Gene editing: We can do it… but should we?

We started this look at gene editing and livestock in our April 2022 edition with a question from Kajal Devani “in view of supply chain issues, labour shortages, food shortages, war and climate change… Are these products coming to market too soon or not soon enough?”

It looks as if the regulatory environment is leaning towards approving the introduction of gene-edited livestock. Against all the problems Kajal identifies, surely this is the correct approach. Providing sufficient high-quality food from fewer and fewer resources is an achievement that agriculture should be proud of, therefore should we not continue to adopt new technologies that can help meet the growing challenges we face? This is the position taken by those advocating the rapid introduction of gene edited animals: the challenges we face are too large, we need to address them quickly before they get even worse.

So am I more cautious than Kajal as to whether it is too soon or not soon enough? Am I against using gene editing in livestock or am I concerned about the safety of the technology? My answer to both is No. Instead, I’m concerned that we haven’t learnt ANY lessons from the introduction of genetically-modified organisms, and we should try to win public support for these products before they enter the marketplace. The proponents of gene editing argue that the technology is precise and different from genetic modification. If the public understands this, then they will accept the next wave of developments. (I believe this argument is based on the discredited “information deficit model” of science communication so unlikely to work.)

I don’t think we need to rush to introduce gene-edited animals when we can focus on increasing consumer acceptance and explaining their potential benefits for consumers and the animals themselves. This effort should not be about the technical differences between gene editing and genetic modification – the differences are small and are often presented incorrectly [see GE tomatoes on the BBC]. This approach is particularly ineffective and, when the explanation is oversimplified, it opens the door for campaigns against gene editing as it can be claimed to be misleading.

We’ve seen that consumers don’t necessarily embrace the use of novel technology to improve company or farmer profits. What else may resonate with the public? Do climate change and food shortages change the debate? What about protecting animals from disease and reducing the use of antimicrobials in food production (to help reduce antimicrobial resistance) or improving animal welfare? How do these align with public values, a more powerful approach than the information deficit model?

That said, examples that benefit animal welfare such as gene-editing dairy cows to remove the need for painful dehorning, should also be chosen very carefully (see our companion piece on this by Niloofar Pejman). A report on gene-editing of animals in the UK acknowledges that the technology has the capacity to bring “real benefits”. But Elizabeth Cripps from Edinburgh University, a member of the group that produced the report, said that it could also make things worse. “Genome editing could be used to perpetuate or possibly increase the dense stocking of animals in industrialised (production).”

I recall this argument from animal welfare groups many years ago when we were looking to select for reduced aggression in livestock. That’s why we should take social licence in animal breeding and the application of new technologies very seriously, whether genomics, genetic modification or gene editing. Reducing aggression in farmed animals has benefits for animal welfare as well as worker welfare just as we see for polled/hornless cattle. Selecting for animals that are less fearful of man (domestication) has provided multiple benefits, from a more sustainable food supply to the emotional support provided by companion animals. Selecting for females only also has tremendous animal welfare benefits. However, without proper codes of practice, we could also see negative outcomes as those proposed above.

In this newsletter, we introduce the work taking place to remove the need for dehorning many of the dairy cows in Canada and elsewhere. This seems like a very positive application, and a model for regulating and introducing gene-edited animals. There are very careful studies to show the absence of unintended consequences of this gene edit – the milk and eggs from these animals are indistinguishable from those produced from existing cows. So what’s the concern? Well, the strongest argument for de-horning cows by gene editing is economic. It’s perfectly do-able without gene editing simply by crossing dairy cows with naturally polled bulls: all the progeny will be hornless/polled. In other words, we have a simple alternative that doesn’t require new technology. The problem for the dairy industry is that this simple alternative would reduce milk production and increase costs.

The scientific committee reviewing the code of practice for the welfare of dairy cows in Canada identifies a number of public concerns, including dehorning. Does this suggest the public will welcome gene-edited cows even though there’s an alternative? Another example is one of the edits that Kajal introduced in her article (see link above), gene-edited cattle that are more heat tolerant. Again, this has animal welfare and production benefits (animals stop eating and producing when they are heat-stressed). But here, too, we have an alternative. The “slick” gene (or more correctly, “allele”) can be introduced into Canadian breeds from breeds where the mutation arose. There are already animals on the ground in Alberta that include “slick” produced in this way. A comment from one announcement of the approval of this gene edit in the US read, “we have been introgressing slick coat into composite cattle for 15 years…..It seems crazy to convince customers [of] the benefits of CRISPR [ ] when the benefits already exist naturally…….That is simply science [ ] for science sake.”

