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At the Big Solutions Forum on May 20, 2021, the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute brought together government and industry experts to discuss “how to build a resilient, sustainable and prosperous argi-food system for Canada”. The Forum was held to synthesize results from the year-old research program Creating Prosperity from Chaos, which originally referred to disruptions in global trade, sustainability and food security but was re-focused when the COVID 19 pandemic began.
Based on their research results, CAPI concluded the “Canadian agri-food system has great potential and capacity to contribute to sustainable food production, global food security and climate solutions while improving its competitive advantage”. Their results identified four key actions:
- Systems approach – improve coordination between all stakeholders in the agri-food system to generate strategies to maximize sustainability;
- Strategic thinking – better leverage Canada’s comparative advantages and assets to drive the agri-food system forward;
- Public-private partnerships – expand collaborative partnerships to address barriers to the agri-food system and promote a resilient and adaptable system;
- Aspirational leadership – to promote proactive strategies to create a successful agri-food system in the future.
In the first panel, Chris Forbes (DM AAFC), Simon Kennedy (DM Innovation, Science and Economic Development), Christine Hogan (DM Environment and Climate Change), Dr. Harpreet Kiochhar (DM Health Canada), and John Hannaford (DM International Trade) addressed how the federal government views the challenges and opportunities for Canada’s agri-food system. In the aftermath of the COVID 19 pandemic, Canada’s agri-food system showed itself to be resilient with minimal disruptions to the food supply chain. The economic pressure created by the pandemic also highlighted issues and opportunities. The big issues identified included environmental sustainability, inclusion, and the need to focus on a “One Health” approach in research and regulation. Opportunities that arose were the sky-rocketing rates of digital adoption and the innovation and collaboration across the sector. Canada has a competitive advantage in terms of environment policies, carbon use and food security, which creates a strong foundation moving forward.
In the second panel, Bill Greuel (Protein Industries Canada), Bettina Hamelin (Ontario Genomics), Chris Terris (Telus Agriculture Canada), Gaétan Desroches (Sollio Cooperative Group), and Katelyn Duncan (Backswath Management) discussed private industries role in the moving Canada’s agri-food system forward. The system is ripe for digitization, technology adoption and creating value-added solutions to improve efficiency, sustainability and economic viability. With all the crises the world faces (COVID 19, climate change and anti-microbial resistance, and others) collaboration has never been more important. Private industry needs to adopt more of a “coopetition” outlook, working together to create an outcome where competition can thrive. In science, the lines between disciplines and sectors are blurring more with the One Health approach. This allows for technology to converge to create value added opportunities.
Across all sectors and value chains, the CAPI Forum was a call to action for collaboration and systems thinking to drive the competitiveness and sustainability of Canada’s agri0food system.
By Ellen Goddard
Perhaps you have heard of gene editing (genome editing) in the news? Particularly the best-known approach, which is CRISPR-Cas9?
In 2020, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery and development of the technology. Wikipedia defines gene editing as a type of genetic engineering in which DNA is inserted, deleted, modified or replaced in the genome of a living organism. Many of the practical applications have aimed to delete genes that lead to disease in plants, animals or humans. One example is the ability to gene-edit pigs to be completely resistant to porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), the most economically-important disease of pigs in North America, Europe and Asia, costing producers in North America more than $600 million annually. (Correspondence: Gene-edited pigs are protected from porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus, 2016, Nature Biotechnology, Vol 34, No 1, pp 20-22).
CRISPR technology differs from earlier biotechnology applications, like genetic modification. Scientists speak to the fact that it is much more specific, and traits can be completely heritable by progeny from the edited animal. On the other hand, there are public concerns about how the decision to use the technology may be made – related to whether the technology is perceived to be interfering with nature. Scientists from a number of countries have called for a moratorium on gene-editing babies (Communication: Adopt a moratorium on heritable genome editing, Nature, 567, 165-168 (2019)).
