Gentec, Genomics and One Health

As the first veterinarian to become incoming president of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences, Dr. Jay Cross has an uncommon opportunity to bridge the health sciences to create One Health benefits. As a former Chair of Gentec’s Board, he knows that Gentec is already on this path.

“Many of Gentec’s goals align with improving animal health, which will reduce the need for antimicrobials and help with antimicrobial resistance,” he says. “Gentec also focuses on improving production efficiency—especially feed efficiency in beef cattle. When cows develop more meat from less feed, they produce less methane and have less impact on climate change. That benefits everybody.”

Jay chaired Gentec’s Board from 2013 to 2017. During that time and building on previous efforts, Gentec developed into a significant international player, resulting from its involvement in the early days of genomic sequencing of food-producing animals. The data gathered then allowed Gentec to move into identifying genetic markers associated with desirable production traits, such as disease resistance and feed efficiency.

“Gentec was an integral player in terms of advancing the science,” remembers Jay. “But it also worked with partners to translate that new knowledge towards producers. That’s an absolutely critical piece because it’s not a typical mandate for a university-based research organization where success is measured in papers published, grants won and students trained. In my time on Gentec’s Board and as Chair, translation was a major focus. Gentec had industry players at the table and embedded in all the major research projects.”

Unfortunately, Gentec then suffered a period characterized by short-term and reduced funding that limited its ability to attract, retain and develop people playing the vital industry liaison role. The strong liaison team, among them Tom Lynch-Staunton, could not be maintained. However, the new Strategic Plan, co-developed by Gentec and the beef industry, sends a powerful message that Gentec is positioning itself back into the game in terms of translation. Already, momentum is picking up with new Gentecker, Kira Macmillan, the extension specialist. The second strong signal to industry and funders is that Gentec will be providing services that create a revenue stream. Succinctly put, valuable services cost money.

Jay is a cattle breeder by background and current board chair of a new beef genetics and value chain company called Sendero and so he understands why the adoption of genomics has been slow. It’s complicated technology and, at first blush, looks pricey.

“Genomics butts up against two things,” he says. “The Number One question producers ask is: ‘how can I bring the cost down’? They can’t see themselves testing every animal in the herd. The Number Two question is:’ I get genetic evaluations done. Why do I need genomics as well?’.”

The arguments in favour of genomics are convincing. If producers were to do the math, they’d see genomics really is affordable. And they need it because it improves the accuracy of the evaluation significantly—of selecting the right animals for their production systems, which will save them money. That allows us to circle back to feed-efficient animals (for example) having One Health benefits beyond the individual pocketbook.

More importantly, in this fragmented industry, beef producers must remember that they are not competing against each other—but against other protein sources. Swine, poultry and even dairy have seen measurable increases in production efficiency and profitability because they have been quicker to adopt technologies such as genomics.

“Of course, beef producers can continue to ignore genomics or other technologies but they will be left behind,” says Jay. “The consequences aren’t strong yet but, in my lifetime, there will be a clear separation of producers who prefer the status quo and those who choose production efficiencies, sustainability and One Health. We have the tools. The Canadian Beef Improvement Network (CBIN) will not be able to achieve its goals without Gentec’s scientific expertise and translation capabilities to accelerate the adoption of technologies.”

Jay gives Gentec significant credit in getting the industry to see the value of genetic selection to improve cattle. So much so that the Canadian beef industry strategic plan identifies production goals that can only be achieved through ongoing research. The 2021 official launch of CBIN is another example of industry recognizing the merits of genetic selection, good management practices and data collection/analytics. All of these will help producers prepare for the growing consumer engagement with sustainability, animal welfare and antimicrobial resistance as these pertain to food and One Health.

“Taking pretty pictures of cows on green grass isn’t going to move the needle,” declares Jay. “We need changes in production practices. Gentec is poised to play that liaison role, and it needs the budget to do it. Ironically, people in government and industry often pointed to that as a strength but when the budget got tighter, it was the first thing to disappear. And it continues to be Gentec’s biggest risk and biggest strength.”

Gentec: The best-kept secret in Canadian agriculture

Genomics isn’t the first “Big Thing” to land in the lap of farmers and producers. Just looking back 100 years or so, there’s the internal combustion engine, chemical weed control, antimicrobials, refrigeration, no-till technology, GPS—and probably lots more if we think hard enough. These advances—widely and quickly adopted—allowed farms to grow and prosper based on increased yields and back-saving efficiencies.

Genomics has been adopted by the Canadian dairy, crop, pig and poultry sectors but not so much in beef—even though the benefits have been demonstrated.

“Canada’s beef sector faces a unique set of challenges,” explains David Andrews, owner/operator of Lazy A Farms Ltd. and Chair of Gentec’s Management Advisory Board. “Number One is the 50,000 independent cattle farms with an average of 70 cows on each one. This complex community is very difficult to motivate to adopt new technology.”

Two components contribute to profitability: good marketing and low costs. Enter the Canadian Beef Improvement Network (CBIN) (see our articles on CBIN here and here) to address a data exchange system integrating all levels of the sector to reap common benefits—and Gentec to develop the tools producers need to deliver in-demand products more cost-effectively.

“If I ask my neighbours,” says Andrews, “I get blank stares back. Gentec has almost no brand recognition; and yet, it has and will continue to deliver tremendous value to producers.”

Gentec focuses on producers and how to deliver the tools needed to address local opportunities and challenges that genomics and genetic improvement can solve. Gentec prioritizes activities identified by industry that have a clear line of sight to industry benefit.

