At the Grill with William Torres: Get your money where your mouth is…how sustainability pays

This month’s At The Grill feature by William Torres (former Research Manager at Cattleland Feedyards and popular presenter at Gentec conferences) presents some options on short- and long-term sustainability.

During a recent family trip, my wife asked what my favourite fast-food restaurant was. It turns out that I had two favourites… and guess what? They both had a lot to do with beef!

On one hand, I love Arby’s because, well, they have the meats! On the other hand, when Cattleland Feedyards and I became engaged in their early work on their sustainability approach in 2014, I actually frequented McDonald’s the most. It was easy to see that their plan would benefit Canadian and global farmers.

Why is this significant, you ask? Well, in my opinion, McDonald’s helped build the framework for our current Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. They didn’t focus on short trends or beef niches like others, they wanted everyone to be on board for the long haul. AND they were willing to pay for it. Last time I checked, qualified producers could receive a payment per head through some certification and verification processes. To sign up, producers also had to be trained and audited by VBP+ or be audited by Where Food Comes From. They then had to register for BIXS and age-verify their cattle in BIXS or the CLTS database. CCIA would then disperse funds to qualifying producers.

Now this is a quick example of sustainability return on investment. Another option is to focus on the genetic selection of your herd so you can maximize all payments available. Unfortunately, sometimes we lose sight of the forest because of the tree line. What I mean is that sustainability is a long-term investment that needs to include genetic selection and management alongside the certifications that enhance your payments. Sometimes we focus on the now payments rather than the actual sustainability plan.

Not all payments will hit your bank account immediately. Some payments come in the form of land management. Take selecting for Residual Feed Intake (RFI) as an example. A potential benefit of this is that you can increase your herd size in the same amount of land you operate because you have more efficient cattle. If you sell sires, those with a negative RFI can bring a better premium during your sale. If you retain them, the benefit will stay in your herd, improving your operation year after year.

Another area where you can manage your genetics is to utilize genomic information (from DNA tests) that focuses on beef production traits that are economically important to maximize feeding margins. For example, have you ever purchased a group of calves by weight and about 120 days later, they are all different sizes, and wondered why? The fact is, we all gain weight differently, even if we have the same parental source, diet, and environment. Most feedlots and cattle finishers may not choose all the genetics coming into their lot but they do have to manage what they get. Knowing the genetic make-up of that pen can help you manage their sorting, implant strategies, and even market dates. These DNA test can be quickly done by companies like Quantum Genetix.

Options sometimes create more confusion, but the reality is that you don’t have to execute all of them. Find out what’s important to you, explore your choices, and do the math to make sure your investment into sustainability and genetics will have the proper return for your outfit.

For more information, contact John Basarab, Director of Beef Operations, Livestock Gentec









Gene-edited plants get a lighter regulatory touch in Health Canada’s new guidelines for novel foods. What is next?

According to Health Canada, companies are allowed to sell new food that comes from genetically-engineered plants, without any government safety assessments, and only based on voluntary corporate information. In this voluntary transparency initiative (TI), plant breeders are encouraged to self-regulate the risks of their genetic products and provide concise information about the product, which Health Canada publishes online for public access.

At long last, Canada has opened door to the Canadian market for some genetically-engineered foods produced with new gene-editing (GE) techniques. Canada and several major crop-producing countries including Argentina, Australia, Brazil and the USA have examined the potential risk from genome-edited products, and concluded that these products don’t require additional risk assessments if no foreign DNA is present in the final variety. Rick White, chair of the Canada Grains Council believes this will open up the very real possibility of dramatic improvements for small- and large-acre crops alike, from productivity improvements to new solutions for emerging pest pressures to advances in food and fuel crops that will benefit the entire value chain including consumers.

This regulatory decision will reduce the time and cost to develop new crop varieties. The benefit of this is that, as climates change continues, plant breeders will be able to commercialize new crops, fruits, and vegetable varieties more rapidly, which will benefit us as consumers with more food on store shelves. As a result, everyone can benefit from this new regulation, according to Stuart Smyth, an associate professor at University of Saskatchewan in the College of Agriculture and Bioresources.

Health Canada intends to develop similar guidance for genetically-modified animals and microorganisms. However, one question might come up: following this decision, could Canadians soon be eating GE animal products that have not been assessed for safety? Should we put food options on the market without even introducing the products and asking the opinion of the consumers? This is important because a study by Global Market Insights Inc. estimates that the gene-editing market value could reach USD 19.9 billion by 2030.

According to Kajal Devani, Director of Science and Technology, Canadian Angus Association, we need to convince our parents, our community, and all consumers of the benefits of genetic engineering before commercializing gene-edited products.

In this regard, she mentioned the importance of the Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) symposium as one of the annual conventions that rotate across US states to connect science and industry to improve beef cattle genetics. The symposium is a great way to address topics ranging from fertility (estrus synchronization, timed-AI, sexed semen, genetic correlations of scrotal circumference to other traits) to consumer demands (beef production as a consumer-driven business; who is our consumer; what do they want today and 20 years from now; the genetics of meat science; and what can we do to improve the palatability of beef). Fortunately, in 2023 BIF is scheduled to be held in Calgary just prior to the 2023 Calgary Stampede.

In summary, Canada will remain at the forefront of crop innovation and environmentally friendly techniques while ensuring the financial viability of family farms. Moreover, many plant breeders believe GE could revolutionize crop development. It will allow scientists to quickly and precisely alter the DNA of a plant to achieve desired characteristics. For example, scientists can improve wheat disease resistance or create canola hybrids with healthier oil. As a result of new breeding technologies, such as CRISPR gene editing, plant and animal breeding has become more accessible and efficient.

Niloofar Pejman

Visiting Scientist, Livestock Gentec