At the heart of the issue at the moment is the role of the public in developing gene editing policies (Morgan Meyer (2020) The Fabric of the Public in Debates About Gene Editing, Environmental Communication, 14:7, 872-876, DOI: 10.1080/17524032.2020.1811477). People often assume that science alone should drive policy but this may discount public concerns and form resistance to the use of the technology. There is a growing recognition that public concerns about the use of certain technologies are valid in determining policy, and that not all public concerns can be dealt with purely by educating the public about the potential benefits of the technology. Like many other earlier technologies, CRISPR does come with the risk of some unintended consequences (Gene-edited hornless cattle: Flaws in the genome overlooked). But every development, including the development of the COVID-19 vaccines, comes with risks of unintended consequences. The main difference may be in how those unintended consequences are presented (or not presented) to the public. It is hard to put unintended consequences in context to make appropriate individual risk assessments if the use of the technology is not obvious (in some countries, gene-edited plant products are not required to be labelled although GMO plants are) and the potential unintended consequences are not made public and transparent.
To investigate Canadian public acceptance of the use of different technologies, national online surveys were conducted in 2019 and 2021. Previous research shows that the public strongly approves of the development of pigs (and other livestock) that can be bred to be more disease-resilient. This recent research showed exactly the same thing. What differed this time was follow-up questions asking respondents to identify the preferred technology to breed disease-resilient pigs. The options were conventional breeding (with its longer development time), using genomic information in selectively breeding pigs (which could be significantly faster than conventional breeding) and gene editing (the fastest method to change the disease susceptibility of farm and national pig populations). Although all methods were seen as positive, there were definite distinctions across technologies (Goddard, unpublished results). For example, consumers’ willingness to pay for pork from gene-edited pigs was 7% less than from conventionally-bred pigs. The use of genomics in selective breeding was only discounted by consumers by 3% over conventional breeding. These results may be because consumers are less familiar with the different technologies but equally may be driven by ethical considerations. One interesting result is that the more knowledgeable and satisfied respondents were with the way pigs are taken care of in Canadian agriculture, the more they supported increasing disease resilience by any means.
Given the changes associated with new and diverse technologies in agriculture to solve problems associated with disease, drought and other aspects of climate change, it may be beneficial to consider open and transparent disclosure of the technologies used and their associated potential consequences. On this basis the public can increase familiarity and potentially reduce deeply held risk perceptions about the use of new technologies in food.
At the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef’s semi-annual meeting, panelists Amie Peck (Canadian Cattlemen’s Association), Michael Young (Canada Beef), John Jamieson (Canadian Centre for Food Integrity), and Clay Holmes (InterCity Packers Meat and Seafood) provided some answers on what goes on in consumers’ heads when they think about beef.
As the food shortages in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic showed, Canadians turned to their kitchen in droves for feel-good meals. Website clicks on recipes and food prep skyrocketed. While people certainly indulged their sweet tooth, they also cleaned the shelves of beef products. The beef trend, at least, looks like it’s here to stay. How can we capitalize on that?
Overall, Canadians trust the food system, and have a high positive impression of the beef industry. Beef is considered a high-quality product, and most Canadians are still eating at least “some”. Gen Z and millennials are more interested in how food is produced than previous generations, and willing to make purchasing changes based on how they perceive food items are produced. Millennials have a less positive view of the beef industry than previous generations, and feel more social pressure to avoid beef and/or choose what they believe are sustainable protein options. They tend to be skeptical but can be convinced by good information. This creates an opportunity to connect, dispel ideas around negative media content, and provide information to help them make nutritious choices.
Sustainability is a newer and growing point of discussion for the beef industry—but still not as important as cost, quality and safety. We are still in the early-adopter phase, with those consumers who want sustainable options willing to pay for it. After all, the cost of buying into sustainable certifications shouldn’t fall solely on the producers’ shoulders. Importantly, however, many consumers still don’t know that sustainable beef even is an option. And producers aren’t aware of the incentives to embark on this course. We need to communicate the beef message better to each group, and define what sustainability means instead of allowing the plant-based protein sector to drive the story. (As an aside, the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef won an award for its website on this very topic.) Consumers aren’t looking for perfection, but they do want to see effort and ongoing improvement. This is an opportunity to build more positive perceptions around feedlots, explain what they are and what their role is in the beef value chain.
