Author: Alex Mabie, Johns Hopkins
The global debate concerning the safety of genetically engineered (GE) food is one that spans political, economic, and social arenas. The scientific community has essentially reached a consensus on the issue; numerous studies confirm that GE foods are no different than non-GE foods. However the general population remains less convinced, with anti-GE activists zealously spreading their vision of a purely organic food supply. A recent study attempting to bring clarity to the matter has tilted the balance even farther in favor of the pro-GE side. A review from the University of California, Davis’s Department of Animal Science concluded that the health and performance of animals fed GE crops was equivalent to that of animals fed non-GE crops.
The peer-reviewed article is the most comprehensive of its kind to date. It examines 29 years of livestock-feeding studies, representing over 100 billion animals. UC Davis animal scientist Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam headed the review, beginning the survey with data from 1983, 11 years prior to the introduction of GE crops. The team of scientists examined the data through 2011, when GE feed was given to over 90% of food-producing animals. The review also found that studies have not detected any discrepancy in the nutritional profile of milk, meat, or other products derived from the animals that consumed GE feed.
GE crops were first introduced in 1996, and have exploded in use ever since. Across the globe, food-producing animals, such as cows, pigs, and chickens, consume between 70% and 90% of GE crop biomass. Currently, there are 19 plant species approved for use in the United States. (Approved for what?) These include the most common ingredients of animal feed: canola, corn, cotton, and soybean. The U.S. produces 9 billion food-producing animals annually, and 95% of them consume feed containing GE ingredients.
Dr. Greg Lewis, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Animal Science, who commissioned Dr. Eenennaam, commented on the findings. “The scientific evidence indicates clearly that the health, wellbeing, and productivity of animals consuming GE feeds are at least comparable to those of animals consuming conventional feeds,” he remarked. (did he say it or write it? If he wrote it, you could say, “he wrote.”) “I believe that information in this peer-reviewed article is essential for open-minded discussions of GE feeds and foods, and we have made this information freely available to the public.”
One of the more significant implications of the findings concerns global trade. Countries that genetically engineer corn and soy, such as the United States, are primary exporters of livestock feed. The authors of the review fervently emphasize the importance of internationally coordinating the regulatory systems of genetically engineered products. Otherwise, trade disruptions arise. For example, traces of a genetically engineered corn trait in dried distillers grains with solubles (DDGS) halted trade between the U.S. and China in November 2013. At the time, Beijing had not approved the genetic modification, despite DDGS’s increasingly popularity for feed for livestock. China chose to employ a zero-tolerance policy. The rejected shipments of corn cost U.S. grain companies $427 million in lost sales.
Instances like these are to become more frequent and troublesome in the future, according to Dr. Eenennaam. There are a growing number of “second generation” GE crops emerging with different output traits. These crops are optimized for livestock feed, but it is currently unclear whether new techniques to target genome modifications will survive regulatory oversight.
Other consequences from this review are less straightforward. For years, anti-GE activists in the U.S. have pressed for mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients. However, in a wake of a study of such significant magnitude, the labeling effort may see less support. From the pro-GE perspective, labeling implies that products containing GE ingredients are inferior to their non-GE counterparts, when clearly the science states otherwise.
It is in this context that the debate becomes more political. Critics of GE food will cite the fact that the U.S. is a country that strives to embrace transparency. Allowing consumers to know what they’re eating is the “democratic” thing to. While sound in logic, this argument will always fall victim to the deep pockets of corporate America whose interests cause them to support no labeling.
Monsanto, the biotechnology giant that leads the production of GE seeds, along with Coca-Cola, Pepsi Co, have proved their ability to suppress attempts for mandatory labeling at the state level. It does indeed remain possible for the discussion to reach the federal level, but the activists in favor of labeling should not hold their breath. It is difficult to predict how much help the officials in Washington, where money talks loudly, can provide.