If you could gene edit any trait in beef cattle, what would it be?

During my PhD defence, my external examiner Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam  an expert in Animal Biotechnology and Genetics from the University of California, Davis asked me, “If you could gene edit anything in cattle, what would it be?” Under pressure to respond quickly and concisely, I fumbled something unsatisfying but—just like those clever retorts you come up with after an argument is over and done with—I go back and redraft what I should have said every day.

Here’s the thing about gene editing: it’s excellent technology, used by bacteria to shred invading viral DNA as a defence mechanism. And it’s opening the door for medicine and agriculture to make precise, targeted edits in the genome for genetic solutions to serious challenges. But it’s expensive, highly regulated, and currently limited to traits that are impacted primarily by one (or few) genes. Most economically-relevant traits in agriculture, particularly livestock, are polygenic (many genes contribute a small proportion of variation observed).

So given the opportunity to rehash my response to Dr. Van Eenennaam’s question, I’d say, “Nothing, yet.” This is partially because the obvious (single) gene traits have already been edited. New, gene-edited variants for livestock, include:

Holstein cattle, genetically selected to produce high volumes of milk, are naturally horned. Horns pose a safety and welfare challenge to humans and animals in their proximity. Dehorning animals is labour-intensive, stressful and painful. The polled (hornless) genetic variant occurs naturally in other bovine populations: Angus, for example. Holstein bulls genetically edited to be polled by Acceligen and their progeny were tested extensively at the University of California, Davis. They offered dairy industries globally a way to improve animal health and welfare without having to crossbreed with a naturally-polled animal. Crossbreeding may offer significant advantages for horns and other traits such as fertility, body condition, foot structure and carcass quality but it would also reduce milk production. This particular gene editing endeavour also provided a lot of learning lessons, both in terms of quality control and in navigating regulations. In the process of seeking FDA approval for commercial use of the bull, a bacterial antibiotic resistance gene was found in the genome sequence due to the specific editing technology used.

Other gene edited variants include change of sex to male. Male offspring in beef production grow faster. This results in shorter time to market, less resource requirements and less environmental impact. Addressing animal health, two disease-resistant variants, one in pigs that targets susceptibility to porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) virus and one in cattle that targets susceptibility to bovine tuberculosis have been developed. Both diseases have significant financial and welfare impacts. Also impacting animal welfare, several variants addressing heat stress and heat tolerance in cattle have been developed. One approach has been to change coat colour, moving from black to red or tan. Another approach has been to genetically engineer the slick coat gene in animals. Both variants for coat colour and slick coat are naturally occurring, and could be introduced to the population through crossbreeding. Gene editing eliminates having to manage other factors (advantages in some traits such as increased fertility are often realized by crossbreeding, and moderation to some production traits such as milk production might also be an outcome).

Growing global populations, shrinking resources such as land and water, and heightened social licence to operate have put significant pressure on agriculture to deliver consistent quality food at low prices. Science and technology can and do help deliver on both fronts. So as an advocate and proponent of science and technology, why wouldn’t I jump at the chance to genetically edit any trait?

The second half of my answer is in deference to my heritage and my parents. They want science and technology in their medicine, their cars, their computers, their smart phones that they use to communicate. They are not sure they want science and technology in their food. Now, I’m going to convince them of the benefits of genetic engineering. And, I’m going to convince them that we’ve learnt to look for the ‘unknowns and the unintended consequences’, to do the quality controls. But, this will take time. I don’t believe we should put food options on the market before we’ve had the opportunity to have this conversation with my parents, my community, your community—and all consumers.

We’d like to know: what traits would you genetically engineer into your livestock if you could?  And as a consumer, are you comfortable consuming food produced using gene edited livestock?

Kajal Devani

Director of Science and Technology, Canadian Angus Association





Beef Improvement Federation Symposium 2022 yields food for thought

“Sustainability: Rhetoric vs. Reality”

How do we address rhetoric like ‘meat is murder’, ‘we need to rewild cattle’, ‘the beef industry is causing climate change’? These were the thorny questions raised and addressed at the BIF Symposium 2022 ’s opening discussion on “Sustainability: Rhetoric vs. Reality”  with presentations by Ruaraidh Petre, of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef; John Crowley, AbacusBio in Canada ; and Jason Sawyer, of the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management at Texas A&M University–Kingsville.

Beef industries globally are being used as a scapegoat by people like Richard Branson, Oprah and David  Suzuki. The reality is that beef demand remains strong, globally. However, inflation and global volatility is impacting production costs significantly. Reality is that consumers want to eat beef. They just want the assurance that it’s ok to do so.

