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How Will Genetics Feed the World?

18 January 2013

ANALYSIS - As soon as the phrases "genetic improvement" and "new technology" are used in the same breath, the image that many laymen create is one of monsters and Frankenstein food, writes Chris Harris.

However, are the two really mutually exclusive or can they live together happily?

This year's Oxford Faming Conference brought the questions on genetics, new technology, genetic modification and improvements in agriculture into sharp focus.

At a time when the global population is growing and growing largely in the underdeveloped and developing countries, the need to produce more food, more efficiently is unquestioned.

It is predicted that by 2050 the world's population will need 100 per cent more food and according to the UN FAO 70 per cent of it must come from efficiency enhancing technology.

The FAO also says that by 2050 the world population will grow to 9.1 billion per income capita income will rise by 150 per cent and global consumption of meat milk and eggs will double.

How that increase in production can be met sustainably and economically is the big question taxing scientists, politicians, farmers, processors and consumers alike.

The problems of feeding a growing population have raised the question among some lobby groups over whether there should be any livestock farming at all and whether a vegetarian diet is the most sustainable way forward.

However, not only is the global population growing but it is also growing in wealth and with that growth in wealth comes a desire and need for a more refined diet that includes meat and eggs.

But as this wealthier population demands more animal protein, the agricultural sector must find ways of meeting that demand.

As the Oxford Farming Conference heard this year, genetics has a big role to play in the improvements of yield - whether it is in crops or in animal protein - but genetics are not the sole solution.

The improvements in yields in both crops and milk over the last 50 years have been 50 per cent down to improvements in breeding. The other half of the answer has come down to improved feed and feeding, improved housing and an improved environment and care of both crops and livestock.

Mark Smith, (pictured), the global bovine product development and production director at Genus said that in the last 50 years improvements in pig litters had seen a growth from 14 piglets per sow to around 23 and the improvements in the animal and the conformation while partly coming from genetic selection had also come from improved production management. This had also led to better feed conversion rates, better conformation and more lean meat and less manure, producing less impact on the environment.

The improvements between 1962 and 2009 had seen 71 per cent more pigs, 38 per cent less feed used, 39 per cent more lean meat and 50 per cent less manure produced. The improvements are 60 per cent down to genetic improvement.

In dairy herds genetic improvements in the herd over the last 40 years have contributed to increased milk yields through genetic selection, by looking at more traits than in the past to ensure the production of a dairy cow that is more fertile and more productive.

"We are now looking at selection for production and fitness and we are even looking at the vet costs in production as well," he said.

He said that there is going to be a different environment in agriculture and livestock farming with les land for production, higher in-put and feed costs and challenges from the climate and from water resources.

He said that livestock farming units are going to grow and there is going to be less labour in each unit and there are going to be environmental constraints to produce food sustainably.

"Genetics have contributed approximately 50% of the phenotypic improvement we have seen over the last 50 years and basically, we need to produce more from less and genetic improvement is going to be key to this," he said.

However, there have been vast discrepancies over the last 50 years in the advances in genetic improvement between the different species and sectors. While the dairy herds have seen a 60 to 70 per cent improvement, the pig herds have only seen a 30 to 40 per cent improvement and the beef herds have had negligible genetic improvement.

Similarly in aquaculture, with wild fish stocks declining more than 50 per cent of fish consumed is now farmed but less than 10 per cent comes from genetically improved strains. As fish have a high reproductive rate there is a big potential for improved efficiency.

Mr Smith said that genomic selection is being applied to many species and it will accelerate genetic progress but it still requires a lot of phenotypic data to build and validate evaluations. However it will allow greater selection for lower heritability traits and evolution of new traits.

Mr Smith said that by using new technology gene selection can be speeded up and livestock improvement will come sooner - but often new techniques hit an ethical barrier.

While selective breeding has been carried out for centuries and has been established as safe for centuries, cloning, where the genes of the offspring are identical to the parent, which is equivalent to twinning, the introduction of an additional normal gene already present in the animal and gene deletion could raise other questions.

However Mr Smith said they are not truly GMOs and do not introduce any gene material that is not already present and so there is no reason to believe that they will harm either the animal or man.

Gene editing Produces only minor changes and often will be introducing naturally occurring mutations so again should not be unsafe in any way.

Introduction of another mammalian gene not normally found in that species, the Introduction of a non-mammalian or plant gene into that species, the Introduction of a bacterial gene into the species and the Introduction of a viral gene into the species may have some risk and need careful analysis.

Mr Smith said: "Scientific breakthroughs in new genetic technologies could hold the key to step changes in livestock improvements, with disease resistance and resilience, improved efficiency and human health protection.

"Genetic improvement has played a major role in improving efficiency to date and will probably need to play an even greater role in the future.

"Some species have greater opportunity than others, but selective breeding in conjunction with newer technology could hold the key to step changes in genetic improvement and deserve consideration."

Chris Harris, Editor-in-Chief

Chris Harris, Editor-in-Chief



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