Move over pageant girls: Researchers at Climate Adaptive Genetics (CAG) believe they’ve found the real answer to world hunger.
Or, at least, the partial answer to it.
Dr. James West, associate professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University and chief science officer of CAG, has developed a way to produce white Angus cattle, an innovation he asserts will double the world’s production of beef in the next ten years. The reason being: an increased tolerance to heat.
“Black angus are by far the most productive breed of cattle that exists,” said West. “They grow to 1,400lbs in maybe 13 months. And they taste good. There’s a reason you’ve heard of Black Angus Steakhouse, and not Charolais or Hereford Steakhouses.”
If you can’t take the heat, get a new coat
The problem is, he continued, Black Angus don’t handle heat and humidity well, namely because their heavier coats are black or dark red, two colors that absorb a massive amount of solar energy and raise the cattle’s body temperature to dangerous levels.
Because of this, farmers in high-beef-production areas like Brazil and Southeast Asia tend to use Brahma (or Nellore cattle) instead, which are shorthaired and white, making them more heat resistant.
“This is understandable,” West explained. “Brahma will get to almost the same size as Angus, producing the same amount of beef. The problem is, it takes them two years to do it, while consuming the same amount of food. So, doing the math, it takes you twice as much food to get a pound of beef off Brahma as it does off Angus.”
The answer to world hunger?
West believes, then, that by introducing white Angus cattle to these regions, farmers can double their beef production on the same amount of land, which has major implications for the growing global demand for beef, and concerns over future food shortages.
His only reservation is the public’s general distrust of food that’s been engineered in a lab. While creating the white Angus did involve removing certain genes from the breed and adding in the gene for a white coat and black skin from Silver Galloway cattle, and the gene for short hair from Senepol cattle, West reassures that what he and his researchers did was not genetic modification. Instead, they simply achieved the same results that breeding would have, minus 30 to 40 years of waiting and a bevy of inbreeding problems—something the cattle industry is currently struggling with.
“People will say, ‘Well, the answer isn’t making cattle twice as efficient. The answer is cutting back on our consumption of beef.’ But what they don’t realize is that the demand for beef has quadrupled in the past 30-40 years, and it’s going to keep increasing—thanks to rising incomes in South and Central America, Southeast Asia and China. You can’t change human behavior. What you can do is change the technology so human behavior doesn’t matter. And that’s what we’re going to have to do for the world. If you tried to use current technology to feed everybody the way they want to be fed in 2050, you’d destroy what natural resources we have left. If you want to preserve the natural world, the only way to do that is to improve technology.”
West anticipates the first batch of cloned white Angus semen will be available in 2016, and that farmers in Brazil and Southeast Asia will begin breeding the traits into Brahma cattle. While the heat resistant cattle could be available immediately if wanted, laws in Brazil currently disallow the transport of live cattle into the country.
“We’re going to keep making these breeds better, too,” said West. “We can increase the density of sweat glands. We can increase their resistance to biting insects. It’s actually well-known what gene gives you sleeping sickness in cattle. We can do a lot of things. And we will. With many different bulls, as well, to protect against inbreeding.”
To read more of the interview, and get an in-depth explanation of how they made the white Angus, check out “On creating white Angus cattle: An interview with Dr. James West.”
And check out CAG’s website at www.climateadaptivegenetics.com.