As society moves into the future at an ever-accelerating pace, technological innovation is all around us. Cars are running on electricity and on the verge of driving themselves. We carry smartphones in our pockets that would run circles around the supercomputers of just a couple decades past. There are serious and plausible plans to put people on Mars. But some of the most important scientific work is being performed in a field that we don’t always equate with cutting-edge technology: agriculture.

A stable and efficient food supply is critical to enabling every other kind of progress, and we too often take for granted or misunderstand the science behind it. “People just assume that there’s going to be safe and affordable food available, when that’s not necessarily true,” says Alison Van Eenennaam of the Department of Animal Science at University of California, Davis. “It’s hard to communicate to people how lucky they are to have the food supply they do, and how important science has been in providing it.”

It’s in their genes

At the heart of agricultural innovation is the field of genomics, which involves the sequencing, interpretation, and exploitation of complete genetic information for plants and animals. Van Eenennaam sits on one of the research oversight committees for Genome Alberta, a publicly funded not-for-profit corporation doing important work here in Canada to turn that science into direct societal benefits, particularly through high-tech breeding programs. “This is not all that different from what’s been happening in animal breeding for hundreds of years,” says Dr. Ellen Goddard of the University of Alberta. “The difference is that we can make genetic improvements more quickly now. This is especially important when it comes to traits like disease resistance.”

In addition to research into breeding more disease-resistant pigs, Genome Alberta is also pursuing projects with goals like reducing the environmental load of the dairy industry. “A glass of milk today has about one third of the carbon footprint that it had in the 1950s,” says Van Eenennaam. “That’s due very much to genetic improvement through selection. Now we can do an even better job through genomics, allowing us to select the Priuses of dairy cows rather than the Hummers.”

Societal benefit through societal buy-in

Of course, anything to do with genetics and the food supply raises some eyebrows, and while the scientific community is virtually unanimous in certifying the safety of genomics, Genome Alberta takes the sociological ramifications very seriously. “The ethical and environmental research is actually steering the direction of the scientific research, and vice versa,” says Gijs van Rooijen, Genome Alberta’s Chief Science Officer. “It’s a feedback loop mechanism. Sometimes the scientific research raises new questions that the social scientists then look into. And in other cases, the social scientists are coming up with analyses that feed back to the biological scientists, who then adjust their research program.”

This bilateral collaboration is the necessary foundation of a successful genomics research program, because the societal benefit cannot be realized without public acceptance. “These technologies are going to be profoundly important in helping us feed a growing population,” says Dr. Goddard. “But if it’s going to work, we need to ensure that our research is aligned with the values that the population holds to be important.”

Canada’s continued investment in ethical and responsible genomics is poised to make us a world leader in some of the most vital technologies of the coming decades. We may need to have some hard discussions about the particulars, but turning our back on agricultural innovation is just not an option. “It’s the future of our food system that’s at stake here,” says Van Eenennaam. “If we can’t adopt innovations in agriculture, god help the planet.”