Part of the invisibility is due to timing. Since 2010, Gentec has been compiling uniquely-Canadian databases of phenotypes and genotypes of beef and swine. That will never make headlines. What has are the tools created out of those data:

Using EnVigour HX could increase net returns to producers by $160/cow/year, creating a total benefit of $205 – $410 million AND reduce the sector’s carbon footprint. gEPDs can improve fertility and feed efficiency, and quality for carbon credits estimated at $145 – $324 million over 5 years. Using the Indexes costs a couple of thousand dollars vs several thousand for the old-style, individual genetic tests.

With these tools and the numbers that support their use, Gentec, in the form of new Head of Beef Operations, John Basarab, Clinton Brons and Kira Macmillan, is more visible in the agricultural community (as seen in August 2021 at AgSmart).

“That’s where I see Gentec’s role,” says Andrews. “We provide the dedicated research and the data to back up the arguments for everybody in the value chain who uses genomics. We communicate with the industry associations, packers and retail; they relay consistent, evidence-based messaging to their members.”

That mandate is reflected in Gentec’s latest Strategic Framework, with a virtuous circle of generating revenue from research to fund extension activities in a self-sustaining way.

“One thing that will help with uptake is the growing number of young managers of large herds,” says Andrews. “They’re more inclined to read and understand the research, so I expect to see significant progress in the coming years. Gentec will have an important role in communicating credible information that producers can trust.”

Ambitious 10-year goals for the beef industry

The world has changed enormously in the last decade. The beef industry wanted a roadmap that takes it 10 years out (but still building on the 2020-2024 goals) to support Canada’s regional beef organizations and speak to the global conversation on sustainability and climate-change.

“We also wanted to showcase that a strong Canadian beef industry is integral for climate mitigation and the sustainability of the food system as a whole,” says Brenna Grant, Secretariat of the Canadian Beef Advisors. “The thinking behind these seven goals is to spur innovation in the industry so we can achieve more than if we hadn’t set the goals in the first place.”

Goal 1. Greenhouse gas and carbon sequestration

Can we keep global warming from exceeding the 1.5°C target? Even though they are unintentional by-producers of methane and carbon, beef and agriculture also contribute to the solution. The 2030 industry goals are:

  • Safeguard the existing 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon stored on lands managed with beef cattle.
  • Sequester an additional 3.4 million tonnes of carbon every year.
  • Reduce primary production of GHG emission intensity by 33% by 2030.
  • Reduce food loss and waste from secondary processing to consumer by 50% by 2030.

Agriculture is one of the front-line sectors in terms of being affected immediately by weather fluctuations and extremes, so building resilience within production systems is critical. One of agriculture’s advantages is the potential to sequester additional carbon in grasslands managed by cattle-grazing.

“We want to empower producers to measure and monitor the change and get paid for it,” says Grant. The US government is already looking at that.

For more information on how producers can help achieve these goals, see the factsheet here.

Goal 2. Animal health and welfare

Animal health and welfare are closely tied, not only through management practices that allow animals to engage in the species-specific behaviours that keep them healthy but also through the appropriate provision of medicines that heal them.

  • Ensure the five freedoms of animal wellbeing by increasing adoption of on-farm management practices.
  • Ensure the effectiveness of existing and future antimicrobials is preserved to support human and animal health and welfare.

What makes sense in one production system and species may not in another. Just in the beef sector, there’s a huge diversity of production systems across the country, from cow-calf to backgrounding and finishing. Producers already have a high level of care, and that needs to be recognized. The new goals show that the Canadian beef industry is committed to welfare; and part of that means protecting the effectiveness of antimicrobials so those products are still around in the future for humans and animals. Like Goal 1, the agriculture sector won’t achieve this on its own. For more information on how producers can help achieve these goals, see the factsheet here.

Goal 3. Land Use and Biodiversity

“We can’t safeguard 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon on land if we don’t maintain 35 million acres of native grassland,” acknowledges Grant. “If it gets converted, plowed or developed, a lot of carbon is released. So to achieve Goal 1, we need this underlying land-use goal.”

  • Maintain the 35 million acres of native grassland in the care of beef producers.
  • Maintain a network of natural landscapes and healthy functioning ecosystems through well-managed grazing systems that maintain sustainable plant communities and healthy rangelands.

This goal has the most support—but is by far the most difficult to achieve because commodity prices drive land conversion; and with technology, rainfall and new cultivars, more areas are amenable to crops. If farmers aren’t getting paid for carbon capture and biodiversity, that land is at risk of being converted to other uses. So payment for ecosystem services is critical, and will make the difference in maintaining the grasslands and other areas around Canada that can sequester carbon even faster than native prairie. For more information, see the factsheet here.

Goal 4. Water

The water goals were designed to be principles that recognize the effect water has on the landscape and to reflect the diversity of Canada’s regions.

  • Promote practices that maximize water quality and retention to deliver healthier landscapes, resilience to drought and flood events, and groundwater recharge as appropriate to the region’s precipitation.
  • Improve water use efficiency in the beef value chain.
  • Build recognition by the public and policy-makers of the benefits provided by grassland ecosystems.

“Canada has one of the lowest water use numbers in the world for beef cattle,” says Grant. “We definitely want to promote practices that continue to ensure efficiencies throughout the supply chain.”

For more information on how producers can help achieve these goals, see the factsheet here.

Goal 5. People health and safety

Goal 5 is about taking care of the people in the beef industry: producers, employees, ranchers, feedlot operators, packers, etc.

  • Create a culture of safety across the beef industry supply chain.
  • Reduce serious, fatal, and fatigue-related incidents by 1.5% per year up to 2030, by supporting education, awareness and improvements in farm and ranch safety.

