I was confronted with this question on a flight last summer. I was talking about the beef industry and what I do with a fellow passenger when she began asking if we genetically modify cattle “like corn and soybeans.” It’s an interesting question and one I was not sure how to answer but that day was a good time to try and I have pondered on it since. The answer would depend on your definition of genetically modified and whether or not you believe that is a bad thing.
Now I won’t pretend to be intelligent enough to understand the process of the genetic modification in crops. From my research, some of the first modifications were done of tomatoes to keep them from softening as they ripen which was approved by the FDA in 1994. Corn, soybeans and other crops have been modified to be Roundup® Ready, allowing farmers to kill weeds without harming their crops. Both of these things allow for a more desirable product for consumers and for more production with better production practices. Both are positives for the industry and consumers.
If you place selective breeding under the umbrella of genetic modification, I would say that we have genetically modified cattle and it is not a new thing. The hundreds of breeds of cattle, from Lowlines to Angus to Nelores, that roam the world’s pastures today and since they have been domesticated are a product of that. Even today, we select breeding stock out of populations to enhance production. Whether it is using a Bos indicus for added heat tolerance and parasite resistance, or a Limousin for added muscle and feed efficiency, the industry has bred cattle to adapt to different environments, enhance productivity and fill the ever-changing consumer needs and desires.
Take the period of 1970 through the 1980s, when consumers desired a leaner product and the industry needed more production per head. Performance, muscle and frame size became the selection criteria for a majority of the industry. We changed cattle from a frame score 4 baby beef to a frame score 7.5 with more muscle and less fat. Today, the industry has found a more manageable frame size to go along with increased performance.
These changes were, and currently are, supplemented with technologies like artificial insemination and embryo transfer that give producers the opportunity to multiply the best genetics possible at a level and for a value never before seen. Breeders sample the best genetics available for the cost of a straw of semen or the value of a frozen embryo. EPDs also became available, giving producers a selection tool that applied across the entire breed population.
Cloning is also a technology that has become available to the industry and is maybe the most controversial. The way I look at it and the way I see it being used in the industry is mostly as an insurance policy for genetically superior, high value animals that might not survive long enough to meet demands for their genetics. Some AI sires that haven’t produced enough semen to meet demands are cloned along with some donor cows. Steers that show exemplary performance characteristics have been cloned and their genetics used. But this technology is not very prevalent due to the cost and the fact that the genetic rate of change in the industry tends to dictate that by the time a clone is made, their genetic superiority has been lost. Most cloning is done in the show steer industry where the target remains more constant.
The newest technology, which probably holds the most promise in today’s industry, is genomics. By genotyping animals and finding markers that are correlated to particular traits that are hard or expensive to measure can yield accelerated and more precise selection. Research is currently underway for a number of these traits of economic importance namely feed efficiency, fertility and disease resistance.
Feed efficiency takes a large data collection system and is hard to quantify in an EPD due to small sample size and difficulty of definition. With genomic markers we can select individuals without having to go through the phenotypic test. Genomic markers indicating fertility would help enhance replacement heifer selection, and reduce the cost of developing heifers that have decreased genetic predisposition for fertility. Since this is the number one reason for culling in the national cow herd, it could greatly enhance productivity just by increasing the percent national calf crop by 1%. Disease resistance, bovine respiratory disease in particular, could decrease calf crop and feedlot mortality and morbidity, saving millions of dollars in pharmaceuticals and improve animal health and well-being.
This was more information than the lady on my flight really wanted to know, and maybe more than you wanted. But her main worry was whether the genetic modifications were safe. The answer was definitely. None of these technologies change the nature of beef but rather the quality and quantity. By improving efficiency through selection, the industry has been able to produce more and healthier cattle that produce more beef per animal in less time. Thus increasing production and decreasing greenhouse emissions while providing a safe product to the consumer.
Don’t forget that even though Yahoo! might not think much of a degree in agriculture, a lot of us did. A majority of agriculturalists have a college education. They are not only educated. They are driven. They stay up-to-date on technology and are always looking to make more with less, and do better with what they have, in order to provide the world with full bellies.