Food for the Future: Cost, Climate, and Creating Security

On November 9, UAlberta hosted the 2022 edition: the Chancellor’s Forum on Food for the Future, where climate change, cost, and security were discussed in detail. The event brought together Isha Datar, executive director of New Harvest Research Institute dedicated to cellular agriculture; Alison Sunstrum, founder and CEO of CNSRV-X; and three faculty members from the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences: soil scientist William Shotyk, agricultural economist Ellen Goddard, and beef nutritionist Gleise da Silva. Goddard, Silva and Sunstrom are or have been regular Gentec collaborators.

Senator Paula Simons asked the experts “How do you think the events of the last two years have changed our perspective on the future of food and food security?”

From the beginning of COVID, everything was a shock to everybody. Most people had never imagined going to the grocery store, and not finding food. However, people are now more open-minded and tolerant of technology in food because they realize that food items aren’t going to appear on grocery store shelves in exactly the same format for the rest of their lives. So they are willing to try items they might have been a little bit more opposed to before. “I think trust in the people who create the products, trust in the people who are going to sell products, and trust in the government to regulate the products is very important.”

Alison and Gleise added that we still need to produce more; we know the population is growing; and we are losing space for agriculture. So we need to be more efficient and use less water and land, and try to implement technology agriculture to make sure everyone is fed. For instance, the investment of billions of dollars from hundreds of companies around the world show that growing food from cells is really important for our food system. Part of the plan going forward is: how can we grow more food in different ways? Growing meat from cells is one of those ways. According to Alison, the challenge of the future of food requires more than government funding to solve the problem; it will have to include everything from philanthropy to venture capital. However, academic funding is being squeezed all the time.

In response to what do we have to do to ensure we have healthy soil and water for our agricultural future, William mentioned that soil is the basis for 95% of our agricultural production but it is also important for forestry. Organic matter and soil help stabilize a global climate system.

“We have every possible mineral resource and fossil fuels and agricultural land and water resources. So we don’t have to think as much as other people do.”

The next question was “What are we going to be eating 50 years from now and what won’t we be eating?”

“I think for Christmas dinner, we’re probably going to eat the same food. I’m just not sure how or where it’s going to be created,” Ellen said. “But we will still want something that looks like turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy. But it will come from different origins.” Dr. Goddard also discussed the importance of consumer perceptions in food, and gave her insights on what we will have access to food-wise in 30 years.

William replied, “I grow quite a lot of my own food in my tiny backyard. When I look around Edmonton, I see a lot of space not being used, and I just think about how much food could be grown in the city.”

Gleise mentioned that we may have more food options but the most important thing is to eradicate hunger by increasing food distribution. According to Alison “What we eat in 50 years is completely dependent on the choices we make now. If we continue on the path that we have been on, I don’t know what our choices will be. Probably fewer options, more local food because of a lack of choice, and less access to animal products. However, if we make the right investment into diversifying our food system and creating more resilience, we should bounce back from changes in the supply chain, and have a wide diversity of food.

Our abundant natural resources in Canada and genomics offer a way to develop more resilient crops and livestock to help with the challenges facing us and discussed at the forum.

To watch a recording of the Chancellor’s Forum, click here

Niloofar Pejman
Visiting Scientist, Livestock Gentec

AbacusBio strategy to lead Gentec to sustainability

Back in 2019, Alberta Innovates contracted AbacusBio—an ag science and business consulting company with core capability in breeding and genetics—to do an impact assessment of its dollars going into genomics research. That included an impact assessment of Gentec, and resulted in a high-level framework for the future. Fast forward to 2022, AbacusBio and former Gentecer John Crowley are back to flesh out that framework, especially around the funding structure, and Gentec’s sustainability.

John Crowley came to Gentec from Ireland in 2011 as a post-doc working on the Canadian Cattle Genome Project. He soon transitioned to BeefBooster in a role bridging Gentec and industry on genetic improvement. In 2014, he joined the Canadian Beef Breeds Council as Director of Scientific and Industry Advancement, which saw him conveniently co-located in Gentec offices and facilitated an adjunct professorship at the same time. AbacusBio opened an office in Edinburgh in 2018, and that’s where John found himself next.

“I’ve been in touch with this company since grad school and always admired its work,” says John. “When the opportunity came to be part of it, and close to home in Ireland, I jumped.”

Still with AbacusBio, John returned to Edmonton in 2021 to bring the company’s capabilities to the North American market in a more formal way than individual consultants.

“So instead of a few bullet points in the framework, we’re planning out a full five-year strategy, with the aim of reducing government funding as time goes on,” says John.

The background work involved deep reading of Gentec management reports and other reports; talking to Gentec staff/management, stakeholders who benefit from Gentec R&D; and funders to determine their priorities and what they want to fund in ag and genetics research.

The report, which is expected by end 2022, will take the form of a project proposal to take to funders. Very, very clever… because this avoids the time-consuming step of translating one type of document into another, and because funders and competitions have already been identified (notably, RDAR, CAAIN and Genome Canada) to which Gentec can bring value.

Funding is one piece of the strategy; one that scientists are familiar with. Branding, a second piece, is not usually in their wheelhouse. Clarifying Gentec’s role with industry will be critical.

“One approach is to get Gentec up as an institute for animal genetics within UAlberta with a focus on knowledge translation towards producers,” says John.

