Epigenetics and big data take center stage at Nutreco event

Epigenetics and big data take center stage at Nutreco event

Big data has become a buzzword in the agribusiness industry but it should not be forgotten that data does not always equal ‘information’, said Nutreco.

Harm de Wildt, managing director of the EMEA business unit at the Dutch animal and fish feed group, said, as a company, it was increasingly focus efforts on translating ‘big data’ into ‘information’ and “through working and integrating this newly-gained information we aim at providing true insights”.

He said this philosophy has encouraged Nutreco to shift from a product focus to a more overarching approach such as its program, NutriOpt, that includes products, models and services with “precision nutrition” as the goal.

Nutreco's EMEA director was speaking to FeedNavigator following the close of the company's three-day long conference, AgriVision 2015.

The event heard that despite extensive livestock productivity and efficiency gains, farm animals on average still perform 30 to 40% below their genetic potential.

And delegates were told that traditional approaches can achieve only so much.

Nutreco’s ambition is to bring science faster – and more effectively – to the market, said de Wildt.

But he said more and better science alone is not sufficient to boost productivity: “We believe that research, developed with our partners and communicated through new platforms and applications, will produce the solutions that help us close the efficiency gap.”

And sharing findings with the agribusiness sector, through an open innovation process, is critical to Nutreco’s strategy on bridging the knowledge gap between developing and developed markets, said de Wildt.

On a similar theme, Viggo Halseth, chief innovation officer at Nutreco, said the feed producer, through LifeStart and other initiatives, is intending to unravel the precise mode of action, the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’ in farmed animal production.

There is increasing empirical evidence that diet and environment influences at an early stage have a far-reaching impact also on performance and health of the adult animal, he said.

Epigenetics

Epigenetics - the study of external or environmental factors that turn genes on and off and affect how cells read genes - could allow the feed sector to differentiate the pathways that are altered by nutrition early in life and that can impact later life productivity, said Halseth.

“While epigenetics may seem remote today, it may well deliver the applications we need in 10 years’ time,” he said.

Nutreco’s early nutrition program LifeStart initially focused on dairy calves but has recently been extended to swine, looking at the role of feed intake and composition in the pre- and post-weaning period on piglet gut health and immunity.

Though the company has not formally launched LifeStart in poultry yet, it does carry out research into early life nutrition in chicks, said de Wildt.

Nutreco, he said, is also exploring collaboration in the poultry realm in regard to early stage feeding and is looking at a potential tie-up with a hatchery technology specialist.

“Being an animal nutrition and fish feed company we naturally focus on nutrition. However, we do realize that nutrition alone is not enough.  We need partners that are experts in health, hygiene and housing,” added Halseth.

The feed group has been invested heavily in upgrading its R&D facilities, and its new dairy calf and beef cattle nutrition research facility in the Netherlands has become operational in the past few weeks, said de Wildt.

‘Economic progress must go hand in hand with political progress’

Other speakers at the event also had sustainability as their theme.

The keynote speaker, former US Secretary of State, Dr Madeleine Albright, said economic progress must go “hand in hand” with political progress if peace and security are to take root.

She told the some 400 attendees the private sector has a key role to play in ensuring economic progress through providing the know-how, innovation and jobs to catalyze sustainable development.

Dr Brian Walker, a fellow in the land and water flagship of Australia’s national science organization, the CSIRO, talked about the many links in the food-water-energy nexus and about the necessity to build resilience. 

He told delegates the feed and livestock sector has to “embrace uncertainty” to remain buoyant.

Dr Christianne Bruschke, chief veterinary officer in the Netherlands, stressed how good animal health management, especially where large numbers of animals and humans are in relatively close contact, is essential for the economic viability of the individual farmer and the sector as a whole.

She said scientists, through knowledge, governments through policies and the private sector, through commitment, must work together to achieve agribusiness economic viability and greater societal acceptance of livestock production.

Meanwhile, Wiebe Draijer, chairman of Rabobank’s executive board, talked about the enormous potential for both productivity improvements and investments in China. But he also outlined the great need for knowledge sharing, finance and networks to drive sustainable productivity improvements globally.

Other presentations focused on how multi-stakeholder collaboration could help the sector meet sustainability objectives, while several technology orientated talks showed how tools such as bio sensors can optimize livestock production by the enabling the early detection of health problems.

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