GM cattle could have many benefits

Genetic modification for cattle is under investigation at the federal level

The cattle industry could benefit from genetic modification but the technology faces hurdles.

Genetically modified cattle can offer both producers and consumers benefits.

They won’t be seen in grocery stores for the foreseeable future, but it’s worth laying the groundwork for them, Andrea Brocklebank, executive director of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, told the Commons agriculture committee recently.

“Beef from GM cattle is not likely to be on the store shelves soon, but peer-reviewed research has already demonstrated that beef from GM cattle has no measurable differences in nutritional value or adverse health implications compared to non-GMO beef,” she said.

The committee has launched a study into GM animals at the request of Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay. So far Canada has approved GM salmon and researchers have created the phosphorus-efficient Enviropig and modified goats.

GM cattle already are raised to produce antibodies to help treat rheumatoid arthritis and organ rejection in human medicine rather than for beef production, Brocklebank noted.

“Recent developments have allowed genetic surgery to remove the horn gene from dairy cattle,” she also said, and noted the technology could also be used to improve tenderness in beef.

On the question of food safety, she notes that “Beef cattle have been fed GM feed for many years. A retrospective study of data from over 100 billion head of livestock found no adverse effects of GMO feed on animal health. No residues of GMO feed have been found in the meat or milk either.”

Biotechnology could help federal officials to quickly and precisely identify the specific bacteria responsible for foodborne disease outbreaks, she said. Comparing the DNA fingerprint of samples collected from human patients to samples collected from processing plants and other environments allows source attribution to occur more quickly, in other words, where and when did the initial contamination occur and how should the recall be focused?

“Agriculture Canada researchers in collaboration with the Public Health Agency and other Canadian researchers are using similar methods to track whether antimicrobial-resistant bacteria and genes are moving between farms and human environments through food or water,” she adds.

GM feed crops are important for the cattle industry because 80 per cent of the lifetime of a Canadian beef animal is spent on a forage-based diet and in the feedlot sector feed costs are the largest single variable cost associated with finishing cattle aside from the purchase of a feeder animal, she said.

“So any improvement in feed production that enhances productivity through biotechnology can have a very large impact on our industry.”

She notes that corn yields are two to three times higher than barley yields “partly due to the extensive use of biotechnology in corn breeding.”

Biotechnology is beginning to find its way into barley breeding. Accurately identifying cultivars that carry favourable genes for quality and disease-resistant traits has facilitated more expedient variety approval. That allows new varieties to reach the market 20 to 40 per cent faster using biotechnology to support the breeding process.

“This is important as lagging barley yields relative to corn has placed the western Canadian feedlot sector in increasing risk of being at a cost disadvantage to the U.S., and, as we know, if we were at a cost disadvantage to the U.S. we’d see more feeder cattle moved across the U.S. border where they would be fed and slaughtered in the U.S. as compared to Canada,” she said.

However, GM beef would face strident opposition, she fears.

“A small, vocal minority of people will oppose any technology, even those with a demonstrable public benefit,” Brocklebank said. “This is true for GMOs, vaccination, and many other technologies, but reasonable people will accept the informed, expert opinion of impartial scientists.”

The federal government could help by enabling its researchers, along with those in provincial organizations, and university-based institutions to speak publicly about the issue, she points out. Some of these are also excellent communicators.

“The general public gets confused when they currently have to choose from the opinion of a technology advocate or the opinion of industry,” she said. “We feel that encouraging and allowing public scientists to communicate with the media and public on these issues more openly can help.”

Governments also “need to ensure that new technologies receive regulatory approval in a timely manner in Canada.

“We’re a small market, and so consequently companies look at us differently than the U.S.,” Brocklebank said. “If we see delays in our approval processes at all compared to the U.S. that is a distraction. Basically, they look to other markets at this point.”

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