While the layperson thinks of gel as something for their hair, GE3LS research gathers data for scientists to comb through in assessing their work. An acronym for “Genomics and its Ethical, Environmental, Economic, Legal and Social aspects”, it examines questions at the intersection of genomics and society to anticipate pitfalls, cultivate success and anticipate the impact of scientific advances.
As part of the Genome Alberta project using genomics to raise feed efficiency and lower methane emissions in dairy cows, researchers are using GE3LS to evaluate progress from different perspectives. In that regard, one of the most critical viewpoints they’re considering is that of the farmer.
Attitude is everything
“Our main focus is on the attitude of farmers to genomics and the viability of adopting this technology for impacting feed efficiency and methane emissions,” said David Worden, research assistant in the Department of Food, Agricultural, & Resource Economics at the University of Guelph.
Though the survey of attitudes is still in the early stages, there are some interesting results around adoption stemming from farm level simulations. Using data from the Dairy Farmers of Ontario, Worden and Getu Hailu, an associate professor in the same department, are looking at the potential influence of genomic tools on an average farm.
“The most important finding thus far is that adopting genomic selection for feed efficiency and methane emissions has a positive impact on profitability,” said Worden.
In spite of that, Worden and Hailu note that the benefits are very sensitive to the quality of genomic selection.
“With some novel traits, the accuracy and reliability of selection can be low,” said Worden.
“When you get below 50 per cent there may be concerns around return on investment. If you spend money to genotype your herd and the accuracy is low, you could cull the wrong animals or be out of pocket with no useful information in return.”
The researchers also weigh the producer’s future plans. Is the intent to expand, contract or maintain their herd size?
“There is more benefit in feed savings when you scale up your herd. As well, we’re exploring the role of quota targets. What’s the best way for a farmer to navigate their quota versus the benefit from feed savings?”
On the greenhouse gas side, Worden is encouraged by finding a reduction in the amount of methane emitted by each animal. At the same time, he hopes the public doesn’t misconstrue that conclusion.
“To the public, it might sound like farms will consume less feed and have less methane emissions. While that’s true for most farms, these results may incentivize some producers to expand, thereby increasing their overall emissions. It’s important to understand that when we talk about decreases in feed intake and methane emissions, we mean on a ‘per animal’ basis.”
While they still have a lot of work to do, Worden and Hailu feel strongly that it’s work which must be done.
“You see stories every day of new advances in technology that will solve the world’s problems overnight,” said Worden.
“But if people forget about the economic, environmental, ethical and social implications, they may spend a lot on research and development, only to reach a dead end when producers don’t show an interest. The goal of the survey and farm simulation is to see if it makes sense for producers to invest in genomic technology and at what price it must be marketed to be affordable.”
Finally, they hope to determine the percentage reduction in feed efficiency and/or methane emissions needed for producers to write a cheque.
When the smoke clears, researchers hope that the genomics pan out, feed efficiency goes up, emissions come down and producers buy in. Is that too much to ask?