Producers have the biggest role to play. These are the people consumers want to hear from. These are the people who can say they care about their animals and the environment, and that they are working to limit environmental impacts. We need to put a face on who ranchers are and what their values are.
These messages aren’t being heard well enough. Working on public trust needs to become part of the daily routine of producers to maintain that precious social licence. Some have hit social media incredibly successfully. Unfortunately, these are the pioneers not the norm.
“A hog barn is a hog barn, wherever it is located. The animals are kept indoors in very stable conditions. That makes it easier to produce offspring for very precise consumer markets,” says Dave Sibbald, Interim Chair of the Canadian Beef Improvement Network (CBIN). “We’re looking to develop that same predictability and scale it throughout the beef industry so we can better match consumer expectations and make the industry stronger at the same time.”
Unless they work in or around the beef industry, it may not be crystal clear to Canadian consumers that the beef sector doesn’t function like the pork or chicken industries. 80% of Canadian beef is raised on the range, using grasslands from coast to coast that aren’t suitable to produce any other food. This has led to a wide genetic diversity needed to derive the best animal for each environment and management approach, and to specialize in certain products (for example, grass-fed, commodity beef, hamburger).
“The point is,” continues Sibbald, “that different genetics maximize value from different landscapes. It’s not that we lag pork and chicken in applying genetics but that we need to apply genetics more specifically. I believe genetics are the most untapped component of the value chain. If consumers want superior T-bones, we can deliver that—but we have to apply those genetics at the beginning of the value chain.”
Selling the idea to traditional, independent-minded producers (many of whom are multi-generation ranchers, still on their original homesteads) that they should modernize their approach and talk to other parts of the value chain to help them understand what motivates consumers isn’t easy. Genetics is a complex science, not easy to communicate well, and not cheap to implement. Uptake has been slow. CBIN is expected to make the difference, as we describe here.
The result will be a better-tasting, higher-quality product in which the consumer plays a big role. Because, as Sibbald says so eloquently: why produce it if it doesn’t have a market? Indeed, demand evolves constantly. It’s up to producers to meet it. For example, during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, secondary cuts were ground into hamburger. Now, they are sought-after.
“Beef is an exciting, diverse product,” says Sibbald. “So, let’s do more of the good—that is, produce more of what we know today’s consumers want, and deliver a tasty, nutritional eating experience.”
The beef industry has fed Canada for generations. We produce 1.5 million tonnes of beef every year. In 2019, we exported 410,000 tonnes of it, or 41% of production valued at $3.1 billion. Those high numbers, which represent jobs and wealth for our country, are only possible because we have a reputation for high-quality beef.
“CBIN is not about maintaining market share,” explains Sibbald. “It’s about growing it. The global market is highly competitive, so we need new initiatives to confirm our leadership and support the great beef message we already have. No other country has anything like CBIN—even though their beef industries are just as fragmented as ours. We have an opportunity to establish our uniqueness in the domestic and global markets.”
In March 2021, AgSights (here) set out its approach to traceability in a newsletter article with Gentec. Its software tools allow producers to collect and integrate animal data all the way through to the retail pack. Indeed, consumers can even provide feedback on their experience with the product. This last part is really important as it allows consumers to connect the meal experience back to the genetics. Gentec CEO Graham Plastow commented on how DNA is the component that connects all these results to genetic improvement. He recalls how he set out this potential as the shape of things to come at one of his first presentations to the beef industry (at a Beef Value Chain Roundtable in Ottawa) after moving to the University of Alberta in 2007. He used examples from the pork sector, where access to data from across the value chain provided opportunities to improve cost of production (efficient lean growth), the shelf-life of pork in the retail case, as well as the eating experience. All of these using genomics.
“One of my favourite stories is about protecting hard-earned brand values… in this case from KuroButa pork in Japan,” he says. “The pig equivalent of Wagyu beef if you like.” The story can still be found on the web, with the headline: Japan pig fraud prompts DNA test.
