Seeding Change I: From Past, to Present, to Future how Genomics is Transforming Agriculture

Info graphic scientist and farmer with farm landscape in the background

Looking Back; How Genomics Solutions Have Solved Past Challenges in Agriculture


By Tom Finn, Senior Program Officer

Agriculture is a cornerstone of Alberta’s wellbeing. It makes substantial contributions to Alberta’s economy and job market, all while putting high-quality, nutritious food on the dinner table. Over the last two decades, genomics has emerged as a groundbreaking technology with the power to reshape industries, including the agriculture sector. The advent of genomics has revolutionized the agricultural landscape, providing novel solutions to challenges in both the livestock and crop sectors. Here are a just few highlights of the transformative impact of genomics within the industry and how it has helped to advance productivity and competitiveness in Alberta, and Canada’s, agricultural sector.

How can genomics support better breeding?

Agricultural producers can improve their crops and livestock by selectively breeding for desirable traits, such as faster growth, higher fertility, or better disease resilience. However, most traits are the result of a complex interplay of many different genes, and predicting how traits will pass down through generations is challenging. For instance, a dairy cow may carry the genetic material for fantastic milk production while producing only average milk, as relevant genes are “turned up” or “turned down” by other genetic or environmental cues. With such interactions invisible to producers, it’s easy to overlook a great breeding candidate in favour of one with a poorer genetic profile. This typically means many breeding cycles are needed to achieve even small improvements.

Genomics uncovers the inner workings of the genome, revealing associations between desired traits and genetic markers across the entire genetic code. Producers can use these genetic markers as DNA signposts to more accurately predict which individuals will pass down desirable traits. The result is shorter breeding cycles and accelerated improvement of crops and livestock. Genomic tools enable producers to select the best individuals for breeding based on the genes they already have.

Gaining a Competitive Edge with Genetic Insights

Prior to the genomic revolution, livestock breeding relied on observable traits like weight gain or daily milk production. However, desired improvements dropped over time, raising concerns that the Canadian dairy and beef industries could not keep up with the demands of a growing human population. In Alberta, scientists obtained whole genome sequence information from 10,000 cattle across dairy and beef breeds, identifying genetic variations linked to challenging-to-observe traits like fertility, meat protein content, and feed efficiency. Using this genomic information, mathematic models predicted individual performance for these traits, empowering producers to make more informed breeding decisions. These efforts accelerated genetic progress by 60% to 100% compared to traditional selection, with financial benefits exceeding $1.1 billion over 15 years in the Canadian beef industry, equating to an annualized equivalent of $150 million per year. This also allowed for new revenue streams with the emergence of agri-tech companies working within the agriculture industry.
Genomics has also been a powerful tool in the crop sector. Canola was originally developed in Saskatchewan and Manitoba during the 1960s and 1970s through traditional cross-breeding experiments with rapeseed, resulting in a nutritionally superior vegetable oil—a true Canadian success story. However, advancements didn’t stop there; using genomics, scientists in Alberta identified genes responsible for anti-nutritional components, flavor content, and oil yield, enhancing seed productivity. Plant breeding informed by genomics selected for desired effects such as reducing harmful compounds like sinapine and phytate and increasing flavorful compounds like carotenoids. Today, canola accounts for 70% of all vegetable oil consumed by Canadians, offering benefits such as a healthier fat profile and high omega-3 content. Genomic technologies continue to unlock further opportunities for seed quality improvement in this strategically important crop.

Fighting back on Disease with Genetic Insights

In Canada, Porcine Circovirus Associated Diseases (PCVAD) and Porcine Respiratory and Reproductive Syndrome (PRRS) are the most common and costly diseases in commercial pig production, resulting in annual losses of $100M. The lack of effective testing to diagnose animals has exacerbated the challenge of managing the spread of infection. However, some pigs are naturally more resistant to specific diseases, and in 2010, mapping of the pig genome was completed which opened doors to breeding more resilient animals. Using genomic tools, scientists in Alberta identified several key genes active during and immediately after infection—and which were expressed differently in susceptible vs disease-resistant pigs. These findings allowed producers to screen breeding animals for reduced susceptibility to PCVAD and PRRS and select for more resilient pigs. As a result, pig industry resilience improved, enhancing animal health and welfare, food safety, and reducing production costs. Though PCVAD and PRRS persist, pigs now have a better chance at fighting these diseases and living healthier lives.

Disease resilience is a crucial factor in crop production also. Clubroot disease, caused by Plasmodiophora brassicae, poses a significant threat to canola producers in Canada, potentially leading to a complete loss of that year’s harvest. Thankfully, canola is one of many cultivars within the cabbage family (canola, bok choy, turnip, and napa cabbage are all in the same species), and breeding clubroot-resistant turnip with canola has proven an effective strategy to combat the disease. In Alberta, scientists have used genomics to gain a better understanding of the host-pathogen (canola-clubroot) interaction and identified the genes responsible for clubroot resistance. Using this knowledge genomics based selection strategies (genomics assisted breeding) can now be applied to more quickly develop commercial varieties that are clubroot resistant while maintaining the favorable nutritional qualities canola is known for.. Planting clubroot-resistant canola varieties has allowed farmers to reduce disease severity and maintain healthier, more productive crops. As a result, disease-resistant cultivars play a vital role in safeguarding canola production in Canada.

Seeing Progress in the Rearview Mirror and Looking to the Road Ahead

The highlights above demonstrate how novel solutions, enabled by genomics tools and insights, have fueled progress in both the livestock and crop sectors. Innovative and future-thinking producers have worked closely with researchers & scientists to take solutions out of the laboratory and onto the landscape to advance productivity and competitiveness in Alberta, and Canada’s, agricultural sector.
Since our inception in 2005, Genome Alberta has been a proud supporter of innovation in the Ag sector, serving as a catalyst for progress, and a convenor to bridge the gap between the latest scientific knowledge and new technology to practical applications that work on the farm. Genomics has emerged as a game-changer in agriculture and will continue to expand the ways it can be used to effectively tackle current and future challenges that lie ahead. At Genome Alberta, we are proudly working to continue to expand the potential of genomics technology, applications, data and insights to grow even more benefit for our province’s producers, our economy and our future.

See our Project Portfolio to learn more about projects Genome Alberta has funded in the Agriculture sector.

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