PUSHBACK on beef genomics is emerging in the United States, driven by single-agenda quarters, on the basis animals are not being considered as individual creatures.
Their argument is the game-changing science of trait selection is creating a situation where animals are seen as “nothing more than genetic material” which fosters a gattaca situation where only genetically superior animals are allowed to create offspring.
Quite the point really, says renowned American animal scientist Professor Alison Van Eenennaam, who agreed Australia’s beef industry could probably look forward to this development in opinion-setting coming its way soon.
Prof Van Eenennaam, head of the University of California at Davis’ Animal Genomics and Biotechnology Laboratory, featured in the Douglas Ormonde Butler Memorial Lecture series at the University of Queensland yesterday.
Her message was about how the public narrative around innovation and agriculture is skewed by misinformation and fallacies - essentially fake news.
The result was people often voting for products that go against their own core values in terms of decreasing their environmental footprint, she said.
Examples were hormone growth promotants in beef, caged egg production and now genomics.
Anything that slows down genetic improvement programs is correlated with increasing the carbon footprint of a food item, she said.
“Over time, cattle has been an impressive sustainability story,” Prof Van Eenennaam said.
“The US dairy herd has dropped to 9.2m, from 26m in the 1950s, but it produces 1.6 times as much milk.
“Each animal is more productive - at least 80pc of that has come via genetic improvement - and that has enabled the industry to decrease the overall carbon footprint of a glass of milk to about a third.”
There was a distinct lack of discussion about trade-offs, because so much of the information swamping consumers came from groups who push an agenda, the professor argued.
“A term like sustainability, with no precise definition and complicated by the fact it intersects environment, economics and social acceptability, means there is no way to rank ways to produce food,” she said.
“Some groups will put 100pc of emphasis on animal welfare without thinking it conflicts with other things, like environmental footprint.
“Another push now in the US, coming across from Europe, is slow growing chicken.
“The call is for chickens to grow less than 50 grams a day. For no particular reason, certainly not science, the argument is if they grow slower, it will be a better, healthier chicken and more flavoursome.
“In the absence of objective measurement, marketers can say whatever they want.
“And in a culture that has no idea how agriculture functions, this is able to thrive.”
Australian supermarkets’ no HGP policy had decreased the country’s beef production efficiency, Prof Van Eenennaam said.
Given the scientific data is clear there is no health issue, demand for HGP-free is driven entirely by emotion, she argues.
“The trade-off is environmental footprint and cost. Society has to own that.”
The solution is to bring discussion of trade-offs to the table but ‘storytellers’ in that space are hard to come by.
Scientists don’t want the job and farmers and agribusiness suffer from the fact anyone with an economic stake gets poo pooed.
“So the only storytellers we have are generally funded by interest groups,” Pro Van Eenennaam said.
“There is a void and it is being filled with fairy tales.”
The UQ lecture series was established in 1977 with a bequest from the estate of Douglas Ormonde Butler to teach genetics, particularly with reference to agriculture and stock.