Genomics has moved forward tremendously since then, with the sequencing of livestock genomes and the application of genomic selection in most species. Gentec has been at the centre of these efforts in Canada, including the Canadian Cattle Genome Project (led by Steve Moore, Steve Miller and Paul Stothard), which generated sequence for more than 350 Canadian bulls. As mentioned in the AgSights article, AgSights was one of the partners in those efforts. However, we are still waiting to see the connectivity Plastow envisioned when he realized at that meeting in 2007 that every animal would be tagged through the Canadian Cattle identification Agency. More recently, Gentec commissioned reports on the potential for the beef sector but progress in beef has been relatively slow compared to dairy and swine.
“I’ve been saying pretty-much the same thing since 2007—until recently,” Plastow recalls. “Perhaps real change is on the way with efforts by AgSights, the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, TrustBIXS, and the new CBIN initiative taking up the challenge of applying new digital technologies with genomics.”
These efforts are now being taken forward by the beef industry as reported in the article by Sandy Russell of the Canadian Beef Improvement Network. With the 2020 appointment of John Basarab as Head of Beef Operations at Gentec, we look forward to working closely with CBIN to join the dots and help commercial beef producers see the value of genomics for their operations to improve the competitiveness and sustainability of the industry.
The idea behind CBIN—the Canadian Beef Improvement Network—has been percolating for decades. In November 2020, it progressed from an initiative to a concrete entity, under the leadership of David Sibbald (Interim Chair) and Sandy Russell, Director of Business Development.
Today, CBIN has a well-defined purpose—to improve the genetics of Canada’s national beef herd by collaborating across the beef production system to unlock the value of genetic data—and a growing number of partners across the entire beef value chain to get the job done.
For Russell, who grew up on a cow-calf operation in Saskatchewan and has 20 years of experience in agriculture, CBIN is a no-brainer.
“As an agricultural economist, I realized that the lack of coordinated information and our inability to capitalize on what we had was leaving dollars on the table. We have a strong industry but we’re continually under pressure to generate value. Genetics addresses that pressure from the monetary side and the environmental side.”
But it’s been a long haul due partly to the hesitancy around whether genetics really does create value. Producers are busy people, and sceptical about innovation without seeing the proof. And they don’t want to spend their days poring over paperwork, either. Standard opinion says that, if there truly were value to be had, a CBIN lookalike would have been done years ago. Russell’s answer: it wasn’t done because it’s a huge, difficult undertaking, and requires collaboration across the industry. No single organization can deliver CBIN.
In the last year, with backing from the Canadian Beef Breeds Council, Russell and Sibbald started knocking on doors—and found significant industry engagement. Seeing the value in the innovation that lies ahead, the Charolais, Hereford, Angus and Simmental breed associations committed to collaborate and share resources to making CBIN happen.
“The assumption was that they were in competition… not willing to collaborate,” explains Russell. “We should all be proud that everybody came together for the best interest of the Canadian beef industry to achieve a lofty goal. To see that daily, especially at the seedstock level, is wonderful.”
As sometimes happens, once momentum starts to build, it develops its own multiplying energy. Russell was hired full-time in November. Since then, she and Sibbald have been going flat out to keep up, and move into the operational stage. That means bringing the leadership together, agreeing on a governance structure, unifying existing genetics data and figuring out how to collect it in uniform ways in future, and, most of all, improving genetic literacy to help inform decisions at the producer level.
Staying focused on the vision and what CBIN can achieve is helping to overcome the natural hesitancy, as is the determination of the breed associations and the leadership to deliver value from genetics to the industry—and the extension work that Gentec has been doing these last 10 years.
“The science that Gentec does and the resources it brings will be critical to advance CBIN’s initiatives,” says Russell. “When CBIN thrives, so does Gentec—and vice versa. Gentec does the innovative thinking. CBIN is the link for those innovative research and technologies to reach the cow-calf level and across the entire beef production chain.”
In April, CBIN is announcing the Executive Committee members who will lead the charge on the governance structure. Then, announcements about key partnerships.
We’re a long way from the finish line, there is still a lot of work to do” says Russell. “Keep your eye on CBIN’s accomplishments because big things are coming soon that will get the industry’s attention!”
