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Genetic Trends a Double-Edged Cleaver in Markets

02 May 2012

GLOBAL - Manipulating livestock genes has always been central to effective and efficient food production. But as livestock genes are stored, swapped and sold in the global marketplace more than efficient food production is at stake, says GenomeAlberta.

For example, China is using US barnyards to super-size its food production, a move that is absolutely necessary to feed the world’s largest population. The days when small scale family farms could adequately feed the Chinese populace are long gone. China, like every other country around the globe, has come to the realization that large consolidated operations using modern Westernized methods are the only way to keep future starvation at bay.

On the other hand, giving China a fast leg up can lead to a US smackdown, say critics. A recent Reuters report says that China is buying millions of US breeding stock “capitalising on decades of cutting edge agricultural research in America.” But if past behaviour is a reliable measure, then it is highly likely that China will bite the hand that feeds it.

”This is, after all, a well-trod path in China's pursuit of efficiency: import a technology or create a joint-venture; learn the best practices; apply those practices at a lower cost than overseas rivals; and emerge as an aggressive competitor in the global market,” writes P.J. Huffstutter and Niu Shuping in the Reuters report.

US barnyards may thus see short-term gains and long-term losses. Western countries and other countries too may also see swelling grain costs as China suddenly ramps up its livestock, primarily pork, production. A sudden shift in an already over-taxed grain supply could ironically create more human hunger.

Meanwhile, other countries are more alarmed at losing the livestock genes unique to the local area. For example, Kenya is building a gene bank at a cost in excess of US $3.6 million to preserve indigenous livestock. A good bit of the concern stems from unfettered genetic material imports which privately held companies in Kenya are rapidly acquiring through the US, Netherlands, Finland, and Scotland. Kenya officials fear the unintentional importation of disease and the possibility of extinction of both rare and common breeds as new breeds take their place. The Kenyan government says it will be working towards compliance with the International Food Organisation (FAO) Global Plan of Action on Animal genetics Conservation – of which, Kenya is a signatory.

Small farmers in Kenya, however, are enjoying the fruits of new regional and global connectivity in improving their breeding programs. The new Mobile Service iCows, for example, is providing farmers with expert advice while also connecting them with other breeders to broaden their gene choices. The Internet, social networking, and mobile industry may well undercut Kenya’s gene bank programme if it doesn’t advance in a timely fashion.

To get a handle on the bigger picture of the effects of global genetic changes in livestock, several efforts are underway to study real-time big data to assess what actions might be needed immediately or at least in the short- and medium- terms.

One such effort is headed by Steve Lombardi, CEO of Real Time Genomics, a San Francisco based firm manned by a small business team and several computer scientists and mathematicians in New Zealand. Lombardi told Bio-IT World that “what RTG wants to create is next-gen genomic analysis. We need to bring the cost (of analysis) down so you can create a whole workflow of value for next-gen sequencing.”

“The RTG team took a new look at the bioinformatics pipeline from the perspective of the ‘big data’ problem. Most of what’s in the pipeline today are point solutions that everyone is trying to connect together,” he continued in the Bio-IT World article. “They took a different approach: they built a core engine that you can apply to any sort of point problem in genome analysis, and build algorithms and solutions based on that engine. The technology just screams!”

There is still work to be done to confirm the RTG process’ biological relevance but such efforts are still very promising.

At the end of the day, one vital point keeps emerging: the more problems we solve, the more we create. It would be extremely helpful if software can be developed to more accurately identify and predict what problems we face before we have to face them. As to the geopolitical problems surrounding the global sharing of genetic material? Those are still very much people problems and will likely remain touchy subjects until the end of time or at least until the end of mankind.

TheCattleSite News Desk



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