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Angus Journal

Copyright © 2016
Angus Media.
All Rights Reserved

The Case for GMOs

UC Davis professor stresses the importance and positive aspects of genetic engineering in animal agriculture.

SAN DIEGO, Calif. (Jan. 28, 2016) — One of the most controversial topics in agriculture today is the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The use of the technology has made incredible progress for many important areas of agricultural production, including dramatic increases in crop yields and animal growth.

Alison VanEenenaamAccording to Alison Van Eenennaam, the USDA defines genetic engineering as “using recombinant DNA technology to move a piece of DNA from one species … into another to give it a protein expression in that species that does something we want.”

So why are consumers so averse to adoption of the technology? Alison Van Eenennaam, Cooperative Extension specialist in animal genomics and biotechnology with the University of California—Davis, broke it down for her audience at the 118th annual Cattle Industry Convention & NCBA Trade Show Jan. 28, 2016, as a presenter at the 23rd annual Cattlemen’s College®.

“I really hate the term ‘genetically modified organism,’” she said. “It’s really an ill-defined term. What people are actually referring to is genetic engineering.”

According to Van Eenennaam, the USDA defines genetic engineering as “using recombinant DNA technology to move a piece of DNA from one species … into another to give it a protein expression in that species that does something we want.”

Some examples are herbicide- or insect-resistant plants and fast-growing salmon.

Globally, about 18 million farmers grow 448 million acres of genetically modified crops. We tend to think of biotechnology and use of genetically engineered crops as a First World technology, but 16.5 million farmers in developing countries grow GMO crops.

Safe for consumption

Between 70% and 90% of the GMO crop varieties produced are consumed by livestock animals. Since genetic engineering’s introduction in 1996, Van Eenennaam said there have been no safety issues related to animal or human consumption of genetically engineered crops.

There are “literally hundreds” of studies that have been conducted and published to prove the safety of genetically engineered crop varieties for animal consumption, she shared with the audience. Genetically modified plants are nutritionally equivalent to their non-GMO counterparts, she added.

They are safe to use in feed and food, she emphasized. “The science is very solid. They are not unsafe for animals to eat.”

Van Eenennaam and her colleagues conducted a meta-analysis to explore any possible implications of consuming genetically modified crops in commercial livestock populations. One hundred five billion livestock animals, including about 400 million beef cattle, consumed genetically engineered crop varieties between 2000 and 2011. What Van Eenennaam found was a positive trend — not a trend you would expect from sick or ailing animals, which is the effect some believe genetically engineered crops have on livestock.

She and her colleagues discovered overall decreases in percent mortality and condemnation, as well as increased average daily gain and feed-to-gain ratios.

“I feel very confident that there are no implications to consuming GMO crops,” she said.

Van Eenennaam explained that the milk, meat and eggs from animals consuming GMO feeds “contain no traces of recombinant DNA that has been expressed in the trans gene.” The products from animals fed genetically engineered crops are indistinguishable from their non-GMO counterparts.

Labeling discussion

For this reason, she said, it is unnecessary to require a product derived from an animal fed GMO crop varieties to be labeled.

“They’re fundamentally, exactly the same,” she said. “There’s no way to detect one from the other.”

There is currently no mandatory labeling required to recognize animals that have been fed genetically modified crops. However, there is a voluntary system in place, which Van Eenennaam said is creating a “false or misleading” market. Companies are labeling their bananas as “non-GMO,” when in fact there are no genetically modified varieties of bananas.

“What concerns me is that when you start mandating a process on the label, what’s the end of it?” she asked. “In this case, we’re trying to mandate the process of having genetic engineering in the breeding process that produced a particular crop used to feed the animal that then produced the steak that then ends up in the market.

“If it doesn’t change the composition or safety of the end product, the logistics, or keeping it straight, would get kind of unmanageable,” she said. “If we start labeling things other than for food safety, just based on concern for the process, where do we stop?”

Genetic engineering is just one of many breeding methods, she explained. It’s just like breeding through traditional selection of superior traits. The technology is used in lab animals, pharmaceuticals, aquarium fish and salmon. She also pointed out that insulin is produced in genetically modified microbes.

Van Eenennaam spoke in detail on the AquAdvantage salmon — a genetically engineered breed of salmon in which a gene from the Chinook salmon is injected into the Atlantic salmon, allowing it to reach market weight in 18 months rather than 30.

Since the initial transmittal of the gene from one breed of salmon to the other in 1989, there has been no genetic engineering done to the animal. Subsequent breeding of the fish has been conducted solely through conventional breeding.

The fish was approved last November. It took about $85 million and 25 years to approve the animal for the market, even though it is bred the same way as chickens, cattle and any other livestock animal — using conventional breeding. Chickens were bred by selecting for fast-growing animals; the salmon were bred by transplanting one gene that causes the fish to grow faster. It’s the same principle, Van Eenennaam said.

Gene editing

Another technology Van Eenennaam said is exciting for the industry is gene editing.

Like you can make the word “wine” into “wing” by changing one letter, scientists can edit the genome.

“If we know what genes we want to target, we can go in and turn it off,” she said.

By tweaking one gene, scientists can design hogs that aren’t susceptible to disease. They can reduce the effects of bovine respiratory virus (BRV), or shipping fever, in feedlot cattle. They can breed Holstein cattle that are polled, eliminating the need for the painful process of dehorning. They can breed single-gender chickens to eliminate the condemnation of male layers.

Why is this important? Because scientists can eliminate suffering, disease and pain by modifying single genes in livestock animals.

At present, the industry loses 20% of its animals to illness leading to death. Employing the use of biotechnology can improve the overall health of livestock animals and eliminate suffering and death in livestock populations.

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