Exactly right! we should always ask whether there is an alternative approach and not just apply technology because we can. Headlines such as “Gene-edited cows just secured record-fast FDA approval” don’t help. As Aesop’s fable indicates “slow and steady wins the race.” Surely, this maxim applies in the case of gene-edited cattle.

Graham Plastow, CEO, Livestock Gentec










Myths and Misconceptions about Novel Gene Editing Technology

Did you know the milk you drink may well come from cows that have been dehorned with a hot iron? Horns? Hot iron? Ouch! Many people are surprised to learn that nearly all dairy cows, which come from the Holstein breed, are born with tissue that grows into horns. Horn-forming tissue is often removed by farmers from the cows’ skulls with chemicals or a hot iron to protect farmers, animal handlers and other cows. This process is painful, stressful and time-consuming, and requires expertise and pain control. In Canada, the NFACC Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle requires all calves to be disbudded to avoid injuries and behavioural problems associated with horns in later life. It reflects current dairy management practices such as disbudding calves before three weeks of age, adequately restraining the calf, using an appropriate method for the size of horn and/or age of animal, ensuring only trained persons carry out disbudding/dehorning procedures and using a combination of sedatives, local anesthetics and analgesics.

However, according to the scientific committee revising the Code of Practice, “disbudding/dehorning without pain mitigation” is one of “the most contentious practices” (along with early cow-calf separation, tail docking, culling of male dairy calves, and zero-grazing [lack of pasture access] and/or tie-stall housing systems). These results align with the surveys showing that 27-31% of Canadian producers say they always use pain killer for dehorning. However, 14-23% of producers indicate that using pain killers depends on age and method of dehorning.

Thus, another question might be: what if scientists could create hornless Holsteins just by changing the “gene for horns” to the one found in the naturally hornless Angus breed? Would they improve animal welfare by reducing pain? Or are they just using animals as mere objects to serve human purposes?

CRISPR Cas9 (CRISPR) is a breakthrough in biology with gene-editing applications for plants, animals and humans. Gene-editing, as one of the newest tools of biotechnology, can be a win-win for the animal and the producer. It’s also expected to have a positive influence on public opinion regarding the use of the technology in animal products due to its wide range of benefits (dehorning is just one). While consumers showed that they are more likely to accept gene-edited products than those from genetic modification (GM) or transgenesis, most people don’t understand what gene editing is. So how can they make a decision to buy it?


The lack of transparency is one of the greatest obstacles to the progress of gene-editing technology. For example: you need milk so you go to the grocery store. One jug is labeled “natural” and the other “genetically edited”. Which one do you choose? Regardless of price and origin, you probably feel more comfortable drinking “natural” milk. However, almost nothing we eat is truly “natural”.

Even though you may not realize it, more than 75% of food products sold in Canadian grocery stores can contain some GM ingredients but labels don’t mention it, says Sylvain Charlebois, senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie.

Moreover, some Canadians with an appetite for salmon may have already consumed the world’s first GM food animal without even knowing it, according to Sarah Cox, an award-winning journalist and author based in Victoria, BC. Along a similar line, people who support organic agriculture are convinced that plants are grown without chemicals. That’s not true. Even if people know about them, their belief system—that these are dangerous chemicals—kicks in.

How will Canadians react to gene-edited foods? Will they embrace this technology? According to Stuart Smyth, an assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s department of Agricultural and Resources Economics, more than 90% of the Canadian public has no awareness about what technologies are used to develop plant varieties right now.


Habits are hard to break. Researchers aren’t going to talk to people about the CRISPR Cas9 protein or a piece of RNA that’s skewing their viewpoints. We prefer to focus on what might work better instead. How’s that as a good starting point for a reasoned discussion? Talking can become very easy if we focus on specific benefit messages to increase consumer acceptance of gene-edited foods rather than on technical explanations.

For instance, when consumers have a close relationship with the trait or benefit itself, they are more likely to be interested in the technology; they’ll want to learn more and they’ll be more open to accept it, says Ian Affleck, vice-president of plant biotechnology at Ottawa-based CropLife Canada, a trade association representing plant science companies.

But the most important question is whether gene-edited foods can still be called natural products. There’s no reason at the moment to expect they will be any less of a concern to consumers than other genetically engineered foods.