“Increasing education, awareness and training helps reduce serious incidents,” says Grant. “We were developing these goals during the lockdowns, which raised our own awareness of mental health issues and the lack of supports for this in some rural areas. Plus, COVID comes on top of other stressors like adverse weather events, market challenges, supply issues that are making these challenging for everybody in the supply chain. We want to make sure that support and training are available in rural areas.”

For more information on how producers can help achieve these principles, see the factsheet here.

Goal 6. Beef quality and food safety

Canada has a lower percentage of AAA and Prime carcasses than the US, and premiums for Canada AAA are smaller than those for USDA Choice. Demand must be built for every cut on the AAA carcass to match premiums and send a market signal back to producers to produce more. AAA and Prime provide a more consistent and satisfactory eating experience, and consumers prefer them. The enabling goals are:

  • Establish the inherent quality and value of Canadian Beef in domestic and export markets which supports comparative equivalency or superiority to alternatives.
  • Increase the value of AAA and Prime carcasses to be equivalent with the US by building demand for all cuts on the carcass.
  • Remove internal regulatory impediments to innovation, export and commercial trade and the competitiveness of Canadian beef in domestic and international markets.
  • Support the development, regulatory approval and adoption of improved food safety interventions and technologies throughout the supply chain.

As well, the industry needs to keep a closer eye on developments in food safety technologies in the supply chain so that regulatory approval can be obtained faster.

“We’ve seen that regulatory impediments are reflected by a reluctance to adopt a technology, especially if that technology is not recognized internationally by trading partners,” says Grant. “Either it gets implemented everywhere quickly, or everybody waits to see what everybody else is going to do. At the same time, we can be proactive about consumer acceptance to avoid past mistakes.”

For more information on the beef quality and food safety goals, see the factsheet here.

Goal 7. Technology

“We realized that, if we didn’t have specific goals around technology in terms of providing solutions for industry, we weren’t going to reach our other goals,” says Grant. “Technology really is an enabling goal.”

  • Improvements in speed, reliability, accuracy, and cost-effectiveness of traceability solutions that advance both business and regulatory objectives.
  • Supporting functional information flow solutions to producers derived from a competitive service sector.
  • Invest in technological solutions that reduce costs, improve competitiveness and enable regulatory approvals and business functions that support trade and commerce.
  • Support innovation, research, refinement and commercialization of technologies throughout the supply chain that support economic viability and worker conditions.
  • Promote the acceptance of sustainable and safe beef production technologies by customers and regulators, in both domestic and international markets.

“There has to be a willingness to invest up front to address the challenges that producers face so we tried to identify those challenges. We want to partner with those who have expertise in technology. Sometimes, it’s already invented, it just needs to be adapted to the sector,” explains Grant. “The answer lies in demonstration and trials to see what works best.”

For more information on the technology goals, see the factsheet here.

 

 

Sean McGrath joins Gentec’s Management Advisory Board

Gentec welcomes Alberta producer and 5th generation / Centennial Ranch owner Sean McGrath to its Management Advisory Board. A feature-length article on Sean and the Round Rock Ranch will appear in our October 2021 issue as the second installment of our Centennial Ranch series.

Sean, his wife Tanya and three children manage and maintain a herd of 200 cows on native rangeland, and brings a unique mix of the practical, experimental and entrepreneurial perspectives to the MAB. The cattle work is still done on horseback (“nothing more effective and more time-tested”); he provides skin-in-the-game by enrolling his cattle and pastures into our research projects as well as providing strategic and practical oversight; and he is the founder / President of  Ranching Systems Ltd.

Through these initiatives, Sean brings an invaluable skill set to Gentec: He graduated from USask with a BSA with Distinction1999 and from the Animal Science Major Executive Development Program (George Morris Centre – now AgriFood Management Excellence). He has an extensive understanding of the science and application of genomics through providing genetic evaluation services to national breed organizations, experience in delivering consulting and extension services to beef producers while working hard to instill the agricultural skills in the next generation as an instructor at Lakeland College.

All these aspects are consistent with Sean’s approach to his own operation … right down to having DNA on file for every cow and bull in his herd.

REPORT: Silos of excellence webinar

On September 23, 2021, the Agri-food Innovation Council hosted a panel-based webinar to discuss the most effective ways to advocate in meetings with federal ministers, and whether Canada’s plethora of industry groups is the right approach versus a single unified voice. The panelists were:

  • Bob Friesen, Past President and VP of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, member of the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs.
  • Andy Mitchell, PC, former minister of AAFC in the governments of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin.

Gentec attended this webinar so you don’t have to. We summarize below the panelists’ comments on the key points.

Opening comments

Mitchell. Advocacy is central to the development of policy. Without it, ministers would not have the information they need. There are three key points to effective messaging:

  1. Quality trumps quantity. Concise, well-presented information is welcomed.
  2. Expertise trumps politics. We need to know your expert opinion, not the colour of your politics.
  3. Relationship trumps rhetoric. Relationships build trust and a rapport that makes the messaging more than just words.

Advocacy is about getting information from experts so you can test hypotheses. Organizations need to be effective, prepared, professional, knowledgeable and have a few key messages. Messaging should ask for what the government has power to achieve. Make sure the ask is clear. Too often it isn’t. Blue-sky requests waste everybody’s time. Understand the difference between policy and politics, again to avoid wasting time. Be prepared to listen but let the minister’s team talk because that’s how you gain intelligence.

Friesen. I agree with the above. Often, meetings with the minister feel like a conversation. That’s not what these meetings are about. They are for a precise policy issue or an ask. Also, we tend to forget that government is not there for us to right. Collaboration is the best approach.

