Research, Review, Repeat

When issues arise, science steps up.

By Geoff Geddes

Just as a shark must keep moving to survive, the pork sector must evolve to stay afloat. In a business where the waters are often choppy, cutting-edge research plays a huge role. Whether it’s feed efficiency, genetics or animal welfare, producers and scientists are always seeking improvement in traditional areas of production while keeping one eye on emerging issues and the “next big thing.”

“Innovation is at the heart of what makes our industry sustainable and a driver of economic growth,” says Daniel Ramage, the newly-appointed general manager of Swine Innovation Pork (SIP) in Quebec City, Que.

“When you look at key areas like nutrition, productivity, quality and animal health, it’s research that enables us to make progress on every front.”

Of course, progress doesn’t come cheap. In its role as facilitator, funder and manager of numerous pork research projects in Canada, SIP has facilitated over $51 million in research since 2010. As part of its current Cluster 3 program, SIP is supporting 14 projects over five years to the tune of $18.5 million.

Spare some change?

As you might expect in a fluid sector like pork, research priorities have continued to evolve. At the same time, the adage about “the more things change, the more they stay the same” may also apply at times.

“Research usually fits into one of three groups,” says Dr. Manuel Juarez. Dr. Juarez is a livestock phenomics scientist for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC) Science and Technology Branch at the Lacombe Research and Development Centre in Lacombe, Alta.

“There are those that will always be of interest to the sector, such as animal welfare or increasing production efficiency. Then we have the new, attractive topics, such as manipulating the microbiome or the adoption of emerging technologies.”

lab worker looking into microscope
    stokkete/ photo

Finally, some research must address any current crisis, which today would be managing the threat of African swine fever.

“I was told by a retiring colleague that if I stayed in research long enough, I would see topics disappear and come back as priorities, in some sort of cycle,” says Dr. Juarez. “For example, consumer perspectives and the development of added-value products have returned to our radar after going missing from many lists for a few years. This demonstrates the challenge of selecting research priorities among the numerous topics required to support the pork sector.”

Getting choosy

Hard as it may seem, choices must be made on where to focus research time and dollars, and there are currently several areas that rate attention.

“One of the greatest opportunities we see right now with SIP is strengthening knowledge transfer,” says Ramage. “It is critical that we ensure alignment of research with industry priorities and promote the practical application of science. Canadian agriculture is facing growing consumer and regulatory pressures in areas such as sustainability, and that helps set our research focus.”

According to Ramage, having metrics in place to support Canada’s sustainability story will be crucial in regard to research funding, especially when it comes to going green.

“The federal government plans to fund projects around climate change and the environment at a greater ratio than other studies, so there is definitely incentive for more research in those areas,” says Ramage.

There is also growing interest in genomic research, which focuses on the genome, an organism's complete set of DNA. Here too, the environment is a top priority.

“Agriculture – including crop and livestock – genomics represents approximately one-third of our total investment portfolio,” says Dr. Gijs van Rooijen, chief scientific officer of Genome Alberta in Calgary. Since its inception in 2005, Genome Alberta has managed approximately $33 million in porcine research activities.

Caring for our climates

“In partnership with our federal funding partner Genome Canada, we have recently launched a Climate-Smart Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative,” says Dr. van Rooijen. “Nationally, $30 million will be invested in cutting-edge genomic research and innovation to reduce the carbon footprint of Canada’s agriculture and food systems. Of note, the Canadian based pork research community is actively participating in this competition.”

In concert with that effort, an additional $6.1 million will be invested in a Knowledge Mobilization and Implementation Coordination Hub. These cross-cutting programs are designed to ensure that the portfolio of projects funded as part of the Climate-Smart Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative translate into solutions for Canadians.

As with any industry, pork research does have its challenges.

“The main obstacle I have observed to progressing with research and innovative initiatives in the Canadian pork sector is the high level of competition among our own companies,” says Dr. Juarez. “With a large number of highly successful players in our country, each of them with different strategies for both the international and domestic markets, coordinating efforts is always interesting.”

