Ted Bilyea tells it like it is: Waste not, want not!

“At the global level, unless there’s a major technology change in how we produce food where we don’t need land, we’re going to have a food security problem fairly soon,” predicts Ted Bilyea, Former Executive VP of Maple Leaf Foods Inc. “It’s beginning to unfold in front of us.”

Ted breaks the issue down into the three A’s.

Thirty years ago, about 12% of the world food was supplied by trade. That figure is now close to 25%. That’s pretty fragile. In Canada, we don’t have “availability” problems because 70% of what we consume is grown here, and we still export 50% of production. Our availability issue is that we’re the largest importer of U.S. processed-food in the world.

“Many of the US companies that had processing plants in Canada closed them up after NAFTA,” says Ted. “They no longer needed Canadian processing to sell here, and they already had marketing and distribution set up.

Push come to shove, we might not get everything here that we want to eat but we won’t starve to death either.

“That’s when s**t happens,” says Ted. “Covid… closed border with the US… supply chain issues. Especially in the North. Solutions will involve better energy use so they can grow food themselves.”

And we need to do something about food waste. There are two sides to this: what happens before and after food items hit the store. On the before side, issues of rotting, storage, transport, etc. in the developing world can be taken care of with technology transfer, capital investment and political will. Far more troubling everywhere is the threat of disease. For example, China lost half of its hogs due to disease (mostly African swine fever) since 2018. That’s a quarter of all the hogs in the world. Just one single case of BSE (mad cow disease) in Alberta in December 2021 led China, Korea and the Philippines to ban imports of Canadian beef. An outbreak of avian flu in the US in 2015 led to the culling of 75 million poultry, and cost US$879 million to eradicate from production. These are not one-offs.

“On the consumer side, we should stop thinking of the contents of the green box as waste,” says Ted. “It’s an input to somebody else’s business in terms of upcycling. Even meat—because fats become biodiesel. So let’s be careful what we define as waste. It’s all energy in another form. If we’re doing things right, there’s no such thing as waste.”

But there’s a far more insidious issue on the horizon. Globally, we’re coming to the end of the era of abundance, convenience and perfection, food-wise. We’ve taken food for granted for too long. The shift is underway to an era where that may still be true occasionally, locally, depending on the product and location but we’re beginning to look at a future where scarcity is the more likely outcome.

“Productivity is the best indicator of where we’re going,” says Ted. “Supply vs demand is dropping. We don’t have the global security stocks we used to have. Why? Climate change, declining R&D investment in agriculture (Alberta’s RDAR is an exception that proves the rule) and the use of non-renewable groundwater.”

*click picture to enlarge

Eleven percent of the total agriculture trade globally depends on groundwater. In the US, 64% of groundwater is used for irrigation. Fifty percent of that comes from the Ogallala aquifer. The replenishment rate of these aquifers is way down or even zero. Think California. The Ogallala aquifer will take 6,000 years to replenish. When those global aquifers run dry—and they willl!—that 11% of trade will also dry up.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Some companies will move into Canada because they value our competitive advantages. Water is one of them. Another is the prairie grasslands.

“One of the first things I learned at Canada Packers is that you can’t move the feed to the animals,” says Ted. “Most of the world is still trying to defend against that because they want to grow their own animals so they import massive amounts of corn and barley. With the emissions footprint, it makes no sense. It never did. You need tariff barriers and subsidies when you’re not competitive. Canada’s western competitive advantage is built in. We have the grass and the feed. And companies like McDonalds and Loblaws pay a premium for the sustainable beef we grow with it.”

This is, of course, where Gentec steps in and shines. Gentec’s tools for researchers (EnVigour HX™, and the new Feeder and Replacement Heifer Profit Indexes) and projects that demonstrate the value of grazing cattle on grasslands will help producers and Western Canada maintain that competitive advantage.

People on low or fixed income have survived this period of abundance because food was cheap. Those days are gone. Major countries are running into issues of availability. Increases in yields are slowing dramatically. We’ve brought massive amounts of land into production. That game is over. Now we’re losing land out of production due to climate change.

“If you had to pick a place to live and farm, Western Canada is a great place,” says Ted. “I see a huge demand for meat. I just wish we had more grass on which to raise more cattle with the least GHGs of anybody in the world!”

The appealing lifestyle is all over social media. The poop isn’t!

Who’s the liar now?

