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Rethinking the public perception of genomics

People’s relationship with food has changed. We now want to know where it came from and how it was raised and grown,” says David Bailey, president and CEO of Genome Alberta, as part of his introductory remarks during a workshop in Calgary this spring to discuss the public side of using genomics to improve cattle herds.

“Genome technology can increase efficiency in food production to help address the need to feed the projected increase in world population. However, there are societal implications to this technology. People are asking about the ethical, environmental, economic, legal and social (GE3LS) implications of using this technology.”

“While advances in livestock genomics are directed to addressing societal challenges such as lack of sufficient nutrition or nutritional quality, people worry about unintended consequences. Understanding the why and what of people’s anxiety about what might be done to their food supply is critical as researchers continue to work with this technology,” says Bailey.

Leading the panel on the social and legal implications in the Calgary workshop, Dr. Ed Pajor, professor of animal welfare at the University of Calgary’s faculty of veterinary medicine, reminded the group that we are working in an area of public trust. “Trust is hugely important.” Referencing the Centre for Food Integrity, Pajor talked about consumer trust supporting social license. An important factor in building that trust is the perception that there are shared values. That is being viewed as three to five times more important than skills, science or demonstrations of technical competence.

People see what is possible through science and wonder if the biological limits are being pushed too far. They tend to be more accepting of a technology viewed as being for the public good than only simply geared to enhancing economically important traits. Karine Morin, director of Genome Canada’s GE3LS program, reinforced that point. “The nature of the stakeholder is important. Some function in the public good and some for private good. These two groups interact geographically where building trust happens primarily in person so there must be an investment in meeting face to face.”

Morin spoke of the need to frame issues differently for different groups and to understand trade-offs. She recommends using targeted communication to diverse interest groups as an important strategy for cultivating this public trust in a new technology.

Jackie Wepruk, general manager of the National Farm Animal Care Council, noted, “Stakeholders identify the need to work with science-based decisions but disagree on the validity of the science.”

As Pajor explains it, “Often people view genome technology through a pet filter. The closest relationship to animals many people have is with their pets.”

Many of the speakers and audience participants came back time and time again to the language used in the genomics discussion. Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are different from the genetic selection technology used in the livestock sector. Genomics is similar to traditional breeding but uses specific biomarkers to identify animals that are superior for traits such as growth rate, feed conversion, meat quality, milk quality, lactation, wool growth and disease resistance.

Dr. Ubaka Ogbogu, with the faculty of law and pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Alberta, says it is important to understand what the public really knows to avoid confusion between terms such as GMO and genomics. A consumer’s perception changes with the use of different language.

“Generally people don’t like genetic modification of animals,” noted Dr. Alison Van Eenennaaman, co-operative extension specialist, genomics and biotechnology at UC Davis. Her presentation explored the cost-benefit considerations of livestock genomics — looking at who pays and who benefits. She also encourages people to be very specific about the type of biotechnology being used in animal agriculture. For example, production biotechnology, such as ionophores, beta-agonists, antibiotics and vaccines have different costs and benefits than technologies such as cloning, genomic selection, embryo transfer and estrus synchronization.

“There is little organized activist opposition to conventional animal breeding,” says Eenennaaman. “Some of that work has dramatically modified livestock, for example, Belgian Blue and broiler chickens.” However, the public has strong negative attitudes toward specific animal biotechnologies. For example, growth enhancement of Atlantic salmon using a growth hormone gene injection into salmon eggs has been in the regulatory review process in the U.S. since 1995. The company that developed this technology, AquaBounty, has a total R&D investment of more than $60 million to date. “Other companies using genetically engineered animal technology are moving to countries with more predictable policy environments.”

“Genetic selection may attract less public opposition because it uses naturally occurring genetic variation; however, some applications may be seen as contrary to animal welfare. These may include approaches to shortening the generation interval, such as the harvest of oocytes from calves that are still in utero.”

On the benefit side of the ledger for genomics, Henry Janzen, a research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) addressed the environmental implications for livestock genomics. “We can’t have everything on the landscape so we need to look for trade-offs. With the many stresses there are on our landscapes and ecosystems, how might we fine tune livestock for the future.”

Dr. John Basarab, Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development senior beef research scientist, noted there is considerable opportunity to find efficiencies in feeding livestock and reducing methane emissions.

Dr. Ellen Goodard, of the department of resource economics and environmental sociology at the University of Alberta, talked about the need to recognize that economics is broader than dollars and cents. It’s also about behaviour. “Individuals make decisions and they make different decisions in different parts of their lives,” said Goodard. It’s important to remember various factors influence the public’s behaviour. People want to know that they have the opportunity for input into scientific decisions that they feel may have an impact on them.

Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein, an AAFC research scientist in beef cattle welfare in Lethbridge, identified potential genomic benefits such as using marker-assisted selection to find disease-resistant phenotypes, or animals better able to deal with heat stress and thus better cope with possible changes in the environment.

Dr. Joe Stookey, a professor of animal behaviour at the University of Saskatchewan asks, “Can we change the use of painful procedures, such as dehorning by genetically selecting for polled animals? We can perhaps identify a genetic component in negative production traits such as tail biting in pigs and better balance the health and welfare of the animal.”

The Calgary workshop was sponsored by Genome Alberta and the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency.

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