Dr. Juarez acknowledges that this internal competition drives excellence by forcing individual companies to differentiate in order to maintain and gain market share. Even so, he feels the competition also complicates the development of research studies that could benefit the industry as a whole.

“Fragmentation and lack of coordination of pre-competitive research efforts has long been an obstacle to progress,” says Dr. van Rooijen. “Through the efforts of organizations like PigGen Canada, however, this obstacle is being addressed. The Canadian swine genetics industry now has a single voice and ‘go to’ group for swine genetic research in Canada.”

Established in 2009, PigGen Canada’s agenda is to bring swine genetics companies together and fund pre-competitive research.

Trying on some genes

“By pooling our resources, we are able to support cutting-edge research that the individual companies are not pursuing,” says Dr. Tom Rathje, chief technical officer for DNA Genetics in Columbus, Nebraska.

“We can then take the results of these studies and apply them to our own breeding programs. Thus far, we have engaged in some very impactful projects.”

A current example of PigGen's interests is to use camera systems to better understand pig and sow behaviour. Employing the cameras 24/7, researchers can determine a pig’s activity level from the footage, such as how much time they spend lying down, eating and drinking.

“There is huge genetic variation when it comes to these activities,” says Dr. Rathje. “With the cameras, we can explore areas like feed efficiency. Is the more-active pig more feed-efficient, or is it the pig that eats a big meal and then sleeps all day? Which animals get along better in groups, and can we select for certain temperaments? This is a ripe area of research that shows great potential.”

At present, genetic research is largely aimed at producing more resilient and robust pigs.

There is another subject that draws attention from many corners of pork research, though Dr. Rathje finds all the fuss a bit misleading.

“We are hearing a lot of buzz today about sustainability,” says Dr. Rathje.

“Everything we have done as an industry to improve production and feed efficiency, while lessening the environmental impact of our business, contributes to what I would define as ‘sustainability.’. Pork producers, and farmers in general, have a tremendous track record for ensuring they are sustainable.”

Among the intriguing developments in genetic research, gene editing has been a major player of late.

“Gene editing is the ability to edit a particular base pair of genes,” says Dr. Rathje. “This can dramatically speed our ability to make genetic changes.”

Instead of needing several generations of pigs to finally effect a change, gene editing makes it possible in one or two generations. That enables science to respond faster in areas like disease resilience, though it doesn’t ensure smooth sailing on every front.

“While some of the edits we can make simply alter a gene from one naturally occuring form to another, other edits may create a novel farm, so the two types might generate a different response from consumers and regulators,” says Dr. Rathje.

In the meantime, there are many research topics being explored across the pork sector, and for good reason.

“The pork industry is complex, and demonstrates a heavy reliance on the export market,” says Dr. Juarez. “The business is constantly being pressured to become more sustainable while remaining competitive. Sustainability and the circular economy seem to be the future of all agri-food commodities, and this can be achieved by working on topics as diverse as genetic selection, precision livestock farming and by-product utilization.”

To maintain research progress and keep up with the demands, Dr. Juarez sees data collection, management and interpretation as keys to success.

“In order to achieve our research goals and address issues related to manpower, both in farms and packing plants, automation and robotics will be major alternatives in the near future,” says Dr. Juarez. “Protecting and expanding export markets should be combined with initiatives to increase domestic consumption, both of which will require monitoring and optimizing quality attributes to meet buyers’ and consumers’ demands.”

Clearly, the task faced by science in keeping the pork sector competitive is a daunting one, and teamwork will be vital in the years ahead.

“Industry and academia are increasingly recognizing the benefits of working together to ensure that research generates clear benefits,” says Dr. van Rooijen.

“We must continue to invest in research to make the industry more profitable and sustainable. By doing so, we will help maintain pork as an important protein product in the diets of Canadians and customers worldwide.” BP

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