Genome Alberta

Livestock Blog

A companion site to Genome Alberta's
Bovine Genome Sequencing Project
December 6, 2013 2:19 PM

Science needed to help feed growing global population

While many people view a plant based diet as the only way to satiate a growing global population, providing a balanced diet to everyone is a worthy goal, researchers write. And genomics can help us make that happen, they add.

Dr. Jagjit Ludu and Dr. Graham Plastow of Livestock Gentec published a paper earlier this year explaining the role livestock genomics can play in improving food production to feed our ballooning global population. 

The agriculture industry has already made huge leaps in production without modern genomics technology. Over the last 30 years, pork has become much leaner. And because producing protein is more efficient than fat, pork production has also become more efficient. One study looking at pork produced in 1980 and 2005 found improved genetics and feeding programs cut days to market by 15 per cent and boosted lean efficiency by 45 per cent. Pigs in the study were from the same breed types and raised under similar conditions.

But genomics has the potential to help the Canadian livestock industries improve production even more. Innovations in genomics will increase efficiency, lower production costs, and decrease the resources and prophylactics needed, Plastow and Ludu write.

In Canada, we have many natural resources that we can put to use to help feed the world. Not only do we have land and water resources well-suited to field crops, but we can also raise beef in more marginal areas sustainably.

But there is no denying that livestock consume grain, which is grown on land that could otherwise be used to grow food crops (although in all fairness some of those crops are destined for our plates, but are downgraded to livestock feed because of quality).  Researchers are using genomics to pinpoint animals that produce less methane, are more disease resistant, and use feed and water more efficiently.

“Perhaps it is not too far-fetched to imagine meat products that have a net neutral environmental impact,” Ludu and Plastow write. Livestock could potentially be fed stuff that humans don’t eat, such as algae and arthropods, they explain, reducing the grain diverted from the human food chain. Genomics would be needed to find animals that flourish on such feed.

Ludu and Plastow go on to outline Genome Canada’s swine and cattle projects. They also point out that Genome Canada researchers put genomics into context, studying ethical, environmental, economic, legal, and social aspects of the technology.  

Science doesn’t exist in a vacuum, after all, and these other aspects can speed or stop adoption and commercialization of new technology. The industry and general public need more information so they can better understand the science and implications of such technology.

But researchers can’t simply push out that information onto the general public. Perhaps we need “…a greater dialogue of trust and understanding between science and society,” Plastow and Ludu write.

The stakes are high. As it is, 870 million people aren’t meeting their nutritional needs, according to the Canadian International Development Agency. And in the next 40 years, farmers will need to produce 100 per cent more food than they do already, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says.

We all need to be pulling in the same direction or we’ll never get anywhere.

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