Do you ever feel that you and your partner are not just on different pages, but in separate libraries? Even the best of friends don’t always see eye-to-eye about their goals and priorities. As Genome Alberta scientists strive to boost feed efficiency and lower methane emissions in dairy cows, part of the project is looking at how research around emissions may be viewed differently by producers and consumers.
Known as GE3LS (Genomics and its Ethical, Environmental, Economic, Legal and Social Aspects), this element is a required component of all Genome Alberta projects and investigates questions at the intersection of genomics and society.
When values fail to gel
“Our results so far show that reducing greenhouse gas emissions by dairy cows is valued more highly by consumers than by producers,” said Dr. Ellen Goddard, Professor and Co-operative Chair - Agricultural Marketing and Business in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta.
“Of course, the dairy industry has already lessened those emissions through genetics by improving the overall efficiency of the system, thereby generating the same amount of milk using a smaller number of high-producing animals. An aim for the future is to select for lower emissions and the associated feed efficiency directly to more effectively lower emissions, which is something that appears to be of greater interest to the public than to industry.”
As Dr. Goddard points out, “putting feed efficiency first” makes sense for producers and is essential to staying in business. At the same time, there’s that disconnect to consider. As well, reducing greenhouse gas emissions may seem much more like a long term objective than an immediate commercial concern.
“The whole system for selective breeding is currently predicated on maximizing producer profits. If nobody is paying them for reduced emissions, why would they include it as a distinct trait in their decision-making? There’s nothing wrong or irrational in their thinking, but given current objectives, we might not get selection for this trait at a socially optimal level for the long term.”
Chicken, meet egg
Perhaps appropriately for agriculture, it’s a real “chicken and egg” dilemma. If consumers can’t get information on the emissions linked with certain levels of production, they can’t make buying decisions on that basis, which makes it hard to generate a current economic return to producers for their selection decision.
“Our research suggests there is significant interest on the part of the Canadian public in being able to purchase livestock products that are more sustainable; that’s what this Genome Alberta project is all about. The question is whether, if we had the ability to select for reduced emissions beyond what we achieve through better feed efficiency, industry would select for that trait to the level that the public desires.”
So why don’t we address this issue with a classic capitalist approach and let the market decide?
“If consumers could vote with their dollars, the signal would reach producers and they would change their production practices accordingly. The problem is that when buying milk today, you can’t tell if a jug came from a farm with reduced emissions or not. When we have this mismatch, society may be missing some benefits that could be derived by encouraging greener practices.”
One option for providing that encouragement, which is used in other sectors, might be subsidies to farmers as incentives for investing in the emission trait, where a bonus is paid on their milk if they reduce emissions by a certain percentage. Whatever approach is employed, there is clearly an appetite for progress in this area.
“I see a definite increase in public awareness and interest regarding the environmental impact of agriculture. I’m also finding support for involving government in this at some level. There’s a common belief, in the Canadian public, that if government is deciding on production standards, consumers won’t have to worry. People feel confident that they can then go to the store and choose products without worrying about their environmental footprint, as all products will have the same standard. However, if we can just ensure that the economic signals to producers from the marketplace reflect consumer preferences, we’ll achieve the optimal outcome for all concerned.”