Because it is not in our nature to communicate well about the great things that we do in raising beef and protecting the environment, we need to support agencies like the Global Round Table for Sustainable Beef and the Canadian Round Table for Sustainable Beef to help us. The communication needs to include GHG emissions from inefficient systems, such as long periods under poor nutrition and management, and poor land conversion practices (e.g., deforestation to grow soybean and then graze cattle).  In reality, our emission intensity in North America is low (relative to what?; milk, plant-based protein?; certainly lower relative to young cattle in South America that are kept on pastures for long periods of time and then slaughtered at 36-38 months of age)—but we should still be part of the solution. Solutions discussed ranged from fitting environmental impacts into economic selection indexes, through improving production efficiencies through selection for traits such as weight at days-to-finish, feed efficiency, methane emissions , and fertility with the goal being nature-positive beef production / carbon neutrality .

Carbon neutrality can only be a measure and an objective if calculated accurately and objectively. So far, calculations of the global impact from beef production do not consider the tremendous variation between countries, intensity, production systems, gross emissions versus emission intensity (i.e. per amount of product), and warming impacts versus carbon impacts. The measuring stick has to be correct first.

Having said that, improving production efficiencies through management and genetic selection can be a lower-cost way to reduce GHG emissions  and assist producers reduce the resources needed per unit of produce. Gentec researchers have been working on this for many years (feed efficiency, reducing age at slaughter, McDonald’s pilot project, increased herd-level hybrid vigour through genomic indicators of heterosis, more accurate breeding values using genomics, grazing practices to improve carbon sequestration).

Another solution discussed at BIF is fitting the genetics to the environment. If you’ve ever heard the term G by E (GxE) interactions, it refers to differences in genetic expression in different environments. It’s a source of frustration for animal-breeding geneticists as well as producers because it means that one size does NOT fit all. A selection index, for example, developed for use across a country or even a continent isn’t going to work the same way in each environmental pocket. Strong evidence suggests that using a generalized index is still significantly more effective than basing selection decisions only on phenotypic appearance, raw performance information or EPDs for one or a few traits.

Personally, I see GxE interactions as an opportunity. There’s a very good home for different types of cattle and genetics . Notably, Gentec is working on GxE in its BCRC Fertility DMI project (winter grazing vs confined feeding) though the number of animals and environment must be increased dramatically to obtain meaningful results. It’s a start. The key is to pair the right type with your environment (a theme explored in the forthcoming Field Day at the University of Alberta Kinsella ranch). GxE interactions are good to be aware of, and if you’re interested in playing with a customized index based on your specific breeding targets, market drivers and inputs, then Matt Spangler and Bruce Golden have developed an app that will be available through the BIF website (stay tuned for the release of IGENDEC ).

Discussion on ‘one size doesn’t fit all environments’ led into significant discussion about the need for different genetics based increasingly on use  – CED (calving ease) emphasis really should vary based on current dystocia levels and the breeding herd (size, breed, heifers versus cows). Producers are also going to want to vary genetics based on different selling markets (are you selling weaned calves, breeding heifers, breeding bulls, boxed beef?). One market that has grown significantly and has specific genetic requirements is the beef-on-dairy market. This gives dairy producers the opportunity to change profitability from females that might be great milk producers but not the top 30%. Genetics from the beef industry can facilitate improvements in muscling, average daily gain and feed efficiency. The dairy industry is responding to this trend by moving its focus from putting selection pressure on calving ease. Instead, dairy producers are measuring pelvic size and moving females to handle a better-muscled calf. Dairy producers identified an opportunity to increase profitability, and are using genomics technology to help them adapt their herd to maximize this. In collaboration with Semex, Herdtrax by Telus Agriculture and other industry partners, Gentec’s John Basarab and co-researchers have been funded by RDAR and Genome Alberta to conduct a small-scale project on validation and deployment of a feeder profit index for beef-on-dairy feeders. They plan to expand this through proposals to initiatives such as Genome Canada’s recently-announced Climate Action Genomics Initiative.

Advances in genetic evaluations assist producers in addressing some of the requirements for diverse genetics. Heart scores are being collected to develop genetic selection tools for animals that are better equipped to finish at higher altitudes, and to finish in feedlots at low or moderate elevations without incidence of heart disease. Another example discussed is incorporating traits that impact environmental sustainability into genetic selection indexes, and the challenges (but also successes) involved with across-breed and across-country genetic evaluations. These will ultimately provide beef producers globally with robust genetic selection tools with which to address global challenges and opportunities associated with beef production.

