Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam, cooperative extension specialist in animal genomics and biotechnology at University of California, Davis, spoke recently at the Animal Ag Alliance Summit in Arlington, VA. Although many people have a desire to return to ‘how it used to be’ in agriculture, there are far-reaching consequences.
Van Eenennaam said that when new innovations are allowed in breeding programs, there’s an increased rate of genetic gain. An example is the introduction of artificial insemination in the dairy industry in the late 1940s. “If you look back, that was originally a very controversial technology,” she said. “But innovation in agriculture is often controversial.” She added that dairy farmers who bred bulls specifically for use on dairy farms were eventually put out of business, which was one reason for the pushback on A.I.
But there was more to the pushback than the loss of bull sales. Van Eenennaam quoted an excerpt from an article in the Journal of Animal Science (Foote, R.H., 2002) regarding the early days of A.I.: “In the initial stages of attempting to develop A.I., there were several obstacles. The general public was against research that had anything to do with sex. Associated with this was the fear that A.I. would lead to abnormalities.”
The debut of pasteurized milk in 1924 was another controversial concept. The introduction to the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance states, “It is unknown what long term health consequences may unfold. The studies are not adequate. Furthermore, this will likely not be available or cost effective for small farmers, it will decrease product acceptance and consumption.”
The dairy industry continued to make improvements, and since 2009, the rate of genetic gain has doubled due to the introduction of genomics and more accurate young sire selection. The industry is leaning toward a Net Merit index, and more than 50 percent of that index is focused on health and welfare traits. Van Eenennaam said that good conventional breeding programs that work with natural genetic variations and capitalize on hybrid vigor have served the livestock industry well, and that such breeding programs include very comprehensive measurements and phenotypes.
In beef cattle inventory, overall numbers are down but production is significantly higher. “Each animal is more efficiently producing a larger amount of beef,” said Van Eenennaam. “We are producing a lot of meat for the number of animals we have here in the United States.”
Van Eenennaam said pig production numbers on a per sow basis is probably the most notable genetic improvement. For litter-bearing animals, the most sensible improvements include increased litter size, more litters per year and more lean meat per pig. Other objectives include decreasing the time to achieve market weight and improving feed conversion ratios.
“That’s exactly what they (the swine industry) has done,” said Van Eenennaam, adding that today’s market pig require four percent less feed to produce a 17 percent heavier carcass. “If we hadn’t made those genetic improvements in the last 35 years, we’d need around an additional 9 million sows (15 million total) that 6 million sows were able to provide last year.”
What’s next for livestock selection objectives? “We’ve focused on welfare and efficiency, but what if we could also decrease the nutrients coming out the back end in manure?” said Van Eenennaam. “What if we could improve the whole profile and create omega-3 bacon, or select for pigs that didn’t get sick? All of these objectives have been met on the ground using modern molecular technology.”
Despite the fact that these and other goals have been met, there’s been resistance due to a continuing debate over GMOs — even with proven, positive results. Van Eenennaam explained a Canadian study that resulted in the Enviropig™, an animal that produces low-phosphorus manure. The University of Missouri introduced a gene to make omega-3, or heart-healthy, bacon and also used gene editing to knock out the protein that would eliminate PRRS (Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory virus) in pigs.
“There’s a six-million-dollar impact in the United States that could be addressed through genetics,” said Van Eenennaam, describing PRRS elimination through genetics. “It looks like a better solution than having pigs get sick, but the jury is out.” Van Eenennaam said the holdup in the application of such technology is due to ongoing public rancor surrounding gene editing, and that with progress in efficiency and welfare, everyone should be on board.
Some companies are purposely moving backwards. Whole Foods has committed to replacing fast-growing chicken breeds with slow-growing breeds. “Nothing else has changed,” said Van Eenennaam. “Not a different diet and they aren’t running around on grass — they’re still running around in the broiler production facility. They will just be around for 14 more days.” According to Whole Foods’ global meat buyer, the slow growing chicken is much healthier and more flavorful.
“Why is growing less than 50 grams per day for 58 days better for welfare than growing at 61 grams per day for 44 days?” said Van Eenennaam. “That is not going the way of more sustainable food production.” Van Eenennaam said consumer acceptance of such a move is the result of cognitive dissonance — the mental discomfort experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas or values. “What they’re saying is ‘I support less efficient agriculture that has a bigger environmental footprint’. There are real consequences to blocking innovation in agricultural systems. This tradeoff is never discussed.” She added that while many consumers believe it’s important for brands to have sustainability initiatives, the same consumers don’t make decisions based on objective data.
Van Eenennaam said the trend that touches a nerve for her is GMO-free animal products. “It concerns me because 90 percent of all genetically engineered biomass is consumed by our livestock population,” she said. “The impact that GMOs have had on increasing sustainability of food production systems is quite dramatic.” Van Eenennaam blames the disconnect on misleading fear mongering that drives the narrative to global populations, despite the fact that every scientific society in the world agrees on the safety associated with this (GMO) breeding method.
Why is misinformation so much more compelling for consumers than the truth? The trend toward labeling products, including milk, as non-GMO means more expensive products for consumers because farmers are forced to return to heavier crop spraying, additional tillage and using more fuel and stronger products to control weeds. Van Eenennaam said that the ubiquitous non-GMO project verified butterfly symbol essentially says, ‘we support precluding access to safe technology, which has reduced greenhouse gas emission and global insecticide use, which has helped biodiversity and beneficial insects.’ She added that it’s contradictory for the label to include a butterfly symbolizing beneficial insects when the label supports neither biodiversity nor sustainability.
“There’s a need for us to defend the objective truth, backed up by science and the passion we have as to why we use innovation,” said Van Eenennaam. “Especially around food and agriculture — the cold facts are out there.”