Australia remains a nation heavily economically dependent on agriculture. Last year $1 in every $7 earned from exports came directly from agriculture – beef earned $8.3 billion, wheat $5.1 billion and wool $3.3 billion. Agriculture powers 1.6 million jobs in Australia. Clearly, agriculture remains critical to our national economic health.
Agriculture is also critical to feed our growing population which has now reached 25 million, earlier than anticipated, and is due to reach 26 million inside two years. It is little wonder that the rural development corporation model alone invested $334 million in 2017 in agricultural research, with additional support from private sources as well as other State and Federal Government sources. Much of this research investment is targeted at improving the quality of the end product.
In the case of animal agriculture, this research directly leads to improving the quality of cattle in our national dairy and beef herds, and of sheep in our national flock. Industries like pork and chicken are also steadily increasing in significance. Improvements in nutrition, health and disease management and animal welfare are all important to improve these industries and their end product.
Genetics has enabled us to identify animals that will produce higher quality meat or milk or wool. An understanding of genetics and breeding strategies allow us to identify and produce livestock that are more suited to the environmental conditions, leading to more environmentally sustainable farming practice.
Assisted reproduction is revolutionising livestock farming and increasing profitability. Technologies such as artificial insemination and superovulation combined with IVF enable us to breed animals with optimal genetics at far faster rates than is possible using natural mating. This can be further enhanced by testing embryos created during IVF and only transferring embryos with the optimal genetic composition; this mean that only embryos which will produce superior animals in a specific management system will be transferred.
A by-product of this process is the creation of embryos that have slightly less optimal genetics but will still produce highly quality livestock. These embryos can be frozen and stored and either used in other management systems or can be sold to international markets. A small international market in frozen livestock embryos already exists, and is expected to rapidly increase.
Other reproductive technologies require further development before they can take their place in the commercial world. Cloning of animals with elite genotypes would be another step forward in increasing the numbers of elite animals. However for this to occur we will need to improve the efficiency of cloning and ensure that cloned animals are healthy and without defects. To achieve this will require significant research.
We must also never forget that these technologies must have broad public support; so being transparent and communicating the status of reproduction research is essential.
Another example of how reproduction research could be applied to improving livestock productivity lies in the production of stem cells. Stem cells have the potential to differentiate into any cell type in the body including male or female reproductive tissues. Some preliminary studies in this area have been reported and it is likely that we shall be able to reliably produce sperm and ova from embryonic stem cells in the near future. These could be used in technologies such as in vitro fertilization to produce embryos for transfer.
Research in reproduction has already allowed us to make huge advances in agricultural livestock productivity and will continue to do so in the future. These advances in productivity will have major implications not just for our nation’s food supply, but also for our economic prosperity.