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Product, Service & Design Innovation
It’s in the Genes:
Healthier Animals Anchor a Highly Sustainable Food System

As our population grows, we must keep innovating to provide ample, healthy food sources. The result? A more sustainable food system thanks to animals that are resilient to climate change and disease, and can produce healthy protein for our ever-growing planet.

As the world grows larger, the question remains: Can we feed it?

The future of the food system at large, and the livestock industry in particular, depends on two critical areas: addressing environmental impact and identifying areas where sustainability can be increased — from livestock farmers all the way to the consumer plate. Regenerative agriculture techniques, carbon capture, waste reduction and other techniques that strive to eliminate the impact of farming are already gaining popularity.

For livestock farmers, however, sustainability could also involve breakthrough work that occurs well before the life of a pig or a cow even begins. For more than six decades, ongoing advancements have enabled farmers to produce high-quality, affordable meat and milk more efficiently and sustainably — through innovations in animal genetics and breeding.

The results — with respect to developing a more sustainable global food system — are quite stunning. Today, dairy farmers produce 60 percent more milk with herds that, on average, are three times smaller than they were 70 years ago. Also, compared to 1977, today’s farmers produce the same amount of beef with 33 percent fewer cattle, per data collected by the USDA. And, according to the National Pork Board, it takes five pigs to produce 1,000 pounds of pork; 60 years ago, it took eight pigs.

This data indicates that scientifically driven, ethically sound animal genetics and breeding technologies are the linchpin to a more sustainable food system. Animals are healthier and more productive; farmers are better able to meet the growing global food demand; and measurable reductions are taking place in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, as well as in the use of water, land and other natural resources.

Genetics-driven health and sustainability, in action

That’s exactly what is happening at Ebert Enterprises — a sixth- and seventh-generation family-owned and -run dairy farm in Algoma, Wisconsin. Jordan Ebert, who at age 28 is the business development officer for his family’s farming operation, explains in this video that data and technology are having a sizable impact on how they use genetics to produce better, healthier and more productive cattle.

“The animal is at the center of our farm and our industry,” he says. “If the consumer has a smiling face from a bowl of ice cream or a glass of milk, it all stems back to the animal that makes that happen. If we focus our attentions on improving the (animals’) lives, we’re going to have a more sustainable industry.”

Animal breeding has occurred for thousands of years. But now it is much more precise, thanks to advanced science and technology — with a key benefit of creating healthier and more productive livestock that require fewer inputs. One example is promoting tolerance to diseases such as Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome Virus (PRRS), which can wipe out entire herds; an Iowa State University study estimated that PRRS costs the US pork industry about $664 million annually.

Because PRRS — an airborne virus — cannot be effectively prevented or treated through traditional veterinary medicines or vaccinations, the only viable solution is to raise animals that, through a gene-editing process, become resistant to the effects of the disease.

It may sound futuristic, but gene-editing technology can help effectively create disease-resistant animals. The innovative tool, known as CRISPR Cas-9, is well-tested and proven to be effective; in fact, it’s the same science behind research being used to identify and combat serious diseases in humans, such as cancer and sickle cell anemia. CRISPR Cas-9 is an arm of gene editing in which certain genes that make animals susceptible to debilitating diseases can be “turned off.”

By accurately analyzing animals’ DNA and looking for markers linked to susceptibility to pathogens, we can stop threatening diseases before they can start impacting animals’ health and welfare. And that sets the stage for generation after generation of healthy and more sustainable livestock for years to come.

Transforming our global food system

Science-driven genetic and breeding innovations extend far beyond disease resistance; as we at Genus continue to harness our growing knowledge of genetics, genomic science and data, we are applying that science to make discoveries that address real-world problems by lowering uses of antibiotics in livestock, producing less methane, and developing even more protein from fewer animals.

But we need to build on the significant progress we have already made. By quantifying and illustrating how genetic improvements reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we can inspire further improvements in efficiency and sustainability across the entire food system. In doing so, we can broaden the benefits to farmers, consumers, and the environment.

As the world’s population grows, we must remain diligent to unearth innovations that provide ample and healthy food sources. The result? A more sustainable food system with less impact on environmental resources thanks to animals that are resilient to climate change and disease, and can produce plentiful, healthy protein for our ever-growing planet.