July 18, 2021

Contemporary and Emerging Issues Symposium I

Contemporary and Emerging Issues Symposium I

Lowell Randel, a member of the ASAS Public Policy Committee (PPC) introduced the symposium. According to him the purpose of grand challenges (GCs) is to develop the field of animal science since the last strategic plan. Grand challenges clearly articulate priorities for providing scientific information for shaping public policy and enhancing research and educational programs in animal science. 

Donald R. Mulvaney began with the first talk on “Rethinking/reexamining Grand Challenges Within Teaching for Workforce Readiness – a Scorecard and Recalibration”. According to him, the PPC examined previous GCs in animal science to provide a sense of progress along with suggestions for future advancements in research to address grand challenges that still affect animal agriculture. Several important GCs include teaching for workforce readiness (WR), providing experiences through curriculum, and creation of adaptive learning experiences for an increasingly technological workforce. In surveys regarding career readiness, employers have found that employees who are recent graduates do not have the appropriate skills in areas such as teamwork, communication, problem-solving, and leadership. Overall, surveys found that students felt that their own professional and work ethic was more adequate than how it was considered by employers. In order to address this gap, employability skills such as interpersonal skills, critical thinking skills, and communication skills need to be learned in order to understand workplace expectations. In the next steps to address the GC, college and career readiness must be focal points and skills and experiences must be measured to allow graduates to be successful employees. Students must be taught knowledge from emerging topics and must gain experiences across disciplines and competencies. To do this, a more expansive role of research must be utilized and leveraged to improve teaching and learning. Students should also be encouraged to do internships or gain other credentials that could be useful in their careers. Overall, instructing for WR would address the gap that exists between WR and employer expectations of critical skills including problem solving, leadership, and effective communication abilities. 

Dr. Fernando Biase spoke about “Grand Challenges within Breeding and Genetics”. He began with the foundation in genetics that was built by naturalists and scientists. Initial ideas about inheritance evolved to inheritance of complex traits such as heights and polygenic inheritance, mathematical models associated with inheritance, and then allelic and phenotypic frequencies at population level. Eventually, selection of animals for mating was considered and theoretical work on population and artificial selection was expanded which is essential to genetic improvements today particularly in scientific animal breeding. Breeding values could be calculated and algorithms were developed to account for variance of components. In terms of chemical discoveries, the structure of DNA was elucidated and sequencing methods were developed. Genomics intersect with animal breeding to advance genetic gain and breeding values can be calculated using genomic information. Genomic selection requires enormous effort and mathematics to integrate new data with pedigree and phenotype data to have models predictive of genetic value of animals. Breeding values calculated with genomic information are available for almost all agriculturally important species and allow for genetic improvement of important traits. Precision livestock production involves phenomics which is the characterization of multiple layers of biological information from an organism. High-throughput phenotyping uses sensors or cameras for acquisition of large volumes of data for many indicator traits. Genomics intersects with animal breeding and high-throughput phenotyping to advance genetic gain. Heritabilities can be estimated for traits to incorporate traits into breeding schemes. Bioengineering involves genome editing and intersects with genomic selection in animal breeding as gametes can be selected based on breeding values of donors. Genome editing can also be done in livestock species. The challenge that lies ahead is how to turn new technologies into solutions so that farm management can be integrated with genetic improvement. It is also important to consider a uniform platform for genotyping animals. In terms of analytics, fluctuations in breeding values across genomic evaluations should be reduced, genomic predictions need to be better validated, and procedures can be created to predict breeding values across breeds and crossbreeds. It is important to gain public acceptance to inform about new technologies such as bioengineering. Government and regulatory barriers are also important to consider. Overall there is a need to integrate multiple fronts of development to enhance efficiency in animal breeding and produce actionable results for sustainable livestock farming and animal welfare. 

