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Biotechnology an investment in the meat industry's future

Meat New Zealand's investment in Ovita is an investment in the future success of the New Zealand sheep industry, according to Ovita chief executive Damian Camp who unveiled Ovita's business plan at the Meat New Zealand AGM in Dunedin last week.

Ovita is a sheep genome research consortium of Meat New Zealand, AgResearch and the Wool Board, Camp said.

He told farmers they can expect to see results from the Ovita gene marker programme within the next year that would knock years off conventional sheep breeding selection programmes. "Gene markers are effectively genetic flags that allow us to identify animals that have a specific trait that we are interested in. Then farmers breed from the selected animals as normal. We are already in a position to commercialise a test for fertility," he said.

"We can test for the Inverdale gene (a gene associated with high fertility), so farmers can begin using animals with the gene to drive the increased production gene into their flocks and increase the number of lambs produced."

Camp said Ovita has already identified some genes that control body types. "We are quite close to developing markers for traits like fat deposition, fat composition and muscle size. We will then commercialise the markers into the industry so that farmers can use them to make selective breeding choices."

This marker knowledge and conventional breeding could speed up genetic improvement in New Zealand's sheep flock by generations, Camp said.

Ovita's gene marker programme also aims to locate markers to identify animals resistant to facial eczema and to internal parasites, Camp said. "Parasites are a key area. They cost the New Zealand sheep industry in excess $300 million annually and there have been no new developments in terms of current drenches in the past 20 years."

"We also have a vaccine development programme. Vaccines are effectively used to mimic the effect of a gene, in animals that do not have the gene. We plan to improve the current Johnes disease vaccine, or potentially develop a new Johnes vaccine. Because these are long term projects, it is important that we start now."

A lice test is also ready to be commercialised shortly, Camp said. "The test will allow farmers to detect the presence of lice early so they can apply much smaller amounts of chemicals more strategically. This is important when it comes to potential non tariff-trade barriers that may result as a response to chemical residues in wool. Such barriers can be used to reduce access to key export markets."

Ovita expects to be self-funding in five years, Camp said. To assist with this, its sister organisation Covita will sell commercial products that apply to humans and other animals. "The income earned from these products will help Ovita to become self funding and maintain ongoing research to provide benefits for farmers."

Biotechnology results take a longer time to deliver than most industries, Camp said. "The time frame we have here is quite compressed because we are starting from a very strong base. Through our stakeholders, we have access to the world's largest database of sheep pedigree and genetic history. We also already own a number of key patents on sheep genes, the largest sheep DNA library in the world, and specialised research flocks for genetic diversity."

Meat producers will vote in July as to whether they will continue funding biotechnology research through Meat New Zealand.

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