Thousands of organizations represent agrifood, of which 1,200 are registered to lobby. Is that too many? Is it effective?

Mitchell. Too many voices can be a problem but agriculture is complex and operates at a number of levels, so it’s not surprising that there are so many. It’s useful to deal with umbrella organizations that represent others at a national level. Not all organizations take the same view because some issues don’t have common ground. Those umbrella organizations play a role in trying to build that consensus. That process is critical. Again, the message is what’s important, not the size of the organization.

Friesen. The number of organizations doesn’t necessarily mean the sector is divided. Some of them are sector-specific or commodity specific or speak to specific policy issues. When an issue transcends a sector or commodity, that’s when organizations should collaborate. When I was President of the CFA, our approach was not to speak on commodity issues unless we had a position that endorsed it. The current president has done an excellent job of reaching out to non-CFA members, even internationally, to collaborate and agree on messaging.

Farmers are funding a plethora of CEOs and Executive Directors. It’s a lot of overhead to carry, and farmers are confused as to whom to send their dollars to.

Mitchell. Organizations need clear lines of communications and accountability. I don’t believe that’s a problem with CFA members or many other organizations. However, they have to communicate to their members what they stand for, and how they fit in the larger agenda. And at the end of the day, farmers choose whom they support.

There’s a concern that umbrella organization have a long list of issues. Do you get a sense that umbrella organizations have trade-offs on what is presented to ministers?

Mitchell. If it’s a broad policy issue, then an umbrella organization like CFA makes sense, especially if it has worked to build consensus already. But for a commodity issue, you want to hear from a commodity organization. It’s never a good idea to go to a minister’s meeting with a list of priorities because it looks like nothing is a priority. So both types of organization are important.

Friesen. Ministers can’t deliver on everything so it is the responsibility of organizations to prioritize. Another thing to note is that ministers have to go ask for the money. For a while we had brutal net farm incomes, and always wanted funding—but we were sensitive to the fact that the minister has to sit at a Cabinet table where every minister is asking for money for their issues.

Trade policy is an example of commodity vs general issues. I had turkeys and pigs on my own farm. Both have different trade policy interests. So if I said to Andy (Mitchell) that I didn’t care about supply management, I just want more market for pigs, Andy can’t advocate for just one sector. As minister, he must negotiate for all agriculture so that all farmers are better off. It amazes me that commodity groups meet the minister, hammer in their interests, and think the minister believes nobody else matters. That’s not how it works. Collaboration works.

Is there a fear that when you collaborate, is there a concern that some of the expertise or individuality of the case will be lost? Collaboration is great but how do you see beyond that to ensure all voices are well represented?

Friesen. There’s no fear of losing individuality. I would ask the Canadian Pork Council, What is your issue? Do you want us to weigh in on it in public? They would let us know the commodity messaging. If the issue was general, they and all the other commodity groups brought expertise. We have ten provincial farm organizations all doing the same thing we’re trying to achieve nationally.

Mitchell. When I got to Cabinet, I worked with the Rt. Hon. Herb Gray who had been around a long time. He said something that stuck with me: When you go into the Cabinet room and insist on your way, and others do too, none of you get anything any of the time. That shows the importance of building consensus—because if you can get 80% of what you need 80% of the time, you’re probably successful.

Was the research agenda a top priority when groups came to see you?

Mitchell. I believe that pushing the research and innovation agenda on broad pillars is more effective than narrowly, by commodity. Examples of a broad approach would be increasing yield, environmental protection, production processes. These are more effective and easily actionable.

Another way to encourage collaboration is to reward it in research proposals. There’s only a finite amount of money in the federal pot, so collaboration leverages that funding to make it go farther. That’s what we like to see.

Alberta’s Centennial Ranches strongly connected to Gentec

Cherie is CEO of the vast CL Ranches located just outside Calgary’s western city limits. The ranch itself consists of seedstock and commercial cow/calf operations, a backgrounding lot and a large mixed-grain farming operation.

After graduating from the Texas Christian University Ranch Management Program, Cherie managed an 11,000-cow beef operation in Uruguay, selling beef directly into Canada and the EU. Her time in Uruguay also exposed her to the packing industry through an investment into an 850-head capacity packing plant. Most importantly, Cherie is the mother of the 5th generation of ranchers at CL Ranches, and as such, dedicates much of her time to defining what sustainability will mean to them. Towards this end, Cherie has been generous with her time providing her expertise and leadership through participation in the following initiatives, to name a few:

  • WA Ranch Advisor Member – University of Calgary
  • Advisory Board Member of Strategic Engagement Group, Olds College
  • Advisory Member Rangeland Research Institute – University of Alberta
  • Executive Committee Member – Canadian Beef Improvement Network
  • Sendero – Director & Co-Founder
  • Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef – Executive Officer
  • Canadian Cattlemen’s Young Leaders -Mentor
  • Calgary Stampede – Board of Directors
  • Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA) – Interim Chair & Executive Committee Member
  • Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB) – Chair
  • Calgary Stampede – Chair Agri-Food

She speaks affectionately of the sustainability of the operation and the resiliency of the cattle. Upon hearing her story, it is easy to infer that these are also the traits the family has had to exhibit to advance the ranch into its current, 4th generation of stewardship.

The genesis of the ranch stretches back to 1887 when brothers Richard and John Copithorne arrived in Canada from Cork, Ireland. They established a homestead, and began a new life raising cattle along the Jumping Pound Creek under the Lazy J brand. It was also here that they built the foundations of an operation that paved the way for Richard to register is own independent CL brand in 1895. One hundred and twenty-six years later, Cherie is leading it through its 4th generation and working hard to hand it off to the 5th in even better condition than she inherited it.

