Peter K Dearden
Last week one of Genetics Otago’s star researchers, Dr John McEwan of AgResearch, got the Focus Genetics Sheep Industry Science Award at the Beef + Lamb New Zealand Sheep Industry Awards. This award is incredibly well deserved. Selective breeding in sheep, guided by the genetic and genomic tools developed by John means that we have far fewer sheep on our farms than 20 years ago, but still export the same amount of lamb (but with higher value).
This is a consummate demonstration of the art of selective breeding. Using the latest tools, including being first to sequence the sheep genome, John and the AgResearch team have increased the efficiency of our sheep hugely. Less sheep, less management costs, less erosion, but the same or more export dollars. Indeed this programme is now New Zealand’s biggest participatory science programme, Beef and Lamb Genetics, with sheep breeders around the country assessing their own flocks to improve the national sheep. Don’t believe me? Check it out here.
Increasing the efficiency of farmed animals is surely one effective way to reduce stocking levels and reducing environmental impact. This is great. Good science deployed to improve profits to farmers while reducing impact.
What startled me were a few comments on a newspaper article describing the prize, stating effectively that this was all well and good, but genetic modification of sheep was unacceptable because of the impact on human health. And right there is the problem. If you use the word ‘genetic’ you must be talking about genetic modification, Frankenfoods etc. Genetics, in the mind of the public is bad. Geneticists are evil. This is not terribly surprising given how geneticists (and scientists in general) are portrayed in films. Take “Jurassic Park” for example – bloody geneticists playing God, and having to be saved by a mathematician and a palaeontologist. “The Boys from Brazil”- those dastardly geneticists again. Check out how bad it is! For a free Genetics Otago bookmark, name a film has a geneticist as a hero.
We do have a serious perception problem though. Genetics as a science has a lot to offer, to human health and agriculture. Most of that benefit doesn’t mean genetic modification. Every single crop we grow, animal we farm or pet we own, has been modified by artificial selection. We haven’t just changed the structures of the world we live in; we have changed the animals and plants we live with. No genetic modification is required to turn a wolf into a pug, teosinte into corn, or the poisonous wild tubers of the Andes into a potato. This technology is old, as old as agriculture, and it has been made more effective and less wasteful by modern genomics. We cannot afford to stop doing it just because it is easily confused with other genetic techniques.
Genetics has transformed our world and made modern life possible. We forget that at our peril.
Once again a serious and measured conversation about genetics is needed in New Zealand. Firstly to show that our agricultural economy depends on good genetics, secondly to show that we lead the world in this space, and thirdly to discuss what we are going to do with all the new genetic technologies that are coming on line; technologies that could transform our agricultural system.
If through genetic modification we could remediate nitrogen in our rivers, control pests more effectively to protect our native ecosystems, or increase the efficiency and environmental impact of our farm animals, isn’t it worth talking about?
We have made great strides with artificial selection; isn’t it time to think what we might like to achieve with new technologies?