We don’t often get an opportunity to compare apples to apples in terms of social media content vs reality, especially when it comes to agriculture. Producers reading the Wall Street Journal’s “Instagram Stars Make Farm Life Look Delightful – Minus the Manure” might shake their heads in disbelief. Consumers who haven’t had a chance to ever visit a farm might be left with completely the wrong idea. Contrast that with the “How Do We Make Connections” session presented at the Canadian Industry Beef Conference (CBIC 2021). Let’s just say that the two could not have been farther apart in content or theme… starting with the featured personalities.

The Wall Street Journal article starts with the “reigning Mrs. Utah and Julliard-trained ballerina” who emphasizes posts portraying a “farmcore” aesthetic (apparently, it’s a thing) of dancing in the barn in cowboy boots, carefully-organized baskets of eggs with “bonus points” if some blue ones find their way into the mix. Children, readers are warned, can “make a beautiful space not so beautiful”. Tank tops are not Prairie-child wear; and Paw Patrol sweatshirts wreck an otherwise picture-perfect scene.

The second featured farm-influencer, Parisienne Farmgirl, named for her love of Paris and all things French. Like the other influencers presented, Ms. Paris agrees that farmcore comes with an ick factor that is best left out of the photos: the pancetta is gorgeous when coated generously with herbs… What’s behind that photo? “It’s me raising that pig and the smell that goes with it” Then there’s the “amount of manure my cow makes… it’s alarming.” Neither makes it to Instagram.

On the other hand, the CBIC presentation featuring highlights of connecting two social media influencers with two real Canadian beef producers on their farms. Apryl Munro of @thiskindalife was a guest of Gordon Dibble of Dibbhurst Farms near Ingersoll, Ontario. Dibble owns a 4th generation family farm consisting of a 1,200-head feedlot operation and 650 acres of cropland used to feed the operation.

A little closer to home for Gentec, Cherie Copithorne-Barnes, CEO of CL Ranches (and new addition to the Gentec Management Advisory Board) welcomed Dina Ottoni Battistessa of @move.play.mom. Like Dibbhurst Farms, CL Ranches is a 4th generation family ranch, operating as a cow/calf, backgrounding and custom-farming operation. Dina arrived with her father and two children.

Combined, the video clips of the farm tours and the conference session provided an interesting and, at times, surprising take on how perceptions differed from reality. The guests mentioned numerous times how information in online documentaries and from friends differed so significantly from what they were seeing and hearing on the ranch. They were particularly surprised at attention and effort put into ensuring the health and welfare of the animals; the quality of the food provided to them; and the commitment of the producers to sustainable production. The latter was evidenced on both operations through their focus on clean water, soil health and nutrients, and—on Gordon’s operation—barns outfitted with geothermal heating capability, LED lighting for minimal energy usage, and natural ventilation.

And the poop—so conveniently left out of the Wall Street Journal article—comes back into the picture. Even the children were able to piece the cycle together where the grass is cycled through the cow: some goes into making beef, some comes out the other end and is used by the soil, as nature intended, to create more healthy grass to perpetuate the cycle. The producers also explained how bulk manure is collected and spread across the land to ensure a natural, sustainable farming environment.

Apryl was surprised at Gordon being younger than her; Dina, that one of the ranchers was female; and both by the fact that the food was produced in a family (not factory) setting in modern, clean, and productive systems, not Old MacDonald’s rickety, spider’s-webby Farm, and that the producers had an emotional attachment to their animals and provided them with the best care possible thus ensuring the health of their cows and the resulting food. Clearly, there is work yet to be done in informing the public.

All that said, the Wall Street Journal and the CBIC profiles did agree that, whether they experience a “farmcore” or actual “farm-life” lifestyle, these “kids see things that most kids will never see or understand”. In a lighter moment, for example, one of Dina’s children asked Cherie if the bulls were there to protect the cows. Cherie responded that they were not, and that the cows were meaner than the bulls anyway.  The camera then panned to the fireplace crackling in the corner of the room as the scene faded to black… Hopefully, Mom explained the true function of the bulls on the drive back to Calgary.

Cherie summed up the divergence between the presentations best. In terms of getting accurate information out to a wider audience, you want to highlight the best aspects of ranch life and beef production but you must also be willing to talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly … and to defend the “necessary ugly”. You have to be prepared to be honest. Additionally, many producers and producer organizations just talk about opening their farms to visitors. Cherie feels she gets the most out of her time by volunteering for organizations (such as the Calgary Stampede) where she has access to a million people to whom she could never show her farm, thus allowing her the chance to talk about beef and the science behind it.

Where is the beef….future?

by William Torres, former Research Manager at Cattleland Feedyards


Bloomberg reported on December 17, 2021, that Tyson, the largest US meat company has invested in a startup (Future Meat Technologies) to make cell-grown chicken and beef. This news makes me wonder where the future of our industry is headed.

