Thinking beyond the species
Livestock research needs more collaborative, cross-sectoral approaches
By Lilian Schaer for Livestock Research Innovation Corporation
Many of the issues facing livestock farmers today are complex and multi-faceted. And although some are very species-specific, others affect many different livestock types and require a broader spectrum of expertise.
That’s where the concept of a cross-sectoral approach to research comes into play, which Livestock Research Innovation Corporation (LRIC), commodity organizations and the research community have increasingly been focusing on.
“It’s great when something very specific can be dealt with, but more typically problems are complicated and can’t be solved simply,” says Dr. Rene Van Acker, Dean of the Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph. “That means you need a team to work on different aspects of the issue - and that’s where the value is in that type of work: you start to be able to bring solutions to more complicated problems.”
Cross-sectoral collaboration can involve different livestock commodity organizations teaming up to work on issues like antimicrobial resistance or gut health to reduce duplicating research and maximize limited research dollars.
It can also mean tackling a problem by bringing in processors and retailers alongside farmers and researchers, adds Dr. Jeff Wichtel, Dean of the Ontario Veterinary College, or by creating collaborations across multiple research disciplines.
“These types of partnerships have proven trickier to bring together, but they are perhaps even more important because they are often very effective,” he says. “As much as it is easier to stay within your comfort zone and area of expertise, that usually doesn’t end up with the most sustainable solutions.”
A leading example is the new One Health Institute at the University of Guelph, which works across disciplines to address interconnected health challenges across human, animal and environmental life - such as antimicrobial resistance. Wichtel is chair of the institute’s advisory board.
“Antimicrobial resistance is an excellent example because of the urgency of the issue and the potential long-term public health concern. No sector can do that on its own, and you have to collaborate with human health and public health,” he says.
At the academic research level, research projects and programs have traditionally been set up along departmental lines within colleges, which doesn’t particularly encourage broader collaborations. A number of successful initiatives at Guelph, however, demonstrate the value of such an approach, note both Van Acker and Wichtel.
These include the Centre for Public Health and Zoonoses, the Campbell Centre for Animal Welfare, and the Centre for the Genetic Improvement of Livestock. Each provides coordination and focus for cross-sectoral research approaches for their respective area of expertise.
Others are in development but creating new structures and encouraging people to find better ways to work together isn’t easy.
“The examples we have are very successful, but we’ve got a long way to go to really harness the true benefit of collaborative, cross-sectoral research,” says Wichtel. “The way our organizations and research funding are structured encourages us to stay within one’s zones, so it’s important to be talking about how we can change those structures, incentives, and processes to encourage more collaboration. Where things work well is where incentives are put in place for people to work together.”
That’s where Van Acker believes LRIC and livestock commodity organizations need to speak up and harness their relationships with government to seek support for agricultural research and innovation needs.
That includes, of course, continued funding for research programs and new infrastructure - like the new swine research facility in Elora. But it’s also about encouraging a shift in thinking around how those research programs are structured and including incentives for collaboration, which will result in society-wide benefits.
“I don’t think we see ourselves enough in the reality of what our sector is really all about. What we are asking for is research and innovation that helps Canadian farmers,” says Van Acker. “That results in the protection and improvement of the health of Canadians and of our shared environment, and economic growth - and that’s what we all want.”
Soil health and regenerative agriculture is one area that could benefit from a collaborative approach, he notes, as it’s not only fundamental to sustaining farm productivity but also directly connected to the carbon cycle, greenhouse gases and climate change. Farming is already playing an important role, but the sector is only starting to promote its contributions to climate change mitigation.
“The climate discussion has really moved into the livestock realm, and yet we aren’t dealing with it in a coordinated way,” adds Wichtel. “Consumers have a strong interest in filling that discussion, and it has gotten a bit ahead of us in the public sphere.”
Animal welfare is another issue he believes the sectors need to be more engaged with. The COVID-19 pandemic has added a new element of concern over how both domestic and wild animals are cared for and used, and as society’s view of animals continues to change, there is tremendous benefit from a collaborative, cross-sectoral approach to welfare.
Van Acker and Wichtel are both members of the Deans’ Council - Agriculture, Food & Veterinary Medicine. The council has started working more closely with the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, Food and Beverage Canada and other national organizations to create broader awareness for cross-sectoral solutions.
For the last several years, LRIC has been leading the development of an annual list of cross-sectoral research priorities for the Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance (previously the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food & Rural Affairs-University of Guelph Partnership) Research Program.
LRIC has also introduced a new mentorship program that brings together early-stage faculty new to the University of Guelph to help them build networks across the industry and learn about the livestock sector.
And its most recent initiative is a new “Horizon Series” of white papers and complementary webinars on topics of interest to the broader Ontario livestock sector, such as regenerative agriculture, livestock and greenhouse gases, antimicrobial use and resistance, genomics, and One Health.
“Every livestock sector, large or small, values research and innovation. I hear from them, academia and government that we want more cross-sector research initiatives,” says LRIC CEO Mike McMorris. “Our new Horizon Series white papers and webinars highlight the top areas with potential for cross-sectoral research and will hopefully stimulate some follow-up action.”
This article was printed in Ontario Hog Farmer, April/May 2021.