experiments, so the latter are entirely the wrong place to start an “animal rights” (ridiculous concept) campaign. And while I can’t find a way to justify the use of animal testing even for “high” medical purposes ethically (the listing of diseases that can be treated and cured as a result is essentially an emotional rather than an ethical argument), I simply can’t bring myself to reject the medical advances that such testing has made possible or to close the door on future gains (hell, yes, I wanna live forever), so I end up in the same camp as you (somewhere near Huntingdon, probably…). But let’s not pretend that this is some purely pragmatic question, in which ethics either don’t feature or are so obvious in their application that they don’t inform the argument. Ethics are at the nub of it. The pragmatic only comes later.

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