Although the entrepreneurial spirit may be the same, the operation has morphed from a range herd of Durham cattle that saw the brothers survive hard times, in part through bartering butter, into to a sophisticated operation—but one that still uses all the resources available to grow and sustain the legacy.

To this end, Cherie and her team capitalize on the abundance of gravel on their property; partner with a local outfitter to allow hunting on their land; and undertake land development initiatives. There is even a complete Hollywood filmset featuring scenes from the 1850s through to 1940 on the property.  As any cowgirl will grimace, “Cows can’t pay all the bills!”

As in any industry, progress occurs and the innovations of the day are adopted to stay competitive. The Durham cattle gave way to horned Herefords. Later, the “heresy” of crossbred cattle entered the fray – in Alberta, this occurred through the pioneering work of Roy Berg and as a result of enterprising ranchers willing to try out “what seemed to work” as opposed to blind orthodoxy. Other advances pursued over the years included becoming an early adopter of artificial insemination technology and an intense selection for the maternal characteristics that still characterize the herd. As for the latter, much of this work was done through collaboration with the Beefbooster system led by John Stewart-Smith. Through the years, CL Ranches has been an early and continual adopter of this science, exhibiting a curiosity and habit of applied experimentation that still exists today.

Today’s herd has been developed around the (still evolving) CL SuperCross seedstock cattle breeding program, and employs any and all tools that deliver practical results. This means pursuing a balanced approach focused on optimizing the herd as opposed to maximizing any single characteristic. Here, everyone is expected to work hard. The cows must be efficient and raise a strong calf every year—and not in not the easiest of conditions (Alberta!). Calves are expected to maintain a high and efficient-post weaning gain, and their beef to be tender, of high yield, abundant marbling, and great taste.

“At the end of the day,” says Cherie. “If we want to thrive, our cows have to deliver for us, for our customers, and ultimately our customer’s customer”.

Included in this is the belief that you can only manage what you measure. SuperCross cattle must perform on a 40-45 day breeding interval (still in Alberta), demonstrate conception rates well in excess of 90%, and deliver on pounds of weaned calf per cow in the fall.

This is why we at Gentec are so excited to have Cherie join our Management Advisory Board. As stated by Chair David Andrews, “If you look at the priorities of CL Ranches, they overlay almost perfectly with the performance metrics established for Gentec over the next 5 years. Cherie’s ranch and management is as good as it gets. She wakes up every morning thinking about exactly the same mandate as we do; she is exceptionally well connected within the industry through a lifetime of ranching, industry leadership, and boots-on-the-ground practicality that resonates with other producers. We need that to succeed and that is why we are so excited to have her and Sean, joining the MAB.”

Cherie concurs. The adventure is not over. The future of breeding cattle lies in finding profitability through the predictability of an animal’s performance within all segments of the beef value chain. CL Ranches is also a founding investor in Sendero Limited, a company that focuses on bringing together like-minded producers, feeders (and one day possibly even packers) to make this a reality.

“We want to create a value chain that improves and optimizes the genetic merit of the cattle,” says Cherie. “This is done through genetics and by improving the management practices used in the environments that produce them. To do this, phenotypic and genotypic information needs to be collected, analyzed, and result in better combinations of cow, environment and management.”

As the saying goes, if you actually want to get something done, ask a busy person. How does Cherie respond?

“I am honoured to be a part of the MAB. Gentec is a world leader when it comes to innovation, and I look forward to contributing to this journey of continual improvement for Canada’s beef industry.”

“Made in Alberta by Albertans”

Alberta’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry announced in July that local produce could soon carry a little sticker with these very words.

This label, which can be used throughout the food system—farmer’s markets, grocery stores and restaurants, for example—will be a key piece of information generated by producers to communicate the evidence in which they are highly interested. There are a variety of reasons for consumer interest in local food, such as freshness and a sincere desire to support local producers.

It is worth mentioning that other provinces have similar programs. For example, Foodland Ontario has been around since 1977, and BC reintroduced a Buy BC program in 2018 after an almost ten years hiatus.

Do these programs benefit producers and consumers? Most research shows that that they are effective from the standpoint of consumer awareness and sales of products. For example, Foodland Ontario noted that over 90% of Ontario consumers are familiar with and value the Foodland Ontario logo. A benefit of using a common logo throughout the food system may be increased awareness of the range of foods produced in Alberta throughout the year.

Throughout the pandemic consumers have increased their demand for ‘local’ foods, partly in response to concerns about shortages but also through a desire to shorten the food supply chains… have fewer steps and fewer hands between producer and consumer. A 2021 AgriNovus report on the impact of the pandemic on Indiana agribusiness highlighted the increased importance of transparency and traceability to the future resilience of the sector. If consumers want ‘local’, they also want to know that ‘local’ is verified and can be traced through supply chains. This means an increased focus on traceability systems will naturally accompany the application of local food branding. The AgriNovus report highlighted the variety of technologies which can enhance traceability, including genetic tracing, block chain, near-field communication (NFC), radio-frequency identification (RFID) and the Internet of Things. These technologies can make the operation of multiple supply chains for identity-protected products more efficient and provide guarantees to customers and consumers. Whether buying local means visiting a u-pick, a farmers’ market or a supermarket, traceability can support a Made in Alberta by Albertans identification program.

