How Geneticists Will Help Feed Nine Billion People

The theme of the 21st JSR Genetics Technical Conference earlier this month was Science – the Key to Feeding the World. Jackie Linden, editor of ThePigSite, reports on some of the event highlights, focussing in this article on the contribution of genetics and breeders.
calendar icon 24 September 2010
clock icon 8 minute read

The focus of this year's JSR Genetics Technical Conference was on some of the ways in which science can feed the world. As the company's chairman, Tim Rymer, explained in his introduction: "As a science-based business, it is obvious to us that scientific solutions have the potential to ensure we are able to feed a world population of nine billion people by 2050. There are already another 200,000 mouths to feed since we awoke yesterday morning."

Benefits from Breeding in the Next Decade

Frédéric Grimaud

Frédéric Grimaud, president of breeding company, Groupe Grimaud, opened his presentation by the organisation of his company. It is the second biggest multi-species animal genetics company in the world, he said and is 80 per cent owned by the Grimaud family and 20 per cent by a number of financial partners. Annual turnover is around €200 million and there are 1,450 employees worldwide.

The company has two main business branches. The Animal Genetic Selection division comprises four groups: ducks and geese, guinea fowl and pigeons (Grimaud Frèrer); broilers (Hubbard); layers (Novogen) and pigs (Newsham Choice Genetics). The Biopharmacy division is split into two main groups: Vivalis, which covers vaccines, proteins and pharma molecules, and Filavie for vaccines, bacterial flora and analysis. A further group, Hypharm, has links to both divisions and covers serum, pharma proteins, rabbits and SPF animal breeding.

Mr Grimaud said that feeding a growing world population will become increasingly challenging, and that population growth exerts strong pressure on the environment. "If we break the balance, we won't be able to produce sufficient food," he said.

He went on to outline 10 keys for a better understanding of the situation.

"A quick look in the mirror shows tremendous progress in the last decade, mainly thanks to genetics," he said, showing the improvements in the annual output of meat from parent stock in the last 20 years from pigs, rabbits and poultry, as well as the improvements in feed conversion ratio. Breeding is a fixed-cost, long term business, he emphasised, saying that the current genetics 'pipeline' will produce the commercial generation of animals in 2013-2014.

There are great opportunities for a multi-species approach, Mr Grimaud believes, seeing many synergies in his company is terms of breeding programmes for different species such as chickens, pigs and rabbits.

"Animal welfare is becoming a main challenge," he said. He sees great importance in breeding for commercial conditions, taking into account their natural and social behaviour to develop less aggressive and more robust animals.

The integration of the Marker Assisted Selection (MAS) in the BLUP is improving the accuracy of the selection, Mr Grimaud said, showing the spurt in estimated breeding value (EBV) since the introduction of MAS. Meat water-holding capacity and marbling/tenderness are traits that have been especially responsive to the technique, and it could prove to be the first effective technique for increased resistance to pathogens.

"If we break the balance, we won't be able to produce sufficient food"

On a related theme, he believes that biotech tools have the potential to permit the revolution of the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Work on an experimental scale has proved the concept and the technique may, in future, be used to improve disease resistance.

However, quantitative selection remains the basis of breeding programmes, said Mr Grimaud, showing the improvements in broiler 42-day weight and feed conversion over the last decade.

He stressed the need to maintain genetic diversity in order to satisfy different market segments.

At the breeding level, health status and risk mitigation are key factors to secure the industry in Mr Grimaud's opinion. His company has developed separate R&D centres, continuous monitoring of health status in internal labs and multiplication centres near to commercial zones to both secure local customers and offer multi-source supply in case of a ban resulting from a case of a major disease outbreak in one area.

Environmental friendly production is becoming another new challenge, said Mr Grimaud. Citing examples from the broiler sector, he explained that a better FCR and drier litter mean less manure, and new developments in nutrition both improve nutrient digestibility and offer protection against pathogens.

