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Q & A Carries the Day for Dairy Cattle Genome Project

Starting to GEL

GE3LS research - which stands for Genomics, Ethical, Environmental, Economic, Law and Society – is a required component of all Genome Canada science projects. It’s designed to investigate questions at the intersection of genomics and society. Because the dairy cattle project impacts so many sectors of society, with feed efficiency affecting the producer’s bottom line and methane reduction affecting everybody, it triggers important questions.

Questions for producers

“One area of inquiry is around individual producers and how they feel about genomic technology,” 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.

Though her title is longer than many research projects, Dr. Goddard cuts to the chase when it comes to the importance of GE3LS research.

“For our findings to be relevant, producers must adopt the technology and make their breeding decisions based on it,” said Dr. Goddard. “Whether they do depends partly on what they know about it and how hard they read the breeding company’s catalogue.”

Currently, their attitudes toward genomics vary widely.

“Some are very keen, some wouldn’t use it if their lives depended on it, and a bunch could go either way.”

With that in mind, more research is needed on what drives producer decisions.

“For dairy farmers, we are focusing on the strength of their pro-environmental attitudes, as boosting feed efficiency may offer more social benefits to us than private benefits to the farmer.”

Social networks are another big focus for Goddard, looking at how farmers make their decisions: Do they talk to their vet, seek out research studies or use more of a socially driven adoption process like “talking with their buddies over coffee at Tim Horton’s”?

Questions for Consumers

“My research with consumers is looking at what the public knows about the use of genomics in selective breeding: Do they understand it? Do they care which traits we select for?”

Goddard is finding that the public favors traits such as feed efficiency and will pay more for them, but as with most things, there’s a catch.

“While they favor the trait, they don’t want any use of technology to achieve it. They like the result but not the process, and that is potentially worrying.”

So why do we care about the public response?

“At some point it could shift the demand curve backwards for the product. If we invest in technology that farmers are unwilling (or slow) to adopt and the public is resistant to, so that they consume other products like almond milk, the economic impact of the research will be nowhere near what it could be.”

Fortunately, Goddard said the public understands the benefits of the traits and the importance of profits for farmers; they just want to know more about the technology. For that reason, “we have to make the information on the technology more accessible and be willing to talk about the negative (and positive) aspects of it.”

Methane on the mind

The other part of this Genome Alberta project is targeting a reduction in methane emissions for dairy cattle. Though Goddard is “stunned” by how many people haven’t made the link between meat and dairy consumption and the environment, her research shows that people want to focus more on the environmental impact of how they eat, and “hopefully boosting feed efficiency can lower emissions and reduce that impact”.

According to Goddard, “our normal dairy consumption is flat or declining in most developed countries. So if genomics makes our milk more environmentally friendly, it may be a big boon for the industry.”

Unlike the trial lawyer, Goddard and her colleagues will continue asking questions for which they don’t know the answer. As to whether those answers will please producers, consumers and the industry at large, the jury is still out.

Q & A Carries the Day for Dairy Cattle Genome Project

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