By Dr. Michael Azain, ASAS Public Policy Committee
The theme of the April 2017 issue of Animal Frontiers was “GMO Crops in Animal Nutrition.” Articles in this issue provide an excellent update and review of the history and future of GM crops, a review of studies where GM crops have been fed to livestock and the methods of assessing their safety, the potential for use of gene editing technology in livestock, and the politicization of food security.
The editorial entitled “Human needs and future challenges,” by Zaheer and Reuter highlights the need for increased crop yields to support a greater human population, but also the expected increased demand for livestock products and the impact that climate change could have on production.
In “The future of genetically engineered plants to stabilize yield and improve feed,” Dhariwal and Laroche outline potential crop modifications that can lead to improved digestibility in livestock or enhance biofuel production from plants.
The articles “GMO crops in animal nutrition,” by J.L. Vicini, and “Future challenges of feeding transgenic plants” by Flachowsky and Reuter review the traits for the GM crops currently available and the methods used to assess their safety in animal feed. In these reviews of the history of GM technologies the authors suggest that one of the reasons for distrust was that the general public did not readily see benefits to traits such as herbicide or insect resistance. These are referred to as “input traits” and great efforts were made to show that the modified crop was no different than the original with the exception of the inserted gene. Other traits such as virus resistance or altered nutrient profile, have a clearer benefit to the consumer and may be less controversial. An example of the latter might be an altered fatty acid profile that has health benefits and is referred to as an “output” trait.
In the article “Genome-edited livestock: Ethics and social acceptance,” Tetsuya Ishii reviews past efforts in cloning and transgenic animals and updates on the potential use of gene editing for livestock with examples from the literature.
The article: “(Mis)information and the politicization of food security,” by Smyth et al., reviews the documented benefits of GM crops and the failure to translate this information to the general public. The authors attribute this to several factors. First, scientists have not adapted to changes in communication (from print to social media) as effectively as those opposed to these technologies. Secondly, research spending on new technology by biotech companies is being offset by the opposition spending in far greater amounts. Finally, the misuse and lack of enforcement on food labeling increases consumer concern and keeps the safety issue at the forefront. Examples such as labeling salt as being non-GMO or using a “verified non-GMO” label on a food where no GM varieties are cited. While the safety of GM crops are documented, the failure to allow their use has likely contributed to world hunger, needless cases of blindness, and death, as well as billions of dollars of lost economic potential.
The overall message in the issue is that these technologies play an important role in our ability to produce more food with fewer resources. They are another example of tools that have been used over the last several hundred years to improve productivity. In the past, simple genetic selection for desired traits in livestock and crops was used. In addition, for crops, random mutations caused by chemical or irradiation mutagenesis were used to modify the genome. These tools were used to create the thousands of foods that we consume today and the methods used to create those genetic modifications are rarely, if ever, questioned. The new tools of genetic modification such as cloning, transgenesis and gene editing are far more precise than those used in the past. The failure to accept these technologies as a way to increase production will delay a solution to world hunger. We can already document the failure to allow use of products such as golden rice has harmed people.