From a business perspective, Tyson is looking at its long-term strategies and diversifying its portfolio. However, what message is the company sending to producers in North America?

Well, just like the automotive industry considered the implications of fuel alternatives for vehicles, packers need to consider how they’re going to meet the global demands for protein. If traditional protein can’t be sourced in some parts of the world, maybe a “hybrid” model can fill that gap.

I’ve only consumed beef alternatives probably three times in my life, only to be as disappointed (as I expected). Growing up in a household of carnivores, our definition of beef alternative was pork or chicken. What worries me is that if “we”, the traditional industry, don’t stay engaged, companies like Tyson, Memphis Meats, Future Meat, Beyond Meat, Field Roast, etc., will run their course without knowing what it takes to make cell-based alternatives a palatable choice. We don’t know if scientists have any knowledge of or background in cattle genetics, and how cross-breeding can turn a good steak into a great steak. I mean, do they understand marbling and tenderness? And how some producers work for generations selecting the right genetics to achieve that desirable carcass that packers and consumers are looking for?

Our great industry will never disappear because, let’s face it, no-one raves about how awesome a lab-grown meat-LIKE patty is; and meat consumption worldwide continues to increase along with the global population. Unless these companies can also grow bone in the lab, consumers will never have the same bone-in-rib eye experience.

So what’s the answer? Maybe we should help these companies understand that the right selection of genetics is the foundation of their future. After all, if it’s “cell-grown”, they must source those cells from real animals—animals that will continue to be selected, bred, raised, and slaughtered. In a video promoting lab meat, the host asks, “Are animals really necessary to consume protein?” Well, Yes. These proteins need starter cells that must be sourced somehow.

I mentioned staying engaged. Here are some of the opportunities I see:

• Think about whether your operation wants to be the source of these cells;
• Guide the next generation to study genetics from an alternative market view;
• Start a cell bank;
• Lobby for our right to have a say;
• Become an ambassador and help educate the public;
• Become a certified sustainable operation;
• Tell our story;
• Etc., etc.

The public consumes many alternatives to other animal products, such as soy milk, almond milk, sunflower seed butter, almond butter, soy butter, and dairy-free cheese but the original items are still around.

Cattle are an essential part of our ecosystem. How we participate in the future of our industry is in our hands. We can either fuss about it and ignore it or we can guide, advise and be at the table. As GI Joe said, “Knowing is half the battle”.

Fixing the labour crunch in agriculture

As agriculture evolves into a high-tech business, automation and machinery do a lot of the heavy lifting, giving producers and employees the ability to “operate” data and robotics to improve profitability. That means changing the perception of farm work for incoming employees, and competing with other sectors who also want them for their technical skills.

On December 9, 2021, the Agri-food Innovation Council hosted a panel-based webinar on the need to attract talent and skilled labour in the agri-food sector. Gentec attended this webinar so you don’t have to. We summarize below the panelists’ comments on the key points. The panelists were:

  • Martin Scanlon, Professor and Dean, Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences, University of Manitoba
  • Ryan Riese, National Director, Agriculture, Royal Bank of Canada
  • Jennifer Wright, Acting Executive Director, Operations, Programs and Partnerships, Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council (CAHRC)


What key changes in innovation has the workforce brought to agriculture?

RIESE. Human ingenuity is responsible for innovation so it’s the workforce that drives innovation in the sector. When I ask clients, “What keeps you up at night?”, I get a lot about accessing labour. Not even advanced skills but appropriate skills. Sometimes, it’s just showing up reliably. So we need to drive curiosity, bring in the people who want to consider ag as a career, and the skills the industry requires. But those people need to be committed, have a good work ethic, be flexible. Ag is not a 9-to-5 job. Also they have to be ready to learn, listen and be taught.

SCANLON. Post-secondary education expects graduates to communicate clearly, think well and engage with each other professionally. They’ve been trained in crucial teamwork. Those industry needs won’t go away. But technology shapes how we deliver programs because it’s pervasive. If we look at Olds College, it has a 2-year program, Techgronomy. At UManitoba, we are taking a new approach so we don’t compete. All grads, regardless of discipline, should appreciate technology, what it can and can’t do. So all programs and courses have technology embedded in them. We partner with tech companies so that grads understand how to implement tech at the farm or other level.

