When most people think of cattle, they think of Ferdinand the Bull and their favorite steakhouse. The reality of beef production is far from most consumers’ radar. However, as of 2016, less than 2% of the U.S. population was employed in the agriculture industry. This means less than 2% of the countries’ population is actually producing food for the country. At the same time, U.S. consumers are becoming more eco-conscious—demanding higher standards and locally sourced food. Farmers are constantly being pushed to be more efficient while also being pushed to utilize more expensive, sustainable methods of production.
Researchers at University of California Davis made a discovery aimed at benefitting farmers and the agriculture industry. They developed a new culture system that consistently and efficiently derives embryonic stem cells for cattle. Scientists have been trying unsuccessfully for over 35 years to isolate embryonic stem cells in cattle. To understand why this could be a big deal, first one needs to understand a little bit about the cattle industry. One cow does not equal another cow. There are over 1000 breeds of cattle recognized worldwide. Each farmer’s goal is to create a herd that is best adapted for a particular region’s climate and feed sources, and at the same time exhibits the taste and marbling characteristics that consumers want. The climate and food sources in the U.S. differ substantially from one region to the next; thus, the type of cattle best suited to each region differs substantially. Each farmer’s herd is essentially an experiment in cattle genetics. The cost of a high quality bull or heifer can be well over $20,000. Thus, a lot of farmers use artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization, allowing them to get better quality, and more regionally targeted, genetics at a more affordable price than purchasing expensive animals—expensive animals that have a tendency to run through fences and into deep gorges when spooked. However, artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization is still an expensive process, especially in an industry where profit margins are thin and capital expenditures are high.
The ability to use stem cells to create superior cattle genetics has the potential to create better quality herds based on each farmer’s operation, ideally, at a fraction of the cost. This, in turn, could benefit consumers by allowing farmers that use more expensive, sustainable methods of production to produce more competitively priced beef. This stem cell research could also support future discoveries in the agriculture and biotechnology industry.