Gentec, Genomics and One Health

As the first veterinarian to become incoming president of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences, Dr. Jay Cross has an uncommon opportunity to bridge the health sciences to create One Health benefits. As a former Chair of Gentec’s Board, he knows that Gentec is already on this path.

“Many of Gentec’s goals align with improving animal health, which will reduce the need for antimicrobials and help with antimicrobial resistance,” he says. “Gentec also focuses on improving production efficiency—especially feed efficiency in beef cattle. When cows develop more meat from less feed, they produce less methane and have less impact on climate change. That benefits everybody.”

Jay chaired Gentec’s Board from 2013 to 2017. During that time and building on previous efforts, Gentec developed into a significant international player, resulting from its involvement in the early days of genomic sequencing of food-producing animals. The data gathered then allowed Gentec to move into identifying genetic markers associated with desirable production traits, such as disease resistance and feed efficiency.

“Gentec was an integral player in terms of advancing the science,” remembers Jay. “But it also worked with partners to translate that new knowledge towards producers. That’s an absolutely critical piece because it’s not a typical mandate for a university-based research organization where success is measured in papers published, grants won and students trained. In my time on Gentec’s Board and as Chair, translation was a major focus. Gentec had industry players at the table and embedded in all the major research projects.”

Unfortunately, Gentec then suffered a period characterized by short-term and reduced funding that limited its ability to attract, retain and develop people playing the vital industry liaison role. The strong liaison team, among them Tom Lynch-Staunton, could not be maintained. However, the new Strategic Plan, co-developed by Gentec and the beef industry, sends a powerful message that Gentec is positioning itself back into the game in terms of translation. Already, momentum is picking up with new Gentecker, Kira Macmillan, the extension specialist. The second strong signal to industry and funders is that Gentec will be providing services that create a revenue stream. Succinctly put, valuable services cost money.

Jay is a cattle breeder by background and current board chair of a new beef genetics and value chain company called Sendero and so he understands why the adoption of genomics has been slow. It’s complicated technology and, at first blush, looks pricey.

“Genomics butts up against two things,” he says. “The Number One question producers ask is: ‘how can I bring the cost down’? They can’t see themselves testing every animal in the herd. The Number Two question is:’ I get genetic evaluations done. Why do I need genomics as well?’.”

The arguments in favour of genomics are convincing. If producers were to do the math, they’d see genomics really is affordable. And they need it because it improves the accuracy of the evaluation significantly—of selecting the right animals for their production systems, which will save them money. That allows us to circle back to feed-efficient animals (for example) having One Health benefits beyond the individual pocketbook.

More importantly, in this fragmented industry, beef producers must remember that they are not competing against each other—but against other protein sources. Swine, poultry and even dairy have seen measurable increases in production efficiency and profitability because they have been quicker to adopt technologies such as genomics.

“Of course, beef producers can continue to ignore genomics or other technologies but they will be left behind,” says Jay. “The consequences aren’t strong yet but, in my lifetime, there will be a clear separation of producers who prefer the status quo and those who choose production efficiencies, sustainability and One Health. We have the tools. The Canadian Beef Improvement Network (CBIN) will not be able to achieve its goals without Gentec’s scientific expertise and translation capabilities to accelerate the adoption of technologies.”

Jay gives Gentec significant credit in getting the industry to see the value of genetic selection to improve cattle. So much so that the Canadian beef industry strategic plan identifies production goals that can only be achieved through ongoing research. The 2021 official launch of CBIN is another example of industry recognizing the merits of genetic selection, good management practices and data collection/analytics. All of these will help producers prepare for the growing consumer engagement with sustainability, animal welfare and antimicrobial resistance as these pertain to food and One Health.

“Taking pretty pictures of cows on green grass isn’t going to move the needle,” declares Jay. “We need changes in production practices. Gentec is poised to play that liaison role, and it needs the budget to do it. Ironically, people in government and industry often pointed to that as a strength but when the budget got tighter, it was the first thing to disappear. And it continues to be Gentec’s biggest risk and biggest strength.”

Posted in Academic.