Embryos, semen and animals

Introduction

Canada's regulatory system for embryos, semen and animals

Current approaches to protecting genetic resources: strengths and weaknesses

How do farmers pay for animal genetics?

Efficiency

Substitution

Redesign

Introduction

The forces affecting seeds and plants are also in play for embryos, semen and animals, although the details of their impacts differ. An international plan of action on animal genetic resources has been emerging since the mid 1990s, mostly co-ordinated by the FAO, and linked to a number of international agreements and conventions, including the Convention on Biological Diversity and intellectual property agreements. However, the infrastructure to prevent erosion of farm animal genetic diversity is generally weaker than for plants and seeds, and that reality is also reflected in Canada's approach.

A look at breed registrations shows how skewed populations are (AAFC, 2020).  In dairy, almost 95% of registrations are Holsteins.  Beef is a bit more diverse but Angus and Simmental comprise 2/3 of registration.  In swine, Duroc, Landrace and Yorkshires represent over 95% of registrations.  Only in sheep and goat registrations can greater diversity be found, but both are a relatively small part of Canada's farm animal population and given markets for both meat and wool in sheep and meat and milk in goats, it is not surprising that the sector would suffer less from genetic erosion forces.

New reproductive technologies, including artificial insemination, embryo transfer, embryo cryo-preservation, invitro embryo production, sexing semen and embryos, genetic fingerprinting, rDNA in disease diagnosis, embryo splitting, growth hormones, cloning, CRISPR and genetic engineering, are facilitating the manipulation of a narrow range of high-performance genetics that require high inputs and specific farm conditions. Exports of hatching eggs, breeding stock, and cattle semen and embryos are significant and this contributes to the pressures to identify high performance genetics.  The federal government identified the animal genetics industry as a key growth area, providing $3 million to the Canadian Livestock  Genetics Association to develop additional export markets (Newswire, 2017).

The federal government does not appear to keep an official list of endangered farm animals and poultry.  One  is maintained by the NGO Heritage Livestock Canada (Conservation List). Using the categorization (progressively more threatened) At risk, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critical, they identify 20 breeds of cattle, 9 swine, 6 goats and 21 sheep that need protection in Canada.  For poultry, 19 chicken breeds and 8 turkey are listed.

An even larger list across more animals we might consume more regularly in the future is important if Canada is to shift to more metabolically efficient species of animals and poultry (see Goal 5 Reducing food waste and Goal 2 Demand supply coordination, Substitution, Sustainable Diet).

Canada's regulatory system for embryos, semen and animals

Federal
Health of Animals Act and Regulations

The Act and Regulations deal mostly with food safety, animal health and sanitation issues.  They do regulate to some degree the artificial insemination sector.   Importing and exporting germplasm and regulated animals (mammals and hatching eggs) requires a permit from the Minister (with some exceptions). They do not contain much guidance directly related to genetic diversity.

Animal Pedigree Act

With roots in legislation dating back to 1900, and last changed significantly in 1988, this Act provides the legal framework for livestock breed associations, for both distinct and evolving breeds.  Keeping accurate pedigree information is seen as critical for breed "improvement" and fraud prevention.  There are about 80 breed associations representing about 350 breeds.  A distinct breed requires that it be genetically stable with observed characteristics that can be assessed.  Registered animals must be purebred, meaning they have a 7/8ths connection to the foundation stock or other purebreds for the breed.  The Act also has rules for identifying and registering evolving breeds.  Not all heritage breeds have an association, and many are covered by a general breeder's association for the animal.  The act does not cover poultry.  There doesn't appear to be an equivalent regulatory framework for poultry.

Provincial/territorial

While provinces and territories have legislation and regulations related to animal welfare, sanitation and food safety (see CFIA Provincial and territorial legislation concerning farm animal welfare), there is little in place directly related to protecting animal genetic resources.  At least one province, Ontario, had an Artificial Insemination of Livestock Act 1990, but it was revoked in 2000.  The act dealt primarily with business licensing, standards and inspection, areas typically viewed as provincial jurisdiction. Some other provinces regulate artificial insemination and hatchery businesses under their animal and poultry health legislation, with some having regulations specific to AI. These mostly focus on business licensing, standards and inspection and sometimes (e.g., Quebec) also livestock diseases.

