Why the NYT article on MARC is wrong & what it might mean for animal ag research

Why the NYT article on MARC is wrong & what it might mean for animal ag research

Will U.S. animal scientists be allowed to do the research to feed a world hungry for animal protein?

By now, virtually everybody who is involved in agriculture has seen the projections of world population growth by 2050. The prospect that we’ll add roughly an additional 3 billion people, from 7 billion now to 9 billion in just 35 years, is cause for concern.

That concern is not just for the planet, but also for those additional people. In short, how will we feed them all? The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates there will be a 73% increase in meat and egg consumption and a 58% increase in dairy consumption over 2011 levels worldwide by the year 2050.

However, in the past two decades, public funding levels for animal science research have remained stagnant. Consequently, overall available funding has actually declined as the cost of doing animal research has increased substantially.

A 2015 report from the National Research Council (NRC) titled “Critical Role of Animal Science Research in Food Security and Sustainability,” noted that animal agriculture accounts for 60% to 70% of the total U.S. agricultural economy. The 400-plus page report recommends reinvigorating research in animal agriculture and recommends that, “Further development and adoption of breeding technologies and genetics, which have been the major contributors to past increases in animal productivity, efficiency, product quality, environmental, and economic advancements, are needed to meet future demand.”

The question is, will U.S. animal agriculture researchers be allowed to conduct this vitally necessary agricultural research, or will they be forced to stand by, disregarding proven approaches to genetic improvement that could help provide more sustainable sources of animal protein?

Apparently, if the decision were left to activists and The New York Times, it would be to discontinue research in animal breeding and genetic improvement, disease prevention and pathogen detection. Just 12 days after the release of the NRC report, an article titled “U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer in Quest for Profit” was published in The New York Times. This article is being used by some activist groups, including the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), to suggest that the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) at Clay Center, Neb., should be shut down permanently.

MARC is a USDA research facility that was founded over 50 years ago to unite federal government research on meat animal productivity, diseases, food safety and other industry challenges. It houses large populations of animals, including approximately 6,900 beef cows, 2,400 ewes and farrows around 950 litters of pigs per year. As such, it would seem well positioned to be an important player in conducting research on the development of breeding technologies and genetic strategies to meet this increasing global demand for animal protein.

How the NYT got it wrong

Many of the shocking details in the story stemmed mainly from hearsay and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, some dating back to incidents that occurred more than 25 years ago. To date, none of the incidents recounted in the story have been verified or proven, at least not publicly. An investigation of the abuse charges is currently underway by the Office of the Inspector General. It would seem prudent to wait for the results of that investigation before condemning MARC and calling for them to close their doors.

As an animal geneticist, I have worked with the researchers in the Genetics, Breeding and Animal Health research unit at MARC, and personally visited the center on several occasions over the past decade. The story published by The New York Times does not reflect my knowledge of the current research that is being conducted at the center. Nor does it in any way align with my observations as it relates to the handling and treatment of animals at the center.

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I have interacted with researchers at MARC, working to decrease the incidence of bovine respiratory disease, or pneumonia, in beef cattle. I am also well aware of the center’s large germplasm evaluation project designed to determine the performance characteristics of diverse cattle breeds and crossbreds, so that producers – both large and small – can select animals that are well suited to their particular environmental niches. 

The article asserts that “the center has become a destination for the kind of high-risk, potentially controversial research that other institutions will not do or are no longer allowed to do.” Neither of the projects with which I am most familiar is controversial; in fact, my own publicly-funded laboratory investigates the opportunity to select for cattle that are less susceptible to respiratory disease. And the long-term germplasm evaluation project would just not be feasible using small land grant university research herds. If not for the large, permanent cattle herd at MARC, this valuable data on breed performance and adaptability would not exist.

I acknowledge that my experiences are anecdotal in nature, and represent a subset of the research done at MARC. However, I would argue that the same is true of the selected projects presented in The New York Times article, many of which were initiated in the last century.

A document outlining MARC’s research projects was provided to the author of the article, including those detailing research in disease prevention, breed evaluation and utilization, pre‐harvest pathogen control, improving feed efficiency and minimizing the impact of livestock on the environment. Furthermore, the reporter was provided with several examples of current research that MARC is performing that benefit animal wellbeing; however, coverage of these projects was absent.

Research evolves with time, and given new knowledge and evolving societal norms, research projects that were funded in the 20th century in many different fields of study, not just animal science, would not fare well today. Therefore, it is irrational to condemn them by today’s standards, which are built upon decades of additional data and methodological refinement.

The article states that “the center has one overarching mission: helping producers of beef, pork and lamb turn a higher profit as diets shift toward poultry, fish and produce.” It is unclear where this statement originated. MARC’s publicly-available mission statement is to develop “scientific information and new technology to solve high priority problems for the U.S. beef, sheep, and swine industries.” Even the article itself then goes on to state that since MARC was founded 50 years ago, it “has fought the spread of disease, fostered food safety, and helped American ranchers compete in a global marketplace.”

Research has many benefits

From a societal perspective, it is important to appreciate that advances in animal breeding have been associated with substantial environmental benefits. The improved efficiency of today’s livestock populations has dramatically decreased the environmental footprint of animal agriculture.

For example, if not for the genetic improvement in dairy cattle over the past century, the national herd would have to increase from the current 9 million cows to somewhere over 40 million cows to produce milk for American consumers. That increase would be equivalent to the size of the entire U.S. beef cow herd, and would result in a more than threefold increase in the carbon footprint of a glass of milk.

It has been argued that Western diets need to shift away from animal protein sources, and perhaps some groups calling for the closure of MARC see disinvesting in animal science research as a means to help accomplish that goal. While we can debate the pros and cons of an omnivore diet and the importance of animal-sourced food for human development, there is a wealth of literature suggesting that global animal protein consumption will continue to increase based on population growth and increased per capita animal protein consumption in the developing world.

The comprehensive NRC report noted that, “As long as animal protein continues to be consumed, there is value to research and development that improves the efficiency of its production.” It would seem this document authored by knowledgeable academic experts would better inform Congress regarding the need for the animal science research being conducted at MARC than demands being made by activist organizations based on a single unsubstantiated newspaper article.

Which way will Congress respond? By supporting science-based research to help address the burgeoning demand for animal protein, or by disinvesting in the knowledge development required to address that need?

Alison Van Eenennaam is an animal geneticist and Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis. 

 

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