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Caving in to unfounded opinions threatens tech advances, expert says

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Agriculture needs to stand united in defending safe technologies and alter the discussion to focus on the problems the technology is trying to fix.

SUN VALLEY, Idaho — Losing safe, viable and valuable technology to improve agriculture due to frightened, uniformed public sentiment is a very real threat, a university researcher says.

Alison Van Eenennaam, an animal geneticist at the University of California-Davis, told the Idaho Milk Processors Association annual conference there has to be a concerted effort by agriculture to stand up against the myths behind the opposition to such advances as genetically engineered crops or “we’ll have no technology left.”

Following a showing of “Food Evolution,” a new documentary film separating the hype from the science in the debate over GMOs, Van Eenennaam said the arguments being used against GMO technology are not just a subtle interpretation of scientific data, they are “flat out lies.”

“It’s not a legitimate disagreement; it’s an agenda,” she said.

The anti-GMO campaign is rooted in fear-mongering and is risking technology that can improve agriculture and lessen its environmental impact, she said.

There’s no angst when it comes to using genetic technology in human medicine, such as insulin, or in pet vaccines, she said.

“Use in food tends to be where the fireworks come in,” she said.

Those fireworks resulted in marketers turning away from rBST, a safe technology to increase milk production in cows, to gain a market advantage in claiming their products were rBST-free. “When marketers cave to these demands, we take safe technology off the table. How many of these technologies are we willing to throw out for these short-term market advantages?” she asked.

The big controversy now is GMO crops, grown by 18 million farmers globally. With 16.5 million of those in developing countries, 90 percent of GMO crops are grown by small-scale farmers in developing countries, where there’s been a tremendous reduction in pesticide use, she said.

By far, the largest consumer of those crops are livestock, which have consumed that feed for more than 20 years. There’s been about 300 carefully controlled studies on the performance of those animal populations, showing no significance differences or deleterious trends in productivity.

“Apparently no one wants to read them,” she said.

Anti-GMO sympathizers would prefer to latch onto sensational, unreliable, politicized studies to confirm a predetermined bias, she said.

Numerous studies have also found no detectable genetically engineered DNA or GE proteins or glyphosate