Niloofar Pejman
Visiting Scientist, Livestock Gentec

At the Grill with William Torres: Meat labelling

This month’s At The Grill feature by William Torres (former Research Manager at Cattleland Feedyards and popular presenter at Gentec conferences) focuses on labelling meat that has been raised different ways.

Once upon a time, when I lived in East Texas, I had to learn to defend my religion. I mean, if there’s a Bible belt in the USA, Texarkana Texas is the buckle portion.

You might ask, what does religion have to do with cattle? They’re one in the same. It’s a way of life! If you don’t know how to defend your way of life, how can you keep it going?

I don’t mean get into a fist fight with vegans. I want to be able to explain the important details to those who want to learn about beef. As I travel the world for pleasure and business, I always get asked what I do for a living, especially when I’m in airplanes or wearing a cowboy hat, lol. So here’s my elevator pitch to welcome people into Team Beef.

The first thing is that all meat is 100% antibiotic free. It’s the law! Just because an animal was sick doesn’t mean that we will let it suffer. Regardless of marketing program, breed, environment, etc., some cattle have natural disease immunities, and others will be susceptible. Cattle are mammals, and just like you and I, some get sick and need help. However, to be harvested, they need to meet specific standards that require withdrawal dates from their last (if any) dose of antibiotic. Ergo, all cattle meat is antibiotic free. I repeat: it’s the law!

Second, grass-fed doesn’t mean they lived their lives chasing puppy dogs and rainbows. Chances are, they were still finished in a feedlot, just with a more foraged-focused diet. Personally, when I want 100% grass-raised protein, I hunt it. I don’t like grass fed/finished beef. I’m a big fan of grain-fed beef. Those little specs of marbling (or as I like to call them, “little bite sizes of heaven”) is what really gives you the flavour that creates core memories.

Yes, I know you know a guy who raises 100% grass-fed beef but I’m willing to bet the herd is less than 15 head, and they’re not feeding the world. And that’s also why you always have to smother that meat in some kind of gravy or sauce.

Organic. This is the one label that almost got me banned from the farmer’s market. If someone has a small operation and they do all the work themselves, including hugging their cattle daily, it doesn’t automatically grant them an “organic” label. This is probably one of the most difficult meat labels to get in Canada. The feed must be certified organic, the bedding has to be certified organic, the water source has to be free from run-off from non-organic fields, etc., etc. And all these certifications need to be in place for at least 3 years before an animal born on the operation can be labelled as such. I mean, you really must be committed to losing an additional 30-50% of your profits for 3-5 years just to get that label. But at least you can charge it all back to the consumer, right?

When I managed the feedlot and we gave tours, I always made a point to explain the differences of the diets for our conventional cattle and those on a natural program. In other words, none! The difference was the enrollment process of the cattle from birth, and the mounds of paperwork required. How did we handle the inefficiencies of such programs that added costs? We passed them on to the consumer.

Lastly, no, we don’t genetically modify any animals destined for slaughter. We can only select genetics that best fit our environment, feed availability and purpose.

At the Grill with William Torres: Cattleman or hobbyist?

This month’s At The Grill feature by William Torres (former Research Manager at Cattleland Feedyards and popular presenter at Gentec conferences) focuses on how to translate packing plant information into genetic change.

It’s been a long ~16 months of struggles, feeding and keeping your cattle alive. Now, your cattle are finally going to the slaughterhouse. Withing 72 hours or so, they will have been harvested, weighed, chilled, weighed again, and graded including yield. All of this information will come to you in a very complex report that includes carcass weights, grades, rib eye areas, payout and discounts.

Most of us pay attention first to the payout, followed by discounts, and then averages. But that’s the top of the iceberg. How do you translate packing plant information into genetic change? Here are some simple steps to help you out.

First, remember that bull or two (or 20) you bought in the spring a few years ago? Their theoretical genetic outcome (along with every other bull in your battery), is now being measured in real life. Let’s hope you kept up with your sires’ and dams’ offspring’s records.

Second, ask ahead of time that the carcass information be matched to each animal’s Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA) Electronic Identification (EID) as this may not be a standard procedure at your plant. Commonly, all the information is matched to a carcass ID… but NOT to your EID.

Third, match the EIDs to your birth records. If you haven’t already, start a database that allows you to keep track of each offspring’s information, including harvest information. Ultimately, this is what allows you to track the outcome of your genetic decisions. Remember those Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs) we talked about in February[SD1] ?

Data is everything, and as John Doerr said, you need to Measure what Matters! How you manage your data is what separates the cattleman from the hobbyist. This is HUGE, especially if you don’t retain ownership of your cattle. That’s why it’s also important to have a great relationship with your feedlot.