“Global Perspectives on Adaptation and Genetic Prediction”

Our second day at BIF 2022 was launched by a general session on “Global Perspectives on Adaptation and Genetic Prediction.” Speakers included Tony Clayton, president of Clayton Agri-Marketing; and Phil George, Miratorg Agribusiness Holding production director, beef & lamb operations, Moscow, Russia.

I strongly recommend that you watch these presentations (links below). I can’t articulate the magnitude of the export projects that these two gentlemen are working on. We’re not talking about exporting a ewe, a goat, and two cows to some remote country. We’re talking about export projects where 300,000 head of cattle get exported to Russia to populate a complete integrated system from propagation of a genetic nucleus, commercial multiplication and management of these genetics to point-of-sale with data collected every step of the way. And those data are being used to validate which of the initial imported US genetics actually worked.

If you’re on the fence about EPDs, know that these people don’t make purchasing or breeding decisions without them. They’ve also learnt, Phil George will attest, that best-quality genetics result in better outcomes all the way down the production chain. I’m still reeling from their use of technology and the amount of data they collect throughout their integrated production.

Both men talked about the huge global market potentials for U.S. beef genetics. If you’re a Canadian beef producer talking to someone who can lobby for Canadian beef exports, we need to be more competitive in the global export market. And we need access. We need to market Canadian beef genetics to places like China. Pakistan and Vietnam were the biggest importers of beef genetics last year. And Canadian beef genetics need to be described by EPDs because that’s what global buyers are considering when making large-scale buying decisions.

This piece gives you a brief flavour of the discussions that happen at the Beef Improvement Federation annual symposium but is by no means inclusive of all the sessions that were offered. All the sessions are recorded and available for viewing. For more information on BIF and the BIF Symposium, visit beefimprovement.org. The BIF 2023 Symposium will be in Calgary, AB on July 3 – 6. Please join us for what is going to be a stellar event.

Kajal Devani

Director of Science and Technology, Canadian Angus Association


If these talks sounded interesting to you, you might consider “saving the date” for BIF 2023

At the Grill with William Torres: Why fake meat is failing to deliver

This month’s At The Grill feature by William Torres (former Research Manager at Cattleland Feedyards and popular presenter at Gentec conferences) teaches us why we’ll never have the same relationship with meat alternatives as with the real stuff.

I mean, is it a surprise to anyone here who reads this column and/or understands the beef industry!?

Apparently, producers like Beyond Meat are facing hurdles with consumers and investors, and then Maple Leaf’s Mr. McCain now said that the company would “reassess” its investment. The latter is quite the change after years of proselytizing about doubling down on the business. The thing about trying to convert people is that it might seem easy at the beginning, and sure, you get some new parishioners but, before long, consumers are not going to pay those high prices for a protein that lacks delivery.

Superstore’s Beyond Meat patties cost $17.99 for a pack of 6; that’s $3 a patty vs. President’s Choice real meat at $10.99 for a pack of 8 ($1.37 each). Heck, even Wagyu burgers are cheaper: $10.99 for a pack of 4 ($2.75 each). I’m a firm believer that the consumer is no dummy. Sure, you’ll still have people who purchase alternative proteins but they are not the masses. The average meat consumer like you and I keep an eye on economy, especially if you have a family to feed. We still like to enjoy juicy burgers, roasts, steaks, etc. but we have to stretch the dollar as far as it’ll go, specially with today’s rampant inflation.

To add fuel to the fire, the Wall Street Journal reported on May 28, 2022, that burgers and steaks are set to stay pricey in the months ahead as US cattle ranchers shrink their herds due to droughts and increasing feed costs. So, if everything is getting more expensive, and one can get the real beef cheaper than an alternative protein, is there even a question as to what one should buy?

Additionally, go back 2 years and include the pandemic global disruption of supplies, sprinkle some drought dust over the Canadian prairies and voilà, you have yourself a 45% drop in yellow pea production, which is a common ingredient in many plant-based meat alternatives. Many of these companies, like Maple Leaf, struggled.

“If you can imagine,” Mr. McCain told investors in a separate shareholder call, “trying to operate a business with a third of your people missing one day, half of your ingredient supply not showing up the next, and suppliers jacking the price by 15 percent of another set of ingredients the day after, all repeating itself over and over and over.”

Thanks goodness real beef has only one ingredient!

For years, I’ve been telling people that I’m in the memories industry. You know, when you get together with family and/or friends because you’re celebrating a birthday, graduation, anniversary or baptism, and someone lays a beautiful steak on the grill and you hear it sizzle… or you can smell Grandma’s roast across the room, those core memories kick in, your mouth starts to salivate, and you can’t wait to taste that marbling or, as I like to call it, “little specs of heaven”. Yeah…that’s what I do, that’s what beef producers do. We provide you with the goods that help you create memories.