Municipal

Municipalities have no direct jurisdiction in these areas though will on occasion call for action by senior levels of government and fund organizations working in conservation.

Current approaches to protecting genetic resources: strengths and weaknesses

Globally, the efforts to conserve, while admirable and certainly better than inaction, are insufficient  to counter the forces of erosion.  Little of Canada's regulatory infrastructure is designed to explicitly protect animal genetic resources (AnGR).  In fact, most of what exists reinforces the dominant approaches to animal production. The best that can be said is that the legislative environment facilitates the possibility of breeders, industry and NGOs voluntarily working to protect AnGR.  However, this reliance on non-governmental action, in combination with limited resources available, is an indication of policy failure.  The private sector does not have the market incentive to take more aggressive actions, NGOs don't have the staffing or financial means, individual farmers can only do so much on their operations, so government must take leadership to reduce weaknesses in the system.

Canada does participate somewhat in the international system for protecting AnGR. The federal government provided a country report for the first FAO (2007) world state of AnGR report, but not the second (FAO, 2015).  Canada is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity, but lags behind implementing measures related to agriculture and aquaculture targets (see, for example, the 6th national report).  Canada is also quite committed to the dominant intellectual property rules, as demonstrated in the trade agreements, and much of this is a constraint on protecting genetic diversity.

For animals, conservation programs fall into three categories, in-situ, meaning maintaining animals in their regular environments; ex-situ in vivo, keeping animals in non-typical environments, for example a zoo; and ex-situ in vitro, or cryoconservation, keeping reproductive material viable in laboratory/storage environments.  The pros and cons of each as they relate to common conservation objectives are presented below in a table.

In-situ conservation programs

In-situ conversation work is largely undertaken by individual farmers, NGOs (e.g., Rare Breeds Canada, Canadian Heritage Breeds, Heritage Livestock Canada) and some breed associations.  AAFC and provincial departments of agriculture do not appear to be significant financial supporters, with many relying on memberships and other fees, municipal and tourism funding, and private foundations. There have been some successes keeping many breeds somewhat viable and bringing some back from the brink of extinction  (eg., Chantecler chickens, Lacombe pigs, Canadienne cattle).

Ex-situ conservation programs

Ex-situ in vivo programs are operated by certain farms and NGOs, sometimes connected to animal rescue, sometimes as petting farms and zoos.  They are typically sustained by memberships, donations and visitor fees.  It is not clear how many are in operation.

AAFC's Animal Genetic Resources Collection, a gene or cryobank, uses cryobiology to preserve gametes (embryos and semen) and tissue. It shares information with the Animal-Genetic Resources Information Network (Animal-GRIN) in the US.  The bank collects samples from farms, and breeders, industry, farmers and NGOs donate material to the collection.  Cattle are by far the largest part of the collection,  In 2019 of the main farm animals, the collection contained samples from 24 breeds of bovines, 1 breed of chicken (as of 2018), 4 breeds of goat, 6 breeds of pig (2018), and 25 breeds of sheep (2018).  Coverage of rare breeds is somewhat uneven.  For cattle, the collection is primarily of the dominant breeds, Angus and Holstein, but the pig collection has a greater overall focus on threatened breeds. The most genetic erosion appears to have occurred in chickens (Duckworth, 2019).  It is unclear whether the holdings for many breeds are sufficient for reconstitution in the event of disasters, and whether collections are sufficiently diverse to assure genetic diversity for breed.  These are common problems globally in that the least at-risk breeds are often the best collected, with only a small percentage of national populations sufficiently collected for reconstitution (FAO, 2016). In contrast to the Canadian collection, the US one appears to place a greater priority on conservation of threatened species (Blackburn et al., 2019).  Admittedly, some species are easier to cryopreserve than others, with cattle and pigs relatively straightforward and sheep, goats and chickens more difficult (FAO, 2015).  And, of course, cryobanks require significant infrastructure and expertise.

