Genomics can be both animal friendly, production oriented

When it comes to livestock breeding using genomics technology, should animal welfare take priority over productivity?

The question was posed by veterinarian and researcher Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein at a recent conference about the implications of genomics and food animals.

Her answer was yes, but other academics suggested the two outcomes need not be mutually exclusive.

The query, and others that explore the ethical, social and economic implications of genomics, is more than academic. Genomics hold potential to improve animal health, welfare, productivity and food safety, though trade-offs between each of those advantages will likely be required.

In terms of livestock, genomics is the use of animals’ genetic blueprint to predict specific traits in offspring. It’s a quicker and more accurate way to achieve changes or improvements compared to conventional breeding techniques, which have been employed for hundreds of years.

As one example, genomics have been used to improve milk production in dairy cows. The technology has increased profitability in dairy herds but it has also reduced the useful life of the cows and increased incidents of lameness and mastitis.

This is a good illustration of the upside and downside of genomics. Do we want to reduce animals’ susceptibility to certain diseases? Should we breed them to better suit an environment of human design, like cages or stalls?

Should we make them gain better on less feed? Be less aggressive? More maternal? Bigger? Smaller?

And if we do any of those things, will there be other effects and unintended consequences? Is it ethical to guide the development of livestock to certain productivity goals? And will the general public understand and accept the technology as beneficial?

Genome Alberta has been asking these questions, albeit in a more academic and scientific way. It is mindful of the public’s curiosity and concern over food production, origins, safety and animal welfare.

It has also taken a lesson from the backlash suffered by genetic modification of food.

If it had first been applied for the benefit of human health, which is a universal consumer issue, the world might have avoided all the suspicion that now affects trade, commerce and food production.

And had the first manifestations of GM been seen to contribute to the greater good rather than relatively few beneficiaries, trust in the technology might be more widespread.

That is not to suggest genomics technology applications will not have profit goals. They will, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Nor was or is there anything wrong with developers of GM technology profiting from their investment. It’s just that they lost a large percentage of public trust through their methods of doing so.

Hindsight on the GM front is 20-20, but those involved with genomics appear determined not to make the same mistakes. Genome Alberta has thus begun a series of public forums specifically designed to discuss the technology and listen to public opinions about whether and how it should be used.

Based on the first of those meetings, it can expect many questions expressed through a “pet filter,” the idea that livestock should get the same welfare consideration as pets.

That and all other topics surrounding genomics are worthy of open and frank discussion. Genome Alberta should be congratulated for its approach. What it needs now is public engagement.

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