ATHENS, Ga. — Genetic improvement, particularly improvements related to animal production, has been one of the most transformational agricultural advancements in our history.
The breeding of healthier, more productive livestock has been achieved through genetic selection over the course of time, both through natural genetic selection and through increased use of artificial insemination, particularly in poultry and cattle production. These advancements have increased production levels dramatically — for example, there were approximately 26 million dairy cattle producing milk in the U.S. in 1950, but through genetic selection, this number dropped to approximately 9 million dairy cattle in 2010, all while milk production increased and production costs decreased.
Increases in efficiency driven by technological advancements that have been widely adopted by industry have created a more stable agricultural system worldwide.
“What if we had not been able to make these improvements because the public was not in favor of genetic selection?” asked Alison Van Eenennaam, professor of Cooperative Extension at the University of California, Davis, the guest speaker for the 2022 D.W. Brooks Lecture held Nov. 8.
Using the complicated past of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the rich history of agricultural innovation as examples, Van Eenennaam made a compelling case for the increased use of thoughtful, direct science communication that seeks to explain the “why” behind the technological advancements that are designed to feed a growing world population.
Agricultural innovations are not always accepted with open arms, however. GMOs — for some, the darling of agricultural advancement, and for others, the villain — have suffered in the court of public opinion, much to the dismay of agricultural scientists in the U.S. and around the world.
A respected member of the agricultural and scientific community, Van Eenennaam has appeared on national television and in debate series, such as the Intelligence Squared debates in New York City, as an advocate for the use of GMOs, which have been shown to be a safe, sustainable option to increase food production.
Although she has done extensive work in GMO advocacy, Van Eenennaam’s own research centers on a different topic entirely: genome editing. A relatively new and novel technology, genome editing seeks to adjust the DNA of organisms in order to select for desirable traits that improve performance and health. Her current work seeks to use genome editing to increase the prevalence of cattle born without horns.
Similar to her efforts to communicate the facts about GMOs, Van Eenennaam has gone to great lengths to communicate her own research in a way that makes the purpose of genome editing understandable. Most notably, Van Eenennaam, along with one of her genome-editing success stories, Cosmo, worked with PBS Nova to showcase this advancement in agricultural technology.
“To me, this project combined all the elements of science communication. It doesn’t touch on the “how” hardly at all — it touches on the “why” and does it in an engaging style that is … comprehensible by the general public,” Van Eenennaam said of the documentary.
Innovation enables us to produce more food with fewer resources, breed the most efficient livestock and even cure diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. In order to find success in these areas and more, we must be willing to adopt the technologies that enable a more efficient path toward that success. Innovation is the driving force behind societal advancement, Van Eenennaam said.
“I hope that we can engage narrative storytellers or else develop that technology and skill ourselves to tell a story around genome editing, be it for plants or animals, so that we’re actually able to use that in future breeding programs,” she said. “I hope I’ve shown you that the opportunity cost of not adopting innovation is very real and not always very obvious. Not being able to use improved breeding techniques would have very big environmental and food security consequences.”
The 2022 D.W. Brooks Faculty Awards for Excellence were also recognized at the lecture, which is held annually in honor of the late D.W. Brooks, a Georgian who dedicated his life to the advancement of agriculture in our state and across the world.
This year’s honorees include Samuel Aggrey, recognized for Excellence in International Agricultural and Environmental Sciences; Kylee Jo Duberstein, recognized for Excellence in Teaching; Pam Knox, recognized for Excellence in Extension; Peggy Ozias-Akins, recognized for Excellence in Research; and Rachel Stewart, recognized for Excellence in Public Service Extension.
For more information on the D.W. Brooks Lecture and Awards, visit dwbrooks.caes.uga.edu.
–Claire Sanders, University of Georgia