Dr. Thomas E. Spencer presented next about “Grand Challenges in Domestic Agricultural Animal Reproduction”. One of the GCs identified by the ASAS PPC is the reproduction of domesticated animals. In Dr. Spencer’s view, large animal models are good for biomedical and agricultural research. For example, sheep are beneficial in modeling maternal-fetal medicine and pigs are used as models for neonatology and nutritional programming. Animals have an essential role in human health via nutrition. They are needed to advance research, sustain U.S. agriculture, and understand diseases that affect both humans and animals. However, funding for research in the field has been limited as the need for research using non-rodent species is underappreciated. Thus, many potential improvements to animal agriculture and human health through research have been hindered. The “Dual Purpose with Dual Benefit” program was established by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to encourage research efforts in One Health using farm animals to mimic human processes while promoting animal and human health. Funding priority areas include reproduction, metabolism, developmental origins of adult health and diseases, infectious diseases, and immunology. Subfertility is a major problem in domestic animals, companion animals and humans. Additionally, pregnancy loss inhibits production efficiency and efficiency of assisted reproductive technology. Determinants of pregnancy success include competence of embryo and the environment in the reproductive tract. According to his research, pregnancy loss in cattle mainly happens in the first two months of pregnancy. In his research in subfertile cattle, he identified an important biological mechanism underlying subfertility and infertility that manifests between days 14 and 17 of pregnancy. He discovered intrinsic differences in the conceptus that underlie pregnancy loss. In future investigation to address grand challenges, it is important to look at genetic contributions of sire and dam and the epigenetic effects that occur. Interagency programs are essential to fund agriculture research to make significant scientific gains

David E. Gerard followed with a presentation entitled “Grand Challenges in Domestic Agricultural Animal Reproduction”. A GC facing animal agriculture recognized by the PPC is growth and development, particularly improving growth efficiency in animals involved in meat production. In his view, the field has grown substantially due to work by pharmaceutical companies done to find new growth promotants. Many fields within animal science have done research involving these promotants. This has led to knowledge regarding how tissues grow in the presence of growth promoting compounds and cellular mechanisms in growth and development. Other areas of expanded research included protein synthesis, adipogenesis, satellite cell biology, and the repartitioning of nutrients in the body. One of the most important areas of research today are genomic technologies that will eventually replace growth promotants. Applications of genomic technologies include gene editing, RNA control, and epigenetic programming. To address grand challenges, there is a need to increase agricultural productivity while cutting down environmental impact. In the future technologies and strategies such as biosensors, digital automation, prescriptive intervention, genome design, and systems-based farm management can be utilized for efficient production. Understanding how microbiota changes with production agriculture and how animals respond physiologically is also important. More knowledge is needed about heat stress, cold stress, and the physiology of an animal changes with the environment. Fetal programming has significant implications on animal agriculture and human health. It is necessary to continue to explore how in utero development affects productivity. Additionally, more research is needed investigating feeding animals in a challenged state. Finally, it is important to be cautious about the potential physiological consequences when genetic strategies are used in animals. 

A presentation about “Optimizing Animal Welfare in a Socially Acceptable and Sustainable Manner: The ASAS Grand Challenge That Requires Moral Self-reflection and Scientific Calibration” was given by Dr. Courtney L. Daigle. One of the GCs identified by the PPC is animal welfare (AW). Five key areas were identified to address AW including animal management practices, genetic markers, transportation, pain mitigation, and humane euthanasia. Research among a diversity of disciplines has investigated these key areas for the improvement of AW. Dr. Daigle reported on these research efforts to make determinations on progress and areas in need of advancement. The most amount of research was done on sustainable management practices with the least amount focused on transportation and euthanasia. In terms of management practice, Dr. Daigle found that the sustainability aspect was often missing in research. In her opinion, it would be beneficial to look at the United Nations sustainable development goals to figure out how livestock welfare can fit in. In research focused on genetic markers, she found studies in social behavior, muscle development, immune responses, resilience, coping style, temperament, and biomarkers of fitness and stress. These constitute a new frontier for the field of animal welfare. In finding effective pain mitigation strategies approved for use in food producing animals, they must meet certain criteria. This includes reducing risk of antibiotic resistance, simple use, long-action, and short withdrawal period. Advancements are needed in the use of assessment measures to detect and evaluate pain, pain mitigation for food animals, and development of alternatives to surgical procedures. There were very few studies found in the area of transportation. To advance this area of research, it is important to consider low stress animal handling, assessment of fitness to travel, understanding of the microclimate within transport vehicles, trailer design, trucker education, weather conditions, and boat and air transport. Euthanasia is the least reported research activity in animal welfare studies. However, it is important to understand and research neurobiological mechanisms to have quick and painless death, emergency mass depopulation procedures, and compassion fatigue for animal handlers performing these procedures. Overall, there is some bias in the type of research conducted and funded in species. Moving forward, there is a need to increase efforts on transport and euthanasia, integrate health, productivity, behavior, economics, and the environment. 

