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Genome Alberta Research Takes a Long Look at Deep Questions

As anyone who has seen their dad in a Speedo can attest, just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you SHOULD. Fortunately, the idea of harnessing genomics to improve disease resilience and sustainability in Canadian pork production is far more appealing. Even so, the researchers behind the Genome Alberta-led “Genomics of Swine Health-2 Project” understand that seeking cutting edge answers can also prompt some pointed questions.   

Points to ponder

The roadmap for finding those answers is known as GE3LS research: Genomics, Ethics, Environment, Economics, Law and Society. Because science doesn’t exist in a vacuum, GE3LS research - a requirement of Genome Canada – looks at the social implications of using genomics to enhance pig health and the public’s opinion of such endeavors.

One area of scrutiny concerns the role of disease in shaping the pork industry’s path in Canada.

“Since 2000, the industry has gone through massive structural adjustments, with a huge decline in farm numbers overall and a trend towards more hogs per farm,” 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.

As part of the GE3LS component, researchers are examining census data from 1992 – 2011 to see how disease impacted this consolidation at both a national and regional level.

Traits & trade

“We’re also looking at the trade in genetics (semen and live animals) in the global pig market,” said Dr. Goddard. “We want to get an economic estimate of how important disease resilience as a trait may be to people who buy genetics from Canada.”

By gauging the economic potential of certain traits, Goddard hopes to give Canada “first mover advantage” in developing those traits.

Selective support

On the public side, one aspect of the GE3LS research is addressing the controversial subject of antibiotics.

“If we can develop genomic tools to select for disease resilience, we may be able to reduce antibiotic use for therapeutic reasons, so we’re wondering if consumers would support that selection process.”

In answering value questions about genomics, consumers have been generally positive about the technology and using it in selective breeding for disease resilience. When it comes to vaccination, however, the picture is blurred.

“There appears to be a lot of uncertainty in the public around what goes on in livestock production. That’s a problem, because uncertainty sparks concern, and concern shows up in purchase patterns where people may avoid the product altogether or even pressure the government to change regulations or practices.”

Adding to the confusion is the issue of disease management and biosecurity.

“I’m not sure the public totally understands the relationship between disease in pigs and disease in people; that some diseases only affect pigs and not the people that eat the meat.

One thing that worries Goddard is how the consumer’s desire to keep pigs healthy doesn’t always jibe with their attitude towards antibiotics and vaccination.

From confusion to solution

“My results say that for the moment, genomics as a solution to disease is a bit preferred to other options. Realistically though, it will likely never be an ‘either or’ situation, as it’s doubtful that pigs will never need antibiotics.”

Complicating the process of finding answers is the subject matter itself.

“Disease is not something people want to talk about because it’s doesn’t fit with images of animals outside amidst green grass and fluffy clouds.”

All the more reason, said Goddard, why we need to start a frank discussion of what we do and how we do it.

“All of this is a good example of why a multi-disciplinary approach to genomics and disease resilience may be advisable.”

Unlike much of science, the issue of genomics as it relates to society is full of grey areas with no right or wrong answers. As for dad in a Speedo, that’s just wrong.

Genome Alberta Research Takes a Long Look at Deep Questions

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