At a time when the agriculture industry is under unprecedented pressure to prove its sustainability bona fides, the livestock genetic sector is in prime position to be among the biggest drivers in providing more sustainable food sources for consumers. That was the message of Tad Sonstegard, president and CEO of Acceligen, at the 2023 Cattlemen’s Congress in New Orleans on Feb. 1.
In a presentation titled “Developing New Traits Using Precision Breeding Tools,” Sonstegard spoke to beef cattle producers about how gene editing is bringing multiple economically important traits to the market.
“We’re trying to create better animals for a better planet,” Sonstegard said. “Very few major gene variants are economically important. It’s our job to focus on those that are.”
His presentation focused primarily on two such traits: “slick” hide and bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) resistance.
Cattle gene-edited to have a slick coat – a trait whose expression typically requires a gene mutation – have proven to successfully manage hot, humid environments better than their thicker-coated counterparts. Several slick breeds have existed in parts of the southern U.S. for centuries, mostly along the Caribbean Basin. However, many of those breeds largely developed in a feral state and are less than suitable for modern food production.
In March 2022, the FDA acknowledged that the intentional genomic alteration that produces a slick hide “does not raise any safety concerns.” This means Acceligen, which developed the technology, has no obligation to seek approval from the FDA to market gene-edited slick animals.
In research in Brazil, slick Angus cattle have been fed to finish, on average, 180 days faster than the Nelore breed on whose back the Brazilian beef industry has been built. “These slick Angus cattle are very climate-smart animals,” Sonstegard said. “Exporting these animals to tropical environments without genetic editing really is unrealistic. Slick is the most economically important gene edit for the beef industry.”
Despite various regulatory challenges in different nations around the world, Sonstegard believes the proof is in the pudding when it comes to gene editing, particularly for economically valuable traits such as slick hide and BVD resistance. He sees a bright future for investing in precision genetics. One of the primary challenges for genetic improvement in the near future involves “stacking” these traits and others on top of each other in the same animal. If the industry can successfully produce these animals affordably, Sonstegard expects beef and dairy products to be more readily available around the world, particularly in tropical and subtropical regions. He also sees genomic editing as a powerful tool for building consumer trust in the product they’re purchasing.
“The consumer wants fewer antibiotics and drugs,” he said. “Gene editing can advance genomic selection faster to produce a more sustainable animal.”
In another Cattlemen’s College session, West Texas A&M University animal science professor David Lust posed the question, “How do we capture the genetic value of a great carcass?” In what should have been an obvious point but is often not considered, Lust pointed out that by the time a great carcass is discovered, that animal’s genetic potential is cut off.
In an effort to answer Lust’s original query, a research project was undertaken at West Texas A&M several years ago that involved finding a carcass that scored both Prime and Yield Grade 1, then cloning, raising and breeding the resulting bull calf, named “Alpha.” The most common beef carcass harvested in the U.S. (39.7%) is Choice/Yield Grade 3; superfine marbling and ultra-high-yielding are often viewed as antagonistic traits in the same animal. With multiple calf crops out of Alpha showing great promise, Lust believes the quest for more Prime/Yield Grade 1 cattle in the industry isn’t as far-fetched as many might think. And while cloning on a large scale is not economically viable, Lust believes his research project proved an important point about not settling for the genetic status quo.
“Just because there are antagonistic traits in a population,” he said, “doesn’t mean that has to be our destiny for every animal.”