WRIGHT. CAHRC does a lot of labour market research focusing on the workforce of today and in the future. Producers are experiencing labour shortages now. Our forecast says the shortage will double in next 10 years. Looking at ways to increase efficiencies and be more productive will help. That said, we also see that tech is adopted quickly but not changing the number of people required. Instead, it’s impacting the skills required. So where computer skills might have been necessary for entry-level jobs, now it’s for all jobs. We’re also hearing from producers that soft skills, teamwork, etc. are becoming more important because they are hiring people who didn’t grow up on farms. They need to teach the technology but without core background skills they won’t be successful at teaching the hands-on skills. So there’s a balance between soft skills and how they affect all elements of the workforce.


How well do you think public perception of working in ag aligns with reality? There’s the idyllic image of a barn with a red door and a calf peering through, munching hay. That’s changed but the public is not realizing the opportunities ag can offer.

SCANLON. We’re not doing a good job of reaching out to urban youth, and showing them the broad array of careers in ag. There’s an image issue that we have to work with at the school level. Students have to be interested in science and then see where they can do computer programming, agrology, etc. We started a program to steer undecided science grads towards food processing and agronomy. With the Faculty of Science ,we’re offering 4-6 courses that these grads can take to get insight on what an ag or food processing career is. It’s the kind of leg-up that gets them in the door for an interview. They can say: “I have gaps but here’s my science. With additional training, I’ll be useful employee”.

WRIGHT. I have first-hand experience of this. My 15-year old son wants to farm. We live in downtown Ottawa. When he shares his desires with teachers, the feedback is that he’s taking the easy way out, wanting to be a lazy farmer. I’ve had a chance to talk to those teachers but that’s not a one off. So we have a lot of work to do reaching out to urban schools, elementary and secondary, and then build on drawing undecided science grads into ag. We’ve just started two initiatives for students. One is developing business cases that require ag and non-ag students to work together, which helps build awareness of how an IT degree can be used, for example. In many cases, they’re not aware because of incorrect or old perceptions of the industry. And we’re running a wage subsidy program to connect non-ag students to ag.

RIESE. People get farther from the farm with each generation so the more opportunities they have to understand, the better. Perceptions are mostly incorrect. Industry needs to keep promoting and encouraging people to join the sector who did not grow up on the farm, and not make it a prerequisite.

Also, I want to point out that working in ag doesn’t necessarily mean you’re starting a farm or becoming an owner/operator. Those barriers are very high. That’s another conversation. But there are lots of support roles on farms as farms get bigger and more complex. They require subject matter expertise on different areas of the business. So there are lots of opportunities to join the sector without being an actual producer. We have to highlight that, too.

We see researchers going into various fields but not ag R&D. They want to build the next spaceship, but not the next farm robot. Is this an image we want to continue promoting?

SCANLON. Once people get engaged, whether they have the background or not, they are powerful advocates. We need to keep getting the message across. NASA and the Canadian Space Agency have this program: what equipment do we need for the mission to Mars? They brought in the best engineers, scientists and innovators, then added ag and food. There’s nothing old hat about ag. It’s the bedrock of society so we have to attract talent to keep it going.

RIESE. Research is the starting point but it takes many years to come to life. How great is it to wake up knowing you’re going to feed society? It’s a great story to be told. You don’t have to work for Amazon, Google, etc. There’s an incredible opportunity in ag for those looking to embark in the tech world.

WRIGHT. A lot of the tech being implemented on farms comes from outside Canada, so too does the technical help. Canadians can fill that gap.


Agri-food activities are conducted outside urban areas but that’s not where people live. How do we engage people to move to rural areas?

WRIGHT. I’m hearing that there’s more movement out of urban centres but it’s not translating into an increase in the labour pool because people are working remotely. They’re not connecting with the local labour force but they are increasing the need for services. So communities can ensure support for newcomers in terms of housing and services.

RIESE. We need government policy that helps bring the right people in. I hope immigration policy and ag policy are working together to kickstart the process. A lot of towns need people to work in ag.

SCANLON. It certainly is an issue. For example, Portage is an hour west of Winnipeg. It has 13,000 residents. Local companies run four buses a day from Winnipeg to ensure they have people with the right skills to ensure the continuity of their operations. Those issues aren’t going away. Then there’s the issue of bringing broadband to rural communities.


Automation could address labour shortages but how can you reduce labour without reducing productivity?

RIESE. Any time animal husbandry is involved, we still need physical beings to look after them. We have an obligation to the animals to ensure they are well looked-after, so we need people in that regard. Automatic feeders will help reduce that physical labour but we also need people to break down data and learning. So the roles will be different. That’s the message we want to carry.

SCANLON. Every sector is looking for people… health, IT, transportation. Are we not facing an endemic issue that won’t be solved with an ad campaign? Should we plan for ag with less people involved?