A few years ago, we studied Canadian consumer interest in genetic or RFID traceability systems in pork. At that time, traceability back to farm of origin was highly valued by Canadian consumers, with a preference for the use of genetic traceability over RFID systems. It will be interesting to monitor the roll out of the Alberta program across commodities and to assess the role of genetic technology in enhancing the labelling/identification program. Research suggests that this use of genetic technology generates few concerns for the public.

REPORT: Trust in agri-food innovation in the face of decreasing public confidence

On August 26, 2021, the Agri-food Innovation Council hosted a panel-based webinar to discuss factors contributing to the decreasing public trust in the food sector, implications for agri-food research and innovation, and recommendations to build public trust. The panelists were:

  • Dr. Jill E. Hobbs, Professor, College of Agriculture and Bioresources, University of Saskatchewan
  • Mr. John Jamieson, President and CEO, Canadian Centre for Food Integrity
  • Dr. Jeff Kinder, Executive Director, Science and Innovation, Institute on Governance

Gentec attended this webinar so you don’t have to. We summarize below the panelists’ comments on the key points.

What is the current state of trust in the agri-food sector?

KINDER. Trust is higher than in the US but it’s a mixed bag right now, partly because of the pandemic. Governments put scientists front and centre in their communications with the public. But that highlighted that there’s a general misunderstanding of how science works, as shown in the public not understanding why the signals changed around wearing masks. And the pandemic also gave voice to anti-vaxxers. We see Canadians’ trust reflected in the Adelman Trust Barometer, which shows 83% of trust in scientists compared to only 43% who trust CEOs, business leaders and government. But the latest 3m survey cautions that 58% of respondents think scientists are elitist and 38% think they’re not as ethical as they should be.

HOBBS. The challenge occurs when drilling down to the context. Consumers trust some things but not others so the issue is more nuanced than just “trusting science.” Cultural, economic, social and other values are involved. In our research, we were surprised that 80% of people picked credible sources (Health Canada, traditional media, etc.) and science over consumer blog posts. That’s encouraging. We know there’s more trust of biotech in medicine than in agriculture. Why the difference?

JAMIESON. We saw a marked increase in support for the food system during the pandemic because it was able to pivot and continued to put product on store shelves. But I agree that, when we drill down, consumers are wary. When we look at GMOs and pesticide use, less than 50% of people support these. It’s interesting that we want technology in almost every facet of life—we don’t go to a doctor who uses leaches—but we also don’t recognize technology that creates better animal welfare and affordability. We know that Canadians are concerned with affordability so it’s interesting that they struggle with technologies that enable it. In our interviews of 3,000 Canadians, less than half say agriculture is heading in the right direction. It comes from a lack of knowledge. Ninety percent say they know little or nothing about agriculture. That’s not surprising. As people get farther away from the farm, they know less about processes and practices.

However, squeaky wheels in relation to social media and misinformation are major sources of concern. Social media has allowed everyone to have an opinion, not necessarily based on fact. And because of algorithms, there’s a bias in your social media feed. So if you happen to view something with negative connotations around GMOs, you will continue to see that. As a sector, we see that researchers are second only to farmers as the most trusted source of information, so if we can continue to cite sources, be open and transparent and use social media, we can advance from some pitfalls.

HOBBS. The way we make decisions is heuristics. With availability heuristics, we tend to use information that’s readily available and easy to digest. That’s what social media is about. Social media is not going away so we must engage creatively in terms of how people respond to different types of information.

KINDER. Food is special because it’s essential, so it hits close to home. It’s a dynamic we partake in every day but we don’t understand where it comes from because we’re removed from the farm. Plus, there’s skepticism around disruptive technology. Agri-food is not starting with a clean slate. Examples include rBGH, GMO, glyphosate, mad cow disease. They are not failures of science but of communication and transparency. So we have to deal with those failures.

How has the erosion of trust impacted researchers and consumers?

KINDER. It’s part of a broader concern about the erosion of the social contract. After World War II, society decided to continue funding science in peace time, and provided a certain autonomy in deciding funding and how to spend it. We continue to hear that scientists are in the best position to decide what counts as evidence but the post-trust reality may need a new approach and to rethink the social contract.

HOBBS. An additional dimension is that science must think about how to frame tech. For example, should we have given “food irradiation” a different name? The resemblance of the word to radiation and nuclear accidents freaks people out. Producer groups that fund applied research in agriculture and are a good source of communication play an important role, although their perspective is sometimes too narrow. For scientists, the incentives to communicate with the public aren’t built into the system. Whose role is it to communicate science? Not all consumers are concerned about agricultural technology—but is the vocal minority starting to shift policy?

JAMIESON. It has affected producers and shaken their confidence in what they do. You must be confident to do better. The sector has started to communicate the value of the technology to society, and increased the transparency in the sector. It prompted the industry to do better in terms of communications and framing. Gestation crates have a negative connotation but if you talk about maternity pens, suddenly, they are more acceptable. All of this will advance public trust.

Efforts are being made to increase trust in agri-food. What else could be done?

JAMIESON. The main thing to build trust is to have the industry communicate messages consistently and in unity. Don’t tear other parts of the industry down. The other side is doing the right thing and VERIFYING that you’re doing the right thing. Then communicate that. It sounds simple but it’s not. Being open and transparent does not mean being defensive. We might be scientists or producers but we’re all consumers as well. Communicating values is important because most of us have similar values.

I worked with AquaBounty, the company that has just brought GMO salmon to store shelves after 30 years because they had a difficult time getting the public to accept the benefits. One of the directors said,” We thought we had science on our side and that would be enough.” Of course, it wasn’t. That’s an important story. We’re doing a better job on communications. That’s how we will advance trust.