What decisions you make are unique to your outfit. For example, if you’re getting too many overweight discounts, it may not be a genetic influence but merely a management aspect that needs to be addressed. Maybe you already knew that you held on to your cattle too long, and there was going to be some adjustment to the schedule.

However, if you’re meeting or exceeding your contract expectations i.e.; minimum 70% AAA and you are consistently delivering 90+, maybe it’s time to renegotiate your grid. On the other hand, underdelivering will always cost you more; remember, you never get paid more for doing a great job but you’ll be penalized for not doing a good one.

Bottom line comes down to being realistic vs. what you were expecting. If you measure against true goals, you’ll be able to make proper decisions. I don’t have to remind ya’ll—but I will—that our industry is not a sprint race. Genetic change moves slowly like a never-ending marathon. Therefore, you need to make genetic decisions that will impact your operation for at least the next 10 years.

For more information, contact John Basarab [SD2] here at Gentec for help.



Coming to market soon! Um… is that too soon? or not soon enough?

I’m not enthralled at the prospect of eating a soy-based patty or crumble that has been processed to be passed off as ‘meat’. I’m not going to consume cell-cultured ‘meat’ grown in a petri dish willingly. But I can’t wait to sink my teeth into a juicy chunk of Pinkglow® Pineapple that’s been genetically modified to stay pink and sweet. Pinkglow® Pineapple is already available in some US markets, and is an option for consumers who want to try it. Another choice that will be available within the next two years is gene-edited livestock products, including beef.

Oh dear… I’ve used the phrases genetically-modified and gene-edited. Very unpopular, unsexy and frighteningly science-y. Let’s get them out of the way.

Genetic selection has been practised in agronomy for centuries. Robert Bakewell is credited for observing that selective breeding in livestock improves the next generation. He founded the first breed associations to record pedigree and performance information. The objective was a centralized repository of data with which selection and breeding decisions could be made. That objective remains in place today.

Genetic selection was applied to crop breeding with tremendous results long before Bakewell. My favourite illustration of the power of genetic selection is the fact that modern cultivars of broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, and kohlrabi all originate from the same Brassica oleracea plant species. Each modern cultivar was selected based on crown size (broccoli and cauliflower), leafiness (kale, collard greens) or enlarged heads of tightly-rolled leaves (cabbage, Brussels sprouts). This is the power of genetic selection; provided you have a goal and some staying power—because it takes more than one generation to get there.


One way to “get there” sooner is to use genomics technology. In livestock, the rate of genetic improvement can be maximized by using genomically-enhanced EPDs (GE-EPDs). A different application is to modify the genetic material of organisms to generate GMOs. Two techniques are used to achieve these new, genetically-modified variants, both of which insert genetic material into an organism using a gene particle gun or a bacterial host.

The new genetic material can be from the “original” species (changing a naturally-existing gene), it can be a gene from the same or similar species (such as AquaBounty Atlantic salmon, which was created by inserting genetic material from Pacific salmon) or from a different organism altogether (such as genetic material from the papaya ringspot virus (PRSV) used to create a papaya variant that is resistant to PRSV). Genetic modification technology has been used since the 1990s to develop varieties of tomatoes, squash, soybeans, cotton, corn, papayas, potatoes, canola, beets, alfalfa, apples, grapes—the list goes on. This technology has been used to create variants (primarily in crops) that are disease resistant, drought resistant and environmentally, economically, and ethically more sustainable. The possible advantages of genetic improvement using genomic modification technology is incredible.

One of the limitations of the technology is its precision. Peppering cells using a gene gun or using bacteria carrying the novel DNA as a kind of “Trojan horse”, doesn’t allow you to dictate where new genetic material (and sometimes what genetic material) gets inserted. Scientist have been working on a more precise technology for decades.


In 2020, Drs. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna were awarded a Nobel prize for pioneering a revolutionary technology that improves the precision with which genetic edits can be made. Although new genetic material can be added to organisms using this technology, its true advantage comes from being able to ‘fix’ (change) existing genes. The technology, called CRISPR, has been used to create therapies for cancer, Alzheimer’s, HIV, muscular dystrophy and inherited blindness.

In agriculture, CRISPR is being used to modify crops to generate naturally-decaffeinated coffee; eggs that don’t challenge people who are allergic to egg protein; grape varieties that can grow in drought conditions, milk that is naturally lactose-free; tomatoes that are healthier or are naturally spicy; polled (hornless) Holstein cattle; tuberculosis-resistant cattle; cattle that are more heat tolerant; and pigs that are resistant to PRRS virus. Again, the list of possibilities is endless. And the development and regulatory approvals for commercialization and consumption are moving quickly, particularly in North America.

