Contribution of animal breeding to solving societal challenges

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September 28, 2021

With pleasure we publish the report of Lotta Rydhmer (former EAAP Council member) about the Challenge Session number 65 of the EAAP Annual Meeting just held in Davos:

At the challenge session Contribution of animal breeding to solving societal challenges held during the EAAP 2021 in Davos, we discussed how breeding can facilitate the use of animals that is socially sustainable and acceptable. Whenever we use animals for production or sport or company, there are several stakeholders: the animal owners with families and people working with the animals, but also other workers along the production chain, e.g. on the soy farm or the slaughter house. For the local community, the impact of animal production on the landscape is an issue. The structural change from many small farms to few large farms can limit the possibilities to have animals on pasture. We need pastures for biodiversity but also for beauty and people want to see animals outside on pasture.
Thus, the ability to thrive on pasture is a selection trait that matters for the society. The structural change of agriculture also influences occupation in rural areas. We usually think that less work hours is a progress to which selection has contributed. At the same time, livestock farms offer jobs for people on the countryside. Do we, as breeders, want to be among the drivers for this structural change leading to less people working with animals? Can we, as breeders, help animals, farmers and workers to thrive on these larger farms? Breeding companies can contribute to a better social sustainability by having ethical committees in which breeding activities are discussed with different stakeholders and by respecting the opinions of their customers – the farmers. Are the conditions fair for all customers, and what about transparency? A fair distribution of resources is a societal challenge. Knowledge and data are resources and it can be questioned if genomic selection has increased or decreased the gap between the rich and the poor. Improving product quality is a way to contribute to solving societal challenges. How can breeders interact with industry and retailers to work for the right balance between good food quality and affordable food? This question is related to consumers’ acceptance of animal production. There are goal conflicts between social and environmental sustainability aspects. Therefore, it is important to evaluate not only environmental sustainability of animal production but also social sustainability. This can be done with social life cycle analysis, as shown by Zira et al (2020).
The participants of the challenge session formed three discussion groups and the topics dealt with differed between groups.
The perspectives may differ depending on whether you work in industry or academia, as breeder or a geneticist, and whether you are younger or older…
One group started by thinking about the consequences of the climate change on cattle breeding in different countries. This lead further to a discussion on different opportunities and responsibilities when breeding for animal production on a closed versus an open market. Would Icelandic farmers choose Holstein animals if import was allowed? Local breeds have additional, societal values related to cultural heritage, tourism, and sometimes subsidies from the society. There are goal conflicts between animal welfare and economic profit at farm level for livestock. Dogs were discussed as a contrast – in dog breeding the market is not a main driver for selection. Yet, selection for extreme breed characteristics (such as flat-faced dogs) has led to severe health problems. It is hard to understand what or who is the driver here, but information to dog owners does not seem to help. For a breeder, the dog owner’s admiration of its snoring pet is frustrating. How should we, as breeders, handle this? This group also discussed ‘the right breed for the right conditions’ and differentiated breeding programs. In general, the size of organic production is too limited for a separate breeding program. International cooperation between breeding organisations may give a larger base for additional breeding programs, as long as the alternative breeding goal fits the alternative production systems in all involved countries.
Another group discussed who decides on the breeding goals and how transparent this process is. Economic weights tend to favour large farms in intensive production systems and social issues are seldom taken into account when designing the breeding program.
The environment and resources of the farm depends on soil, climate, altitude, landscape etc, but the breeding goal is often based on a ‘standard’ environment and on short-term profit. One thought was that agriculture is the industry where the consequences of an economic system based on continuous economic growth first appears, since agriculture uses natural resources as input. In order to achieve UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, prices have to reflect societal and environmental costs and in a circular economy, animals can turn waste, byproducts and grass from natural pastures into valuable food and manure. This group also discussed that food should be affordable for poor people while farmers, at the same time, should get a fair income. The third group focused on what animal breeders can do as individuals and raised the rhetorical question: “Where would I invest 1 000 000 dollars to improve the world?” The best option differs between countries and todays’ breeding programs seldom focus on low-income countries. Breeding can aim for adapting animals to a changed climate and or aim for mitigating climate change, i.e. reactive or proactive. Hard core genomics is not necessarily the first thing
to do. Improvement can be choosing the right system, and the right species that fits the environment, in order to convert feed into animal protein. Designing breeding programs for insects is a relevant job for animal breeders. This group also discussed what lessons can be
learned from the past. Changing economic weights and introducing new goal traits should be done with great care, keeping possible negative side effects in mind. At the final discussion, questions about how to best use available resources were raised. Breeding can cause system changes (and thus it matters which production system we want) or breeding can be a response to existing breeding system, i.e. animals are selected to fit the system. We discussed whether the strong selection focus on individual animals’ efficiency can cause problems. We should rather select animals that leads to the desired, efficient, system.
What are the relevant breeding goals from a system perspective? Farm animals have multiple values (in addition to producing food) and all these values should be acknowledged, but who should pay for these common goods? It was suggested that long term efficiency can be
synonymous with sustainability. The need for more communication with consumers and education about agriculture in schools was stressed, but the information must be honest. Do we dare to show what animal production really looks like? One suggestion was to communicate the consequences of cheap food: “Do  you think farmers have the right to take vacation?” It is easy to suggest what others need to do (such as education politicians) but what is our responsibility as breeders? Maybe we can refer more often to UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in our communication, since these goals have become established in the society. Yet, we should be aware of the risk of breeding companies ‘green washing’ their activities by highlighting one or two strengths and ignore weaknesses.
The possibility to ‘do good’ on a free market was discussed. Monitory units neither reflect all costs, nor all values, but we all work within an existing economic system. Political governance can be needed in order to stimulate (or force) a more sustainable development. One participant thought that political solutions are too local – they lack a global perspective. Another one argued that an ‘overall’ political solution can be a disaster for a local production system. We agreed that politicians often act from a too short time perspective. The time aspect of breeding was also raised. Breeding decisions taken today aim for genetically changed animals in the future, but the decisions are based on historical knowledge. Do we breed animals in accordance with scientific predictions of the future environment?

At the end of the workshop Morten Kargo from Aarhus University and Christa Egger-Danner from ZuchtData EDV in Austria shared their conclusions from the challenge session. Christa thought that a communication platform for all stakeholders could empower the farmers, since most people are only connected to agricultural production through consumption today. She also reminded us that countries are diverse and therefore diverse breeding goals are needed; one size does not fit all. With increased cooperation within the industry, the higher costs of diverse breeding goals could be factored into the price that consumers pay for food. Morten stated that it is our responsibility to tell the society about modern animal production in an honest way, and to explain the results of breeding. He meant that the breeding companies are responsible for creating different lines for different production systems. Morten also questioned the lack of
regulation of management of livestock breeds: “A breeding company could (theoretically) destroy a well-functioning population without any reaction from the authorities”. Inbreeding is not only a threat to traditional breeds, and the risk of negative side effects increases with
increased speed of genetic progress. Many breeding companies want to contribute to a sustainable development, but they, of course, also want to survive on a competitive market. A final message from the organisers of this challenge session, Lotta Rydhmer and Stanley Zira
(Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences), was that animal breeders cannot save the world alone. Never the less, animal breeders can and should contribute to the fulfilment of the Sustainable Development Goals, in cooperation with other experts.