HOBBS. If there are issues, own your mistakes. There is always collateral damage because issues affect everybody, so work together to communicate better across the supply chain. We don’t always do that. People respond well to stories because they are easy to understand so we must tell stories that resonate with people.

KINDER. Communications with an “s” typically means a one-way broadcast model. Communication with no “s” is a multi-way dialogue. It’s listening as much as talking. Eighty-eight percent of 3M respondents want communication in plain language. Eighty-five percent want more results more often and 80% want them more relatable to everyday life. So we need to avoid the deficit model of communications that assumes the public are empty vessels that need to be filled.

Also, political, legal, cultural and other considerations need to be taken into consideration at the policy-making stage, not just scientific evidence. Science is just part of what goes into a policy decision.

Great wins for science communications in agri-food that won “hearts and minds” include Arctic apples.

What do we do next to avoid the erosion of trust?

KINDER. Bring the public in sooner in the discussion on agri-food. It will be messy but that’s where we need to go.

HOBBS. Nobody has a crystal ball, but keep communications transparent and stay ahead of the issues collectively.

JAMIESON. This is the mandate of the Centre. It boils down to doing the things we’re doing, understanding what people are thinking about, what’s important to them, then working on shared knowledge and shared values. It’s progress rather than perfection. It’s important to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. It’s only been 10-15 years since the system has thought about public trust. We’re getting better all the time.

Health… welfare… planet

“So often, at beef producer meetings, I hear people say that we need to educate the public about agriculture,” says Mike McMorris, CEO of the Ontario-based Livestock Research Innovation Corporation (LRIC). “But most consumers don’t want to be educated. They want to trust that the system functions to the highest standard. Trust being the key word.”

Animal-free protein products

Instead, in polls on why consumers find alternative proteins appealing, the answers (rightly or wrongly) focus on better human health, animal welfare and environmental health. Gaudy headlines promising Armageddon should agriculture continue in its current direction don’t help.

“That’s a pretty clear signal that people think livestock products are not better. Every producer should ask themselves how they are progressing on those three issues,” warns McMorris.

However, those issues are “wicked problems” that take time and resources, and on which the livestock sector will have to collaborate with a wide range of players (such as researchers, economists, nutritionists, veterinarians, consumers, environmentalists). To add another layer of complexity, the issues are tied to other wicked problems that may not even be on most people’s radar. McMorris and LRIC have developed a webinar and white paper on each one that we at Gentec encourage our community to check out. We also provide the potted version below.

The impacts of livestock on climate change and soil health

Globally, agriculture uses about 70% of all water withdrawn from renewable fresh water sources. The livestock industry consumes water mostly for drinking, out of which we get products such as milk, eggs and meat—and products such as urine and manure, which must be managed because they may degrade freshwater systems in several ways (E. coli, etc.) when released. Livestock are also a source of greenhouse gas emissions in the form of manure, and methane released through belching, although not to the extent you hear in the media.

“Don’t just read the headlines,” fulminates McMorris. “You’ll get the wrong story or be confused. You have to understand the context behind the numbers.”

In Canada, for example, 80% of beef cattle live most of their lives on the range and drink rainwater. In Alberta especially, they contribute to controlling invasive species on the Prairies, one of the most endangered ecosystems. That’s very different from raising livestock intensively in a feedlot—in Alberta or anywhere else—where water needs will be higher but, in the case of Australian lamb, still not affect freshwater supplies.

“For producers, knowing that each individual operation has an impact, they can find the counterpoints,” argues McMorris. “Cows burp? Yes, but they also turn unusable land into a nutritious protein for humans. Everybody’s looking for the simple answer. It’s always more nuanced.”

In his best-selling book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell explains how ideas spread like epidemics, little noticed until exponential growth hits a point of rapid change… and then things seem unstoppable. McMorris fears that “livestock = bad” is approaching that tipping point.

“Most consumers are generations removed from the farm, and don’t discriminate between beef cows and laying hens,” he laments. “It’s all just ‘animal agriculture’. The media often present a wrong, incomplete or biased context. The only way to avoid that is for ag groups to be proactive and collaborative in getting out messages about what we’re doing on the health, welfare and planet issues that matter to consumers.”

AMR: Antimicrobial resistance (taking a new One Health approach) and zoonoses

In Canada, 75% of antibiotics are used in animals, of which a small percentage involves pharmaceuticals of importance to humans. Canadian pharmacies and hospitals gave out 250,000 kg of antibiotics in 2016 alone. Because antibiotics are so widely used, they no longer always kill common bacteria. These resistant bacteria travel through lakes, rivers, ditches, water treatment plants, soil and landfill sites through the food chain and up to humans.

“Again,” says, McMorris, “context matters, so read deeper than the headlines. In dairy and poultry, where supply management regulates the price of the product, farmers normally work with their veterinarian and a herd health plan. Other sectors, like beef, respond to various external pressures so they are more cost conscious. The vet is as an expense.”

McMorris recommends that beef producers understand the bigger picture surrounding AMR, that they track their use of antibiotics, dispose of excess product safely, and follow the treatment according to the label and the vet.

AMR is the quintessential wicked problem that binds us all together. Although some consumers are willing to pay a small premium for products that are certified “raised without antibiotics,” thinking they are helping with AMR, few realize that withholding antibiotics from sick animals is a terrible welfare strategy, putting the whole herd, and ultimately humans too, at risk of infection. Good intentions don’t cut it.

One of the great fears is that some bacteria will eventually resist even the most powerful antibiotics reserved for human use. Should that happen, we can expect more animal-to-human and human-to-animal transfer of disease (zoonoses). COVID-19 is the mother of all zoonoses (so far); others include rabies, salmonella, Ebola, encephalitis from ticks and Lyme disease.