Mr Grimaud closed his presentation by saying that with so many risks and so many variables, the future is not yet written but these unknowns offer many opportunities for breeding companies to make a difference.

The Science of Feeding the World

Dr Grant Walling

Dr Grant Walling, director of Research and Genetics for JSR Genetics, outlined the challenges by saying, "Today's 6.5 billion people in the world today is forecast to rise to nine billion by 2050. And further, due to changing eating patterns, those nine billion people are likely to eat enough food for 11 billion people due to the increasing demands of the middle classes in more populous countries such as China and India."

One solution could be to farm more land, Dr Walling suggested. We currently farm 1.4 billion hectares; the FAO has identified more than 1.6 billion hectares that could be used for farming (mainly in Latin America and Africa). However, the Royal Society is concerned over the damage to ecosystems and biodiversity.

Another solution would be to eat less meat, he said. However, this fails to address the use of marginal land (especially for beef and lamb production), that farm animals eat large amounts of agricultural and food by-products as well as the need of wool and leather. And who should reduce their meat intake, asked Dr Walling? Should it be those in countries that already eat a lot of meat or those in developing countries where meat intake is increasing along with growing income?

The best solution, he proposed, is for agriculture to produce more with less resource (water, fertiliser, pesticides). This can only be achieved through improved science and technology and investment in agricultural research, which only currently makes up five per cent of world R&D spend, Dr Walling said.

Genetic technologies will be an important part of the improvement in efficiency and output, he predicted.

"Quantitative genetics works," he said, showing the continuing upward trend in oil content of maize selected over many generations, as well as the increasing gap between maize lines selected for low- or high protein content.

Going on to show the performance of today's pig compared to one of the 1960s, Dr Walling presented his estimate of the likely performance of pigs in 2050, when the human population is expected to reach the nine-billion mark, assuming linear improvements in each parameter.

However, the improvements take a great forward leap if molecular genetics is employed. Using marker chips in market assisted (MA) selection with BLUP, the progress is much faster (see table).

Quantitative selection success: performance of the modern pig compared to one in the 1960s and the potential of new techniques
1960s 2010 2050
(linear improvement)
(with MA-BLUP)
Pigs weaned per sow 14 21 28 31.5
Lean % 40 55 70 70
FCR 3.0 2.2 1.4 1.28
Lean meat per tonne feed (kg) 85 170 255 268
Data for 1960s and modern pigs from Van der Steen et al., 2005

Progress in producing more with fewer resources could also be achieved by making changes, either to indices or to traits, said Dr Walling. He gave the example of dairy breeding, where three different traits are used: profitability, low-carbon and welfare, where the focus is on production traits, efficiency and longevity, respectively. For pigs, the focus generally remains mainly on profitability but JSR is increasingly paying attention to lifetime performance, which takes into account sow mortality and thus impacts replacement rate. Meanwhile, a greater emphasis on feed efficiency may detract somewhat from growth rate but it is more relevant with rising feed costs and reduces environmental benefits.

"We need to take the public with us"

Dr Walling also highlighted the potential benefits of other production changes, including the use of split-sex feeding. Work from Harper Adams University College sponsored by JSR shows that the best overall performance was achieved by boars on a much higher level of lysine (1.12g/kg) than gilts (0.89g/kg).

So far, the breeding index has not been influence by welfare because of insufficient financial reward and conflicts with climate change goals, he said.

New embryonic technologies would also help the industry to produce more with less, Dr Walling said, as he described semen freezing, and embryo transfer.

"These technologies will become more common by 2050 but we need to take the public with us," he said.

Summing up, Dr Walling said: "Genetic improvement will continue to deliver annual benefits. However difficult challenges need to be addressed with breeding goals for production, profitability, climate change and animal welfare.

"Other genetic technologies must be allowed to penetrate the market without excessive bureaucratic legislation (GM and cloning) but scientists must be realistic with the claims and allow the consumer to make informed choices."

Further Reading

- Go to our previous news item on this story by clicking here.

September 2010

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