Consumption of livestock products, particularly from cattle, is becoming more and more controversial. Issues such as the contribution of cattle to GHG emissions and/or climate change, the use of antibiotics in livestock production, and competition from plant and cellular-based substitutes are all influencing consumption. From two national Canadian surveys, we examined whether things are changing and how fast.
Between 2016 and 2020 (August/September, so well into the pandemic), there was a significant increase in the perceptions of Canadians about the contribution of farming for meat and dairy production to climate change. Not that they thought it was the biggest contributor—but that more people thought it was a significant contributor. Given that, people were more committed to giving up meat (increase from 41% of respondents in 2016 to 45% in 2020) than dairy (stayed flat at 34% of the population) to reduce their own contribution to climate change. However, when asked specifically whether they had reduced their dairy consumption over the last two years, only 25% replied yes in 2016 versus 32% in 2020 – a big jump. When those who had reduced their dairy consumption explained why they had done so, health was the most important reason in both years, although fewer people selected health as the reason in 2020. Concerns about the use of antibiotics in livestock production decreased between 2016 (third most important reason) and 2020 (seventh most important reason) as did concerns about the use of hormones. There was a significant change between 2016 and 2020 about concerns about the environmental footprint of dairy production, which rose from the fifth most important reason for reducing dairy consumption to the second most important reason. There was no change in the contribution of substitutes (plant or cellular) to reducing dairy consumption: it remained the fifth most important reason.
From the results, from a pre-pandemic period to a pandemic period four years later, concerns about the link between food consumption and environmental footprint are stronger. Although there is no denying the public health concerns about antibiotic-resistant bacteria; those do not seem to be affecting dairy consumption as significantly as they did four years ago. It is difficult to ascertain why without further study, but it is important to note that people (in pandemic period) are dealing with so many major challenges to their lives that they may have a reduced focus on some issues that were previously important. Understanding and being able to reduce the environmental footprint from beef and dairy, sectors that are cattle-driven, is important and growing in importance with or because of the pandemic. That too requires further study.
AgSights was one of the earliest companies in Ontario to collect phenotypic data on beef cattle, starting in 1993, thanks to a provincially-funded program to support the beef industry. When that funding stopped, the enormous database was a valuable starting point to develop solutions focused on traceability.
AgSights’ original farm management software has been upgraded and renamed Go360|bioTrack. Originally, it focused heavily on genetics; today the emphasis of Go360|bioTrack is on helping producers evolve their business and management style to take advantage of ALL the data they collect. It features a chute-side application to capture data in real time that fits into existing tagging methods and an interface in a grid format that allows for instant, easy comparisons and effective decision-making.
AgSights’ bioLinks solution, on the other hand, is designed for small-to-medium-sized processing plants. “We bought a food inventory tracking and sales program that Alberta Agriculture (as it was known then) developed,” says Betty-Jo Almond, AgSights’ General Manager. “We added a production piece that connected the source farm and RFID of animals to follow each animal and meat cut using a bar code to the individual consumer. So today, we can connect the data across the whole value chain. We also offer weekly genetic evaluations through Go360|bioTrack. As we continue to evolve, it would be great to incorporate data from both softwares into the evaluation process.”
Also using RFID tags/technology, bioLinks follows animals from the farm to the processing plant—and then each cut from inventory to individual purchases. And that part is the clincher. By directly reaching the ear of the consumer and supporting feedback through a QR code, producers and processors can learn about the consumer experience when eating the product.
“Consumers like to give feedback,” explains Betty-Jo. “It’s empowering. Just look at the way product is promoted and labelled in your grocery store. They want to know more about the food they’re eating. We just haven’t enabled this to benefit consumers or the livestock industry.”
bioLinks provides the opportunity to build the story of the product and brand it. In a chain grocery store, for example, since each meat cut gets its own unique ID, it is possible to bring up a quick webpage of key marketing information on the consumer’s mobile device. This might include: what farm the animal was raised on (and therefore, whether it is locally-sourced); whether the animal was sustainably produced without hormones; whether it was corn-fed or grass-fed. Should there ever be a recall on the product, the traceability is bullet-proof—both backwards to the carcass and the farm and forwards to the consumer’s fridge—and that minimizes any potential impact. Producers and processors can evolve their businesses to satisfy consumer demands, and consumers get the source information they’ve been asking for. Win-win!
“Cory Van Groningen from VG Meats is one of our Board members. He uses bioLinks. And another, Mike Buis, is a supplier” says Betty-Jo. “So we have first-hand feedback on the endless potential when you start connecting the data from farm to fork. VG Meats is a great example. They want to buy more animals within a range of 5-13 mm backfat, and they test for tenderness because that’s how their consumers select meat for their dinner table. Not enough cross-linkages like that are happening across the industry.”
But, before data can be applied… we need the research! That’s where Gentec comes in. Gentec CEO Graham Plastow has been a member of the AgSights board since 2013, and AgSights was a partner on Gentec’s Canadian Cattle Genome Project (led by Steve Moore, Steve Miller and Paul Stothard) funded by a Genome Canada project and its Genome Alberta-funded successor project on feed efficiency (led by John Basarab, now at Gentec).
“Different technologies can play a role, depending on the question being asked,” says Plastow. “However, DNA is the ‘passport’ providing the basis to add information, such as that provided by AgSights. Collecting data throughout the chain allows us to identify tools to help improve product attributes. The QR code allows the consumer to ask those questions, indicate what is important to each of them—and get the answers”
It was while studying Animal Science as an undergraduate that the concept of ‘how characteristics are inherited across generations’ struck Dan Hailemariam’s curiosity. He pursued that curiosity in a Master’s program in Applied Genetics at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. However, it was at the University of Bonn, Germany, where he completed his PhD on cattle molecular genetics that his ideas about his career and research coalesced.
“I see myself as always researching to understand more about animal science,” he says. “My goal is to help solve the challenges of modern dairy cattle production, specifically, improving feed efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
A post-doc position at UAlberta, screening biomarkers for dairy cow diseases under Dr. Burim Ametaj, brought Dan to Edmonton. When that project ended, he sought out Gentec as a centre with a good reputation in carrying out genetics research. In fact, he credits Gentec with helping him understand and define himself. He tells it this way:
“At one of my first group meetings, Graham [Plastow, Gentec CEO] talked about Gentec’s core values: trust, excellence, learning and leadership. He said, ‘if you’re not learning, come and see me.’ I thought, this is where I want to be. These are the values I share. I’m ambitious and I believe in hard work. Here, I can be the best of myself. His words changed my life, the way I think, and the way I do. I make sure I learn every day.”
Currently, Dan is a Research Associate working on a project out of UoGuelph with Gentec-associated researcher Christine Baes to develop genomic tools to enable implementation of selection to increase dairy cow resilience. The project is a 4-year international collaboration. As part of UAlberta’s dairy group, Dan is involved in expanding the reference population for feed efficiency and methane emissions, and developing methods to utilize milk spectra data.
Dan’s own research focuses on identifying biomarkers of feed efficiency, and understanding the metabolic adaptations of feed-efficient lactating dairy cows. He uses a systems biology approach that integrates multi-omics data (genomics, metabolomics and proteomics) to understand the physiology of feed efficiency. This approach also helps identify reliable, cost effective and easily-detectable biomarkers of feed efficiency, which could lead to tools that facilitate the selection for feed-efficient cows, and help dairy farmers save on feed costs and reduce the carbon footprint of dairy production.
One interesting result that has been published is “Comparative analyses of enteric methane emissions, dry matter intake and milk somatic cell count in different feed efficiency categories of dairy cows” in the Canadian Journal of Animal Science. In that research, the team showed that the most efficient cows consume 12.9% less feed and emit 15.5% less methane compared to the least efficient cows for the same level of milk production. The most efficient cows also had lower milk somatic cell count, indicating desirable correlation between subclinical mastitis and feed efficiency in dairy cows.
“At Gentec, every day is exciting,” concludes Dan. “I like my work because the more I engage, read, write, design and conduct experiments, analyze and interpret data, the better I am becoming, and the more I find myself. I feel good about it. I’m optimistic that I will be part of an accomplishment that develops tools to improve feed efficiency and reduce GHG emissions from dairy cattle.”