If Genetics Pan Out, Will Producers Pay Up? by: Geoff Geddes


Like a newborn, cutting edge technology is a thrilling prospect until you have to pay for it. As scientists on the Efficient Dairy Genome Project (EDGP) strive to enhance feed efficiency and lower methane emissions, one question is central to their goal of producing the perfect cow: If we build it, will industry buy it? Finding an answer is the focus of GE3LS Research (Genomics and its Ethical, Environmental, Economic, Legal and Social aspects).

“We sent out 5500 surveys to a range of producers across the country,” said David Worden, Research Associate, Department of Food, Agricultural & Resource Economics at the University of Guelph. “The goal was to learn what they value about genomic technology and how much they’re willing to pay to harness its power.”

While respondents were prepared to spend more for greater feed efficiency, they would not pay extra solely to obtain lower methane emissions. Interestingly, though, there was a willingness to pay more for the two traits bundled together than for feed efficiency alone.

Feed for thought

“This tells us that an environmental benefit can provide the cherry on top once producers are assured of a feed benefit,” said Worden. “It means that when we seek uptake of green technology, our marketing approach is critical.”

Survey participants also indicated a greater willingness to adopt the technology for use with artificial insemination than with genotyping heifers. Not coincidentally, producers are far more familiar with AI than genotyping, meaning that education around the latter technology may be of value.

“Another interesting result was that producers who have a succession plan are more prepared to pay extra for the methane emission trait on its own, perhaps because they are forward thinkers.”

Apart from the interest factor, survey findings could have a range of implications for scientists on the EDGP.

“The project’s focus is raising feed efficiency and lowering methane emissions, so it’s encouraging to find willingness for funding these traits among producers. Needless to say, it would be discouraging if we invested a lot of research dollars into new technology, only to find that people couldn’t justify the expense in their own operation. These results suggest that genomics could have some financial sustainability when introduced to industry.”

As well, the findings reveal a lack of information and a need for education in certain areas related to the project.

“It appears that improving producer knowledge about genomics and genotyping of heifers, and what feed efficiency and methane emission traits are all about, could go a long way to improving the uptake of this technology in the future.”

More broadly from the public policy side, the survey results are significant in light of recent news coverage around livestock production and its environmental cost.

Greenbacks for a greener planet

“Based on the responses, there is no evidence to assert that producers are willing to pollute the planet as long as they are making money. They do seem to value the methane emission trait and the ability to benefit the environment as long as they can ensure their own financial survival in the process, which only makes sense. In terms of public policy, this suggests that we may need to communicate to producers in a slightly different way about green technology, combining traits rather than just talking about one or the other.”

Worden is grateful to Dr. Getu Hailu and grad student Katherine Jones for their assistance with the survey, and to EDGP for funding the work. Through her thesis efforts, Jones has made a significant contribution to GE3LS research. As well, her thesis titled “Environmental Concerns and Willingness to Pay for Genomic Technologies in the Canadian Dairy Industry” has been selected for Outstanding Master’s Thesis Award for Canadian Agricultural Economics Society honorable mention for 2019.

In short, designing the survey, processing the responses and analyzing the results were no small feat. Given these results, though, it was time and money well spent.