Infrastructure, people critical to advancing poultry research and innovation
By Lilian Schaer for Livestock Research Innovation Corporation
The threat of a long-over due global pandemic used to keep him up at night, says Dr. Shayan Sharif, Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies at the Ontario Veterinary College and a professor in the University of Guelph’s Department of Pathobiology.
And then COVID-19 happened, laying bare the fragilities of the global agrifood system and underscoring the realities of what is needed to better protect both humans and livestock against future pandemic threats.
“We’ve learned that pandemics tend to be highly unpredictable; we don’t know when or why they happen - but pigs and poultry are the two main species I continue to worry about as potential hosts for viruses,” Sharif says.
The world needs to strengthen its focus on protecting the health and wellbeing of livestock and poultry - a key food source for billions of people around the world - as it’s not a question of whether there will be another pandemic, but rather when, he believes.
Key in making this happen is a better system for predicting the emergence of disease to both safeguard public health and prevent outbreaks of diseases specific to poultry and livestock, like Newcastle Disease or Avian Influenza, for example.
That requires a combination of people and infrastructure to drive and implement innovation, including highly trained scientists, research support staff and students. Attracting and keeping those human resources means training and research opportunities as well as the laboratories and facilities to support their work.
According to Sharif, to be ready for future pandemics or outbreaks of viruses significant to livestock, a level three biocontainment facility and animal holding and isolation facilities for vaccine trials are absolutely critical.
Those types of facilities exist at the Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health in Manitoba and at the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO), but Sharif notes another key learning from COVID-19 has been the need for redundancy in the system to maintain surge capacity.
“What we are talking about really is to create something that would let us complement their work and be collaborative,” he says, adding that for the poultry industry to be strong and competitive, facilities for production research are also needed.
For more than four decades those facilities have been at the University of Guelph’s Arkell Research Station, but they’re badly in need of modernization in order to facilitate research that reflects modern poultry production and can drive innovation using emerging fields like big data and artificial intelligence.
The industry has made great strides in how poultry research is conducted over the last decade, particularly in greater collaboration across universities. That’s according to Bruce Roberts, Executive Director of the Canadian Poultry Research Council, who says a key driver behind that evolution is the increasingly complex nature of poultry research. But that increasing complexity also underscores the need for updating poultry research facilities and increasing their capacity.
“The advances in what we are researching are not being met by a corresponding advance in the facilities; and even before COVID-19, those facilities were stretched to the limit,” he says. “We have projects that were approved but were delayed for 18 to 24 months because there was no facility available to do the work.”
Both Roberts and Sharif see a need for a cooperative effort between industry, government and universities to expand Canada’s poultry innovation ecosystem, one that would also encompass knowledge mobilization - the final step of moving research outcomes into on-farm application.
“Infrastructure and people are the two main elements of innovation and although pandemics come and go, we also need to think about the sustainability of our system and how we can be competitive,” believes Sharif. “If Canada wants to be competitive in the future and have safe, wholesome, secure food, we need to remain collaborative in order to become competitive.”
This article was printed in the February/March 2021 issue of Canadian Poultry.