Last month, the chair of the Beef Cattle Research Council — feedlot operator Brian Thiessen — and executive director Andrea Brocklebank spoke to the Parliamentary Agriculture Committee studying genetically modified animals for human consumption.
While noting that GMO technology has had very limited practical application in beef cattle to date, Brocklebank said that may change with time.
“Recent developments have allowed genetic ‘surgery’ to remove the horned gene from dairy cattle. To this point, genetically modified cattle have been developed to produce antibodies to help treat rheumatoid arthritis, cancer and organ rejection in human medicine, rather than for beef production.
“So beef from GMO cattle is not likely to be on store shelves soon. But peer-reviewed research has already demonstrated that beef from GMO cattle has no measurable differences in nutritional value or adverse health implications compared to non-GMO beef. ”
While beef cattle have been fed GMO feed for years, she pointed to a retrospective study of data from over 100 billion head of livestock that found no adverse effects of GMO feed on animal health and no residues of GMO feed in the meat or milk.
In the broader sense, biotechnology is opening some new doors to the beef industry. Canadian researchers, for example, have already identified some of the genes responsible for beef tenderness.
Biotechnology is also being used to create tools that could be used to rapidly diagnose disease in cattle. One current project is developing diagnostic panels for both calf diarrhea and bovine respiratory disease, which in turn could help veterinarians and producers come up with more appropriate vaccination programs, and ensure more targeted use of antimicrobials.
Genomic technologies are shortening the time needed to develop better varieties of feed grains and forages.
“This is important as 80 per cent of the lifetime of a Canadian beef animal is spent on a forage-based diet,” she says.
Feed is also the largest single variable cost associated with finishing cattle, so any improvement in feed production that enhances productivity can have a very large impact on the health of the entire industry.
Meanwhile, researchers in Alberta and Quebec are seeking the genes responsible for improved cold tolerance and winter hardiness in alfalfa. Once they have identified these genes, Brocklebank says traditional or biotech breeding methods can be used to move these traits into popular alfalfa lines. “Either approach would work, but the biotech approach is faster, so Canadian forage and cattle producers would benefit sooner.”
“Better-yielding forages and feeds mean more cattle can be raised on the same land base. Improved animal nutrition and health mean a greater proportion of cows are having a calf every year and more of the calves stay healthy through the weaning and feeding period. Improved feed efficiency means that cattle are eating less and growing faster. That’s fewer days that they’re producing manure, drinking water, and generating greenhouse gases.”
“With the relatively recent advent of genomics technology, we have every confidence that our environmental footprint will continue to shrink and our production efficiencies will continue to improve.”
While there will always be a small vocal group of people who oppose any new technology, Brocklebank believes reasonable people accept the informed, expert opinion of impartial scientists. Fortunately, Canada has excellent scientists in federal, provincial and university institutions and she says these researchers should be encouraged to communicate with the media on these issues.
In order for the industry to gain the benefits of these new technologies, she told the MPs, we need to ensure that new technologies receive regulatory approval in a timely manner.
“We also need to ensure that new trade agreements are science-based,” she added.