So in view of supply chain issues, labour shortages, food shortages, war and climate change… Are these products coming to market too soon or not soon enough?

Kajal Devani

Director of Science and Technology
Canadian Angus Association





Next-gen talk to next-gen ranchers

Even the title suggests this wasn’t going to be easy. “Introducing genomics technologies to 4H participants to promote genetic tools in the Alberta beef industry.” And yet, this is the project UAlberta Capstone students Jacqui Gironella, Diego Martinez Mayorga, Jayden Pidsadowski, Leah Trenson and Min Chieh (Ruby) Hsu chose to present—to the surprise of Professor Frank Robinson, who recognized the significant challenge and was a tad apprehensive about their success.

It wasn’t so much the first part that was hard: testing about 160 steers belonging to the 4Hers (Gentec did that part, as well as the mentoring). It was getting the information to look understandable, real, relevant—and interesting—in front of the 4Hers and their producer parents.

“These are super-complex topics, and it was hard not to use jargon,” says Diego, who comes from a beef/dairy background in Ecuador. “That was a project in itself. So we made factsheets for each steer.”

The incentive for working with 4Hers is that they are already from a farming background, sometimes several generations back. The team figured that introducing genomics to the farm through them in a simple, non-invasive way was the recipe for success since they are likely to be the future of beef operations in Alberta. The students found that the main objections came from the adult producers who didn’t know what genomics was and what benefits it could offer. Wanting to cover all bases, however, the team also explained in their presentation that genomics is just one piece of the puzzle (albeit a good one) but producers can’t ignore nutrition, shelter, good husbandry in general. Genomics works best in combination with all a producer’s accumulated experience conducting visual assessmentson conformation, feet, udder and temperament. If you can see for yourself that the animal doesn’t measure up—you don’t need genomics. Genomics adds value by facilitating the ranking of the animals you otherwise would consider acceptable.

“Habits are difficult to break,” says Jacqui, who, unlike Diego, had never seen a large animal until a few years ago. “We thought this was a neat way of approaching the hesitancy towards testing and genetic selection for producers who aren’t using it yet. They’re more likely to trust information from their kid or grandkid—and we noticed that lots of generations watched our presentation.”

Enter Paul Franz, son/grandson to ranchers, and now himself a rancher in Grimshaw, Alberta, since 1996 trying to build an F3 and F4 herd. He became involved in the project as the local 4H leader.

“I hope the kids learn about genetic diversity in cows and that they can create crossbreeds to get the ideal animal for their situation, whether it’s a feedlot, backgrounding or a cow-calf operation,” he says. “They’ll get a premium for the calf in the local market.”

Paul is already a believer in genetics. As his knowledge grew through his role on the provincial Beef Advisory Committee and associated Carcass Committee, genetics was in the back of his mind. “Just to know where my cows are from, genetically, and their hybrid vigour.”

This project was a happy coincidence for him. He used the opportunity to get his whole herd tested.

“If you want to move forward in a crossbred program, you’d want to know what your herd is doing,” says Paul. “So research the traits to get more out of your bull. In 3-5 years, those traits will be on your replacement heifer side.”

Back in the lab, Diego and Jacqui are reeling at the difference between the cloistered halls of academia and the hands-on ranch operation.

“In the classroom, we have great numbers and no confusing variables,” says Diego. “We focus on genetics but in the real world, every producer has their own management program so cows with the same potential may end up quite different. I hope that came through in the presentation.”

“Clint was really helpful on this,” says Jacqui. “He guided us on what producers want and don’t want, and made sure we explained everything thoroughly. His perspective from a marketing standpoint was very different and valuable.”

For Diego and Jacqui, the project turned out even more fruitful. Both students have summer jobs at Gentec.

“I’ll be working with Graham Plastow, researching heat stress in cattle using infrared thermography,” says Jacqui. “And with Ed Bork at the Kinsella Ranch, analyzing what the different herds of cattle are eating at pasture there.”

“I’ll be doing extension, attending conferences, manning booths, preparing presentations and writing some research overviews,” says Diego. “It’ll be nice to stay inside for the summer for once. I’d like to stay in ag genetics if possible as a genetic consultant… helping producers select for what they need. Wouldn’t that be an awesome job to have?”