Part of the answer lies in the JUDICIOUS use of antibiotics, which requires compromise by all parties. Another part lies in thinking globally. As COVID-19 has taught us, variants can appear anywhere, at any time. Being vaccinated in Canada isn’t enough. All the world’s citizens need to be vaccinated for the response to be effective. It’s the same on the farm, especially since animals and products move around a lot and are exported. Producers must have thorough biosecurity that includes people, family and pets as well as the more obvious delivery trucks, feed and farm machinery.

Genetics

Humans have used genetics in agriculture from its earliest days to create products they want; the development of corn from a weedy grass into the powerhouse we know today is good example. Whereas breeding used to be done by “eye”, now we have technology, databases and tools such as CRISPR to help out. The rationale is still the same: deliver affordable, nutritious food to 7.8 billion hungry mouths.

Genetics has made incredible differences to the dairy sector. For example, milk yields have increased, butterfat has increased and decreased according to demand, polled (hornless) cows have improved farm safety and reduced injuries. The beef sector has not benefitted from genetics to the same extent. Cow calf producers are interested in the longevity of the cow, a live calf on the ground every year. Feedlot producers want daily gain, marbling; and packers want a big carcass. And consumers want low cost, sustainable production and good animal welfare. The Canadian Beef Improvement Network (CBIN) was launched to help derive the benefits of genetics for the entire beef supply chain, always with a key focus on the consumer.

The Gene: An intimate history should be required reading,” says McMorris. “It’s about mankind’s understanding of genetics from 5,000 years ago to today with some thoughts about the future. Today, genetic technologies are incredibly powerful, and we all need some understanding to develop well thought-out positions on what parts of it we will and will not use—in humans and in agriculture. Right now, there are a lot of uninformed people with strong opinions.”

Many years ago, a staff member at the Elora Beef Research Station told McMorris that, given a chance to start over, he’d take Psychology at university instead of Animal Science because he finally realized that when you get out into the world and see how things work, it’s all about people.

“That’s why, on genetics and all the other Big Things, the livestock sector needs consistent, informed, collaborative messaging. Because we have to connect with people.”

 

“We all need to change a little bit,” concludes McMorris. “Life is changing fast. We can be part of that change and help to create the future—or risk becoming a victim of what others decide.”

Gentec at AgSmart: Summary and insight

The theme of the 2nd annual AgSmart agricultural education event hosted by Olds College on August 10-11, 2021 was Growing Profits With Data, which served as an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the entrepreneurial start-ups poised to shape Alberta’s agricultural industry as well as the technological advances and Smart Farm concepts used to train the next generation of producers.

Gentec staff weren’t the only ones eager to interact with the world again. Despite mixed weather, over 1,000 attendees made the trip to attend one of the 96 sessions, stop by one of the more than 100 exhibitors or visit one of the many food trucks and catch up with the many others who share a common interest in agriculture.

Perhaps the most surprising revelation of the event was the breadth and variety of expertise in attendance. Sessions ranged from how information management systems could be used to improve relations with your banker; an organic bio-stimulant venture hosting and collecting the “excrement” (their term) of 17 million earthworms to use as the perfect plant food; a camera company using artificial intelligence and facial recognition to monitor herd welfare; and of course—the benefits of DNA applications. Speaking of which…

Dr. John Basarab, Gentec’s new Head of Beef Operations, led a session on the value that genomics tools can deliver to beef producers and emerging tools for the commercial beef producer. The session introduced two new tools targeting the commercial beef producer that have been developed as part of our ongoing research and proprietary databases of Alberta beef herds: the Feeder Profit Index and the Replacement Heifer index. A more thorough review of the presentation and how it aligns with the Canadian Beef Strategy can be found here.

John was joined by Cameron Olson and Lisa McKeown who helped host our live-animal Efficient Heifer Competition. Each hosted several information sessions featuring 6 of the most attractive heifers many in the audience had ever seen. The take-away message was that true beauty is more than skin deep—in this case, genomic deep—since the session highlighted the economic benefits of hybrid vigour in terms of fertility and low residual feed intake, which are invisible to the naked eye.

And what could be more beautiful than the ability to select a feed-efficient, fertile heifer with a greater statistical likelihood of producing a healthy calf year in and year out? Following the presentation, attendees were encouraged to stop by the Gentec booth to enter their newly-informed guess in the competition, with one correct contestant to win a prize.

At the Gentec booth, the team (Kira MacMillan, Clinton Brons, Gentec CEO Graham Plastow and Board Chair David Andrews) were delighted to meet so many interested delegates, new faces and old friends. Traffic at the booth was continual during the event, allowing us to connect with new producers who just happened to pass by, joined by those who specifically sought us out as a result of John’s presentation (above) or to enter the Efficient Heifer Competition. We were delighted that Jennifer Stewart-Smith (Beefbooster CEO) joined the team on both days to help introduce the “arm-chair rancher” project as well as taking in some of the other exhibits.

Gentec had the opportunity to say Thank You to a number of individuals and organizations who have enabled our mission to support the beef industry over the years. Thus, we were pleased to host special guests including Cherie Copithorne-Barnes, the Hon. Dan and Kathy Hays, William Torres from Vytelle (formerly GrowSafe), Doug Wray, the Foothills Forage and Grazing Association, and Joe Lofthouse from Highway 21 Feeders.

Phil Norregaard and his son Mark attended on behalf of Foothills Forage Association. Mark turned out to win the Efficient Heifer Competition, which resulted in a visit from Gentec at their Twin Lakes Ranch to deliver the grand prize of a Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker.