National Newswatch

Livestock and plants breed for the past not the future, Genome Canada says.


Ottawa—While climate change will extend the growing season in Canada, it will leave current livestock lines and plant varieties out of sync with a warmer environment, says Marc Lepage, President and CEO of Genome Canada.

That means stepped up genomic research to produce livestock and plants that thrive in the changing climate without a lot of additional water and pesticides, he told the Senate agriculture committee.

“All of our animals — cows, pigs and chickens — have been bred for yesterday’s climate, and the pace of climate is changing so quickly that they are kind of falling out of sync,” he said

“Either we upgrade the software and change the genetics, and we know how to do this, but we have to do it on a lot of different species, very quickly so these animals or these plants have natural disease resistance or drought-resistant traits, or we compensate through more usage of water, pesticides or insecticide. And I would say that is a more carbon-intensive and more expensive for of agriculture in terms of input.”

The increased heat aspect of climate change is “very significant for a country that has such a big agricultural footprint,” he said. Soyabeans are an example of a crop that increased breeding and adaptation to the new climate could produce 60 per cent greater yields than currently.

“Most of the soya crops or beans have been bred for U.S. conditions. In Canada, we have to do our Canadian adaptation of soybeans to be able to take full advantage of these new areas opening up with a combination of light and heat and our conditions.”

While adapting to “climate change has more upside than downside, there are things we have to do,” he said.

For the dairy sector, Genome Canada is working with cheese makers on the microbial activity that transforms milk into cheese, he said. “To get the optimal size and taste, particularly in producing fancy cheeses, you often have loss because something goes wrong with the microbial batch and you have to throw it away and start again. The fancier the cheese, the more that is a problem.”

Genome Canada is reviewing a proposed research agrifood research projects with the goal of announcing eight to 10 new projects in June, he said. “We’ll be investing $60 million to $80 million. It’s a big investment in this sector and it’s really good news.”

Agriculture Canada is funding its scientists to work in collaboration with university scientists to create a Team Canada approach, he said. In the past, “we have had all kinds of problems having university scientists and government scientists working together.”

Cindy Bell, Genome’s Executive Vice-President of Corporate Development, said, “One of the most important tools that allows any organism to be able to adapt is its genetic diversity. Most of our crops, which we have domesticated for hundreds of years, have lost a lot of their genetic diversity through the process we’ve used to domesticate them. These are traits they’ve lost and will probably need in order to adapt to this changing environment they will be facing due to climate change. We need to learn how to use that to our advantage.”

“Therefore, we are co-leading an international project called DivSeek,” she said. “That project is the sequencing the seeds of the wild relatives of our domesticated crops that are stored in seed banks around the world, and unleashing that diversity and bringing back the knowledge of traits that we may need to use to breed back into our crops that need certain traits to be able to adapt to climate change.”

Genome Canada was created in 2000 to support genomic research in Canada. “We are now a major world power in this field of research in a number of areas,” Lepage said. While half its work is on human health, “we are also very active in agriculture, forestry, the oil and gas sector, mining and fisheries — a lot of areas that are very unusual. Canada is probably the only major country that has this kind of integrated platform.”

Alex Binkley is a freelance journalist and writes for domestic and international publications about agriculture, food and transportation issues. He’s also the author of two science fiction novels with more in the works.
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