RIESE. That could be Plan B. Our goal is to attract people. If we can’t find people, it will hurt our sector or not allow us to capture opportunities. That’s unfortunate as a country. We need policy and promotion from all levels of government. Not many places in the world are better than Canada to meet the growing demand for food and protein.

SCANLON. The Barton Report identified ag as a key sector of the Canadian economy that could drive growth. That’s because we have unique endowed benefits of land mass, water, environment and climate. It would be criminal if we don’t get the talent to maximize these opportunities!

Read more about the shortage of labour in agriculture:



Kill the culls! Sex selection saves lives

Sex is big business.

Florid intro sentences aside, in agriculture, sex is a large—and largely under-reported—animal welfare issue that straddles economics as well. The numbers really aren’t good. In the UK, 95,000 male calves are culled every year. In Australia, 600,000. In Germany, 200,000. We couldn’t find numbers for Canada because the topic isn’t well researched but the few studies done record paltry neonatal care compared to females, long travel with irregular feeding times and, often, on-farm euthanasia. That’s just the dairy industry.

In Canada alone, 22.5 million male chicks are culled every year to produce our eggs. In France, that’s 50 million every year. Is pork any better? Not much. As piglets mature, they release chemicals that release a foul smell when the meat is cooked so any male pigs used for meat are killed before that happens.

But what if females could produce litters or offspring of only the desirable sex? And by the way, not only females. Sometimes, males are required, too, especially in the lab environment where this question was first raised. Enter Peter Ellis at the University of Kent, and collaborators Charlotte Douglas and James Turner at the Francis Crick Institute in the UK.

“My research focused on testes so we needed male mice,” says Peter. “I had to give the females of the litters to researchers who specifically wanted them—or cull them. That makes you aware of sex. So our goal to ensure that as few animals get culled just for being the wrong sex.”

That idea isn’t new. Sperm sorting is already used in the dairy industry but it’s not infallible and can damage the sperm. In pigs, the technique isn’t fast enough to be viable. So, basically, we can do better.

Embryo selection using CRISPR gene editing is a leaps-and-bounds improvement. For starters, it’s one-hundred-percent effective. Guaranteed. It’s also ethically more humane to cull embryos that have no nervous system and aren’t capable of suffering than live baby animals. And bonus, the resulting litters are a little larger—in mice. See here for the technical details.

Peter is quick to remind us that this research is still in the early stages. We know it works in mice. It’s bound to work in other animals but that’s yet to be tested. And at the farm level, it’s years away. In the Canadian beef industry, those coming into closest contact with the technique would be breeders.

“Once the line has been generated, it’s simply a matter of breeding,” confirms Peter. “You don’t have to gene-edit every generation, the genes required can be maintained stably in the sire and dam lines. The male carries a gene on his Y chromosome, and the female has a guide RNA that activates it. Cross them, and you get the required offspring in the next generation.”

One reason embryo selection is years away in agriculture is the public concern over genetic modification technology in the food chain.

“The UK is considering relaxing the rules around gene editing in ag,” says Peter. “That could provide important benefits, but also comes with some risks about reducing care and welfare. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has done a lot of work around this. What level of biotech the public wants and why it’s acceptable are big questions. What we’ve done is provide a proof-of-principle to inform that debate… to take it out of the hypothetical and abstract into the real world.”

The Nuffield Report is clear that the public is suspicious of ag technology that lines producer’s pockets but more likely to be on board with it to improve animal welfare. However, the debate still has to explore acceptability behind using technology for breeding but where the end product is “normal”.

“We’re not engineering cows to produce more milk or grow faster. These animals will be the same as ones from conventional breeding practices,” says Peter. “Since milk doesn’t contain cells from the cow, that too will be normal. My sense is that public debate on gene editing will shift when people realize the welfare benefits that are possible. In the short term, that’s what our research will accomplish.”

In Canada, where GM salmon and apples are already on store shelves, public debate might reveal different answers than in the UK. Gentec researcher Ellen Goddard and her team are the national go-to experts on public acceptance and willingness-to-pay for technology-enhanced foods.

“I’d be very happy if Gentec decided to sponsor public surveying at a more granular level in Canada,” says Peter, who is a former collaborator of Gentec CEO Graham Plastow from his Ucambridge days.

Another reason for the long time horizon for embryo selection in ag is quite simply the need for more research. The research in mice represents 6-7 years of work, of which the first three alone were to develop cell lines. So the main next step—in parallel with the public debate—is developing cell lines to make sure that the parts that make the sex selection system in mice also work in other animals.

By then, we should have a better idea of whether the public, wherever they are, really wants to make a difference to animal suffering.

For more reading on this subject, try the official press release or the Francis Crick Institute website.