This would move Gentec away from the “centre of excellence” branding, which is federal language, and re-emphasize the affiliation to the university. The objective is to focus more on Alberta as the hub of beef cattle and swine genetics in Canada.

Gentec may be the best-kept secret in Canadian agriculture, partly because of the lack of stable funding for a top-notch industry liaison person. The strategic plan advocates for a steady stream of funding for such a person, funded through the above competitions.

“We know that profit is controlled by genetics,” says John. “Huge percentages in some cases. I see Gentec as the only obvious place for genetics R&D in Western Canada. So many organizations and producers can benefit from this incredible capacity that’s right in their back yards. THAT’S where we need to be.”








Friends with Benefits: Grey Wooded Forage Association

Given the prohibitive cost and large data sets required to identify the relationships between genetics, an animal’s environment and its management, the benefits of genomics in the cattle industry have often been limited to the pure breed and seedstock sectors. Recent improvements in the ability of producers to gather large quantities of data combined with massive reductions in the price of DNA analysis and the resulting shift in costs vs. benefits has opened the genetics door to the commercial beef producer, particularly the cow/calf sector. In accordance with this shift, commercial cow/calf producers are showing an increased interest in how genomics might help them better turn their forage into beef. And who better to turn to than their own forage and research associations.

Gentec’s work with Alberta’s forage associations has reached the point that we are pleased to announce a reciprocating, collaborative MOU with the Grey Wooded Forage Association headquartered in Rocky Mountain House. The agreement centres on research, education and demonstration of technologies to optimize the profitability and sustainability of turning sunshine into forage, and forage into beef. We are confident it will provide significant benefits to the stakeholders of both organizations. Watch for updates in this newsletter and in the GWFA’s The Blade.

Opening up the time capsule, GWFA was Gentec’s first forage association collaborator on our field days. It’s hard to believe that GWFA member Murray Abel opened the Cow-Forage Gentec Tour in as far back as 2017. See the article here. This was Gentec’s first pivot towards focusing on the forage aspect of beef production as part of a field-demonstration event, our first direct collaboration with a forage association—and one of our most highly-rated programs. Coincidentally, this was also the event at which Gentec launched the first genomic breed composition tool, EnVigour HX, which was also the first of several genomics tools Gentec developed to help Alberta’s commercial cow calf producers make better beef.

Our two organizations continue to work together to update GWFA members on opportunities to apply genomics and best forage and beef production practices, including opportunities to participate and benefit from practical on-ranch validation and research opportunities.




At the Grill with William Torres: Are you preparing your genes for calving season?

This month’s At The Grill feature by William Torres (former Research Manager at Cattleland Feedyards and popular presenter at Gentec conferences) talks about why feeding the dam now helps the calf later.

You’ve invested a lot of money on buying the right bulls. You spent a lot of time (and money) selecting your replacement heifers. It took you over a week to match your sires and dams appropriately to go with all of your pastures. Finally, you can treat your herd like an easy oven, set it and forget it! Right? Wrong! You can’t just step away; you have to continually manage your investment.

Pregnancy nutrition is one aspect we should focus on quite heavily. Previously, we didn’t think much about it as long as we had the cows in good condition or, at the very least, in decent condition at calving. However, the observable fact of fetal programing or developmental programming has revealed that improper feeding of dams during pregnancy can have long-term consequences on the subsequent calf.

Cattle fetal programming is the concept that a maternal stimulus or insult at a critical period in fetal development has long-term effects on the offspring. When we talk about humans, if an adult develops weight issues, we quickly chuckle and say “It’s in my genes” (or as I’ve heard, “I’m big boned”). If someone stays slim, we compliment their genes. But what we are talking about here is that any stressor—including inferior cattle nutrition—can be an insult and cause DNA methylation in the developing fetus. The DNA itself cannot change but DNA methylation will cause the activity of the DNA to change, meaning genes will be expressed differently.

Essentially, methylation is turning on or off specific genes. Fetal nourishment can impact biological processes, such as growth, fertility and more once the calf is born.

In other words, the over- and under-nutrition of a mother can change the expression of genes in its progeny. This can then affect certain traits for better or worse when compared to a properly-fed contemporary.

The weight and body condition score of a cow varies throughout the year even though it’s based on the same farm. It is impacted by forage quality, growing, and harvesting conditions of the forage as well as the seasonality of the cow’s production cycle, not to mention regionality. Each environment places challenges on cows, and those that are resilient to those changes are the ones who are able to pass on their genetics to the next generation.

So how can we manage it? There are a number of nutrition specialists you may contact, along with forage specialists. If you are rotating pastures based on harvest to winter your cows, have these analyzed to determine if you need to supplement them. A deficiency in your bred-cow nutrition can seriously jeopardize the future calf’s potential. And it shouldn’t be acceptable to force your cows to rough it.

Think about supplementation from the view of meeting fetus needs as well. It’s important to not just think about the needs of the cows; ensuring their eventual offspring get proper sustenance is key to maximize its genetic potential.

And if you’re raising replacement heifers, think about the role fetal programming plays on a cow’s longevity and fertility. What you do today can affect a cow’s fertility for the next decade or so.

This is an exciting area that Gentec researcher Carolyn Fitzsimmons has been investigating, see here for example. More in a future newsletter.

For more information, contact John Basarab, Gentec’s Director of Beef Operations.