Dr. Frédéric Leroy presented “Rethinking Grand Challenges within Sustainable Animal Production”. As dietary and public health policies are evolving, there has been an implication that society should consume less animal protein and instead seek plant-based alternatives. This has led to a simplification of the food system where there is often a reductionist view. In high profile journals metrics are used and produced to often push agendas, but there is a need for comprehensive investigation because environmental impacts are contextual. For example, in afforestation, planting trees instead of having livestock seems better for the environment but actually how carbon is captured is more complex than is considered. Additionally, people tend to see forests as a more natural solution but the planet in its natural state is not a forest and has lots of open spaces. In considering food sources, nutritional value cannot be determined solely from looking at energy, it is necessary to consider micronutrients where there are key deficiencies in the world. People say humans eat too much protein and should shift from animal to plant protein, but this is misleading because not all protein is equal. Beef and other meats contain helpful compounds that plants do not have. Radical dietary change may cause havoc but radical agendas are becoming prominent claiming that people simply need to get rid of the meat market and make protein from animals obsolete. However, if meat is replaced with meat imitations, it needs to be ensured that the same nutrition is offered and it is environmentally sustainable. Food system conversations should be aware of pitfalls such as corporate takeover, ideologies, and vested interests. Overall, it is important to optimize global mosaic mostly from ground up and prioritize healthy soil, animals, and humans. Finally, it is important to remember that radical transformations come with implications and there is a need to properly factor in nutritional value to avoid food security collapse. 

Dr. Huoyao Wu spoke next about “Beef as a Functional Food for Improving Human Nutrition and Health”. According to him, beef is a source of all proteinogenic amino acids (AAs) and essential non-proteinogenic AAs in greater amounts and in more balanced proportions than can be found in plant-sourced foods. Beef provides taurine, Vitamin B12, carnosine, creatine, anserine, beta-alanine, and 4-hydroxyproline which are low or absent in plants. Beef has more protein and fewer carbohydrates, an abundance of certain vitamins, and beef contains minerals that are more readily bioavailable to humans than those in plants. It also has a role in the growth of children, preventing anemia, maintaining muscle mass, delaying ageing and overall serves as a high quality protein source for humans. When the majority of the diet of a child under five years old is animal protein based, the prevalence of growth stunting is the least. Additionally, according to studies, when animal protein is less than 65% of the protein in the total diet, there is a higher likelihood of protein deficiency. Studies have not supported concerns of chronic diseases in humans associated with red meat. In fact, studies have shown that people with diabetes, obesity and cancers should increase protein intake, and people with kidney disease should consume adequate protein. Nutrients from beef also enhance the function of the immune system in humans to kill viruses including SARS-CoV-2, parasites, and pathogenic bacteria. Beef contains arginine which enhances immunity, is anti-infectious and anti-oxidative, alleviates metabolic syndromes, and can treat sickle cell disease and early stage cancer. Overall, Beef is a functional food to optimize human growth, development, and health 

Dr. Candace Croney and Dr. Shawn Archibeque concluded with a presentation entitled “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Animal Science”. Dr. Archibeque began by recounting the history of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee in ASAS. According to him, the Summer of 2020 was a moment of reckoning that drove introspection, and the board of directors had the desire to be more proactive. The committee was formed to guide ASAS in Diversity, equity, and inclusion as a grand challenge. The mission of the committee is to encourage inclusivity, oppose discriminaton in scientific learning and practice, and further the development of excellence. They will also practice science free from discrimination which they consider fundamental to scientific advancement, and will foster an environment that communictes work with integrity, fairness and transparency. Dr. Croney addressed the importance of creating a space to have difficult conversations on this topic to be socially responsible and responsible to members. According to her, diversity brings numerous benefits for organizational success, enhanced creativity, problem-solving from different angles, connection with broader groups, and increased public support. Diversity is beyond considering business or statistics because that leads to ignoring people who were historically underrepresented or disadvantaged and misses opportunities to connect on shared values. It is also important to recognize the historical roots of animal agriculture in slavery. There is a need to focus on not just diversity but also equity and inclusion. Since scientists are taught to be objective, they think they are objective in evaluating others, but people have unconscious biases which work against inclusion. Inclusive excellence is essential in processes and metrics of success. Furthermore, diversity does not equate to inclusion or equity. Identities have meaning that affect experiences. Inattention to diverse backgrounds is career limiting and can constrain excellence. Representation or simple diversity does not equate with equity or access to leadership. Moving forward, it is important to think about diversity in a much broader concept. The lack of care for vulnerable people in society undermines the goal, and there is a need to think more broadly and inclusively about diversity. There needs to be room for talent in all forms that can be accounted for by meaningful metrics of success. Overall, everyone is accountable in putting ethics into action to advance in a way that results in real difference.