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

Infographic showing grazing cow with zoom in of microbes in the stomach of the cow

Here and Now; How Genomics Solutions are Tackling Current Challenges in Agriculture


By Tom Finn, Senior Program Officer

Adaption is a cornerstone of Alberta’s agriculture sector. Through innovation and adaptation, crop and livestock producers continue to supply high-quality food for an ever-growing number of tables while tackling challenges like pests and disease. While resiliency in the face of challenge has always been a part of agriculture, climate change has added a whole new layer of challenges, pushing emissions reduction and sustainability concerns to the forefront. In this complex landscape, researchers are exploring how genomics can support more sustainable livestock and crop production with fewer emissions and using fewer resources.

How Genomics is Supporting Industry Emissions Reductions

Beef and dairy cattle are an important part of Alberta’s economy, but they are also a source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas with 28 times the global warming potential of CO2. The culprit can be found inside the cow’s rumen – or first stomach compartment – where microbes break down plant fibres into nutrients the cow can digest. Some of these microbes, called methanogens, produce methane gas as a by-product. Thankfully, genomic technologies are opening new ways to tackle the problem at its source. RNA interference (RNAi) is a genomic tool that can be used to block the expression of a target gene. By targeting the specific methanogen genes responsible for methane production, RNAi can inhibit the production of methane during cattle digestion. This has the added benefit of improving the feed efficiency of cattle, as reducing the energy lost to methane production means more energy available for muscle growth or milk production. The end result is more meat and more milk with less methane – a win-win for cattle producers and the environment.

Canada is well-known for its production of wheat, canola and barley, however the nation is also one of the largest producers of legumes like peas. Peas are extremely efficient at nitrogen fixation – they pull nitrogen from the atmosphere and transform it into a form plants can use, effectively making their own fertilizer. In doing so, they remove nitrous oxide (N2O) from the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than CO2. What might seem like a humble legume is in fact a powerful ally against climate change, and researchers are now using genomic tools to better understand the inner workings of this crop. By studying how pea plants regulate nitrogen-related genes, researchers can identify ways to enhance nitrogen fixation efficiency and capture more N2O emissions at maximum proficiency. Through increasing pea cultivation, in rotation with more resource-intensive crops such as wheat and canola, there is a potential to achieve over 35% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by significantly decreasing our reliance on chemical fertilizers.

Improving Sustainability with Genomic Insights

Our native grasslands are beautiful, diverse, and highly cherished ecosystems – and a key store of carbon. Through a complex network of fungi, bacteria, and other soil microbes, native grasslands drive carbon dioxide out of the air and sequester it into the soil. Western Canada’s native grasslands comprise 12.7 M hectares – 75% of which are in Alberta – with an estimated net carbon sequestration rate of 5.6 megagrams per hectare. Native grasslands are often shared with grazing livestock, helping support rural economies and enhancing Canada’s food security. However, grasslands are a delicate ecosystem, and overgrazing or mismanagement can compromise their integrity as a carbon sink. With genomic tools like metabolomics, we can better understand how the living components of grassland soils transform and store elements like carbon. Metabolomics is the analysis of small molecules, or metabolites, within a complex biological system. This genomic technology can identify what biochemical processes are occurring in healthy grasslands and how livestock management practices can maintain and enhance their integrity. Through application of this knowledge, there is the potential to store 32.5 M tonnes of carbon throughout Canadian grasslands, adding a potential $5.5 B to the economy.

Wheat accounts for 20% of the calories and 20% of the protein consumed by humanity. To meet global demand for food by 2050, stable crop yield must increase by 50%. However, a 1 ᵒC increase in temperature can decrease wheat yield by 6%, and the 2021 drought in Western Canada resulted in a wheat yield reduction of 60%. One possible solution is to develop perennial wheat varieties that grow year after year, without the need to be replanted annually. This is challenging, however, as perennialization can negatively affect other key traits like flavour and yield. Employing genomics-assisted breeding to develop crops with deeper and denser root system architecture are key to achieving perennialization, while also mitigating undesired trade-offs. These enhanced root systems increase sustainability by improving access to water in the subsoil, optimizing nutrient utilization and boosting resilience against drought and heat stress.

Using the Science of Small Molecules to Tackle the World’s Largest Environmental Challenge

It’s clear that genomics has a unique and essential role to play in supporting the agriculture sector to not only adapt to changing climate conditions for continued productivity, but to also go beyond and provide landscape-level solutions to sequestering carbon and keeping greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. As more genomic technologies and tools are developed, we continue to see an ever-growing number of ways to expand their applications. While scientists have been studying microbes and other tiny living things for many decades, genomics is unlocking more and more data and information about them – now including how their natural processes can be used to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions! In continuing with our mission, to promote and support genomics solutions for the challenges we face, Genome Alberta will act as a catalyst to bridge knowledge and support partnerships between the academic community and government and industry in order to realize the potential of Alberta-made solutions to climate-related challenges in the agriculture sector.

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

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