Table: General pros and cons of different approaches to conservation (adapted from FAO, 2015)

Objective In-situ (on-farm) Ex-situ in vivo (zoo) Ex-situ in vitro (cryobank)
Maintain production conditions Yes No No
Research Yes Yes Yes
Disease prevention Yes, if conditions favour health Yes, if veterinarians on site Yes, from isolation of reproductive tissue
Continued adaptation Yes Limited No
New knowledge of breed characteristics Yes Limited Limited
Limiting genetic drift Yes, if large enough population Limited Yes, if enough samples in collection
Rural development? Yes Limited No
Agro-ecosystem diversity? Yes Limited No
Rural culture? Yes Limited No
Longevity Unclear, depends on supports Unclear, depends on supports May survive 1000s of years
Recovery from catastrophic events Unlikely Unlikely Possible, including extinction events
Long-term expense Cheapest if animal products are sold Expensive if no revenue can be generated from animals Cheap to preserve if infrastructure available but recovery is expensive

 

How do farmers pay for animal genetics?

Given this weak regulatory environment, the private market has alot of latitude.  How are Canadian farmers paying for animal genetics and how do animal genetics firms profit from those purchases? And how does this system affect the conservation of animal genetic diversity?

Most farmers, with certain exceptions, are not doing their own breeding work.  Most meat chicken and turkey farmers are buying day-old chicks  or turkey poults from hatcheries. Most egg producers are also buying older poults from other farms. Chicken hatcheries still use natural service, but turkey hatcheries use AI extensively because the birds are now too heavily muscled to complete natural service (Gura, 2007), this itself a product of high performance genetics.  Beef producers still predominantly have their own bulls for natural service (only 18% of Prairie producers use AI according to Rural Roots Canada, 2018). Dairy farmers, however, rely primarily on artificial insemination services provided by veterinarians and AI technicians (at least 80% according to Van Schnydel et al., 2019), likely in part because the cows are in for milking several times a day and estrus can be more easily monitored to facilitate AI effectiveness. Also facilitated by the confinement model of production, most hog producers use AI (The Pigsite, 2014).  Natural service is likely still dominant in sheep and goats.

Part of the challenge is that AI is often more convenient and predictable, and can be cheaper than natural service if the full cost of maintaining males are included.  For beef, the Beef Cattle Research Council estimates natural service is at least $60/pregnancy whereas fixed AI is likely $30-60 including the price of the semen dose ($10-30).  Genetics firms make money from the sale of the dose and sometimes also from its administration, and sometimes from the hormones needed to synchronize estrus.  Much, however, depends on the system, since cattle primarily outdoors are harder to monitor for estrus (central to the AI strategy) than those confined, and the purchase and salvage prices for bulls and the services provided  beyond reproduction vary and require significant assumptions in the calculations.  It also depends on how labour costs are accounted for since AI is typically more work, though the ability to coordinate pregnancy allows for a more compact calving season. Semen doses can also be of very variable quality and quality and price don't necessarily align (RRCanada, 2018).  Bulls are often still required to clean up unsuccessful AIs and thus farmers are forced to operate dual systems, which reduces the supposed savings of an AI approach.

Dairy semen can be a bit more pricey, $25-35 / dose.  Sexed semen (dairy farmers want females) is more expensive (Jokinen, 2016).

Because of worries about disease spread, the regulation of semen and embryo production (Health of Animals Regulations) requires significant resources, disease testing and veterinary expertise. Government permits are required. Rules are less strict when semen is collected for own use.  Providing such services for rare breeds would be expensive, given small volumes and generally smaller enterprises.

A key selling point for AI is that it is faster to introduce new genetics than natural service.  But given the dominance of certain sires, this isn't necessarily a good thing for genetic diversity. The millions of Holstein dairy cows in the world have about 100 ancestors (Jokinen, 2016).  The limited number of AI sires in  North American Holstein and Jersey cows, by far the most dominant breeds, has been identified as a force contributing to reduced genetic diversity in dairy cattle (Yue et al., 2015; Dechow et al., 2018). As other sectors progressively adopt AI, the same results are likely as the pressures are all for a limited set of high performance characteristics.

In vitro fertilization, used sometimes for purebred lines, is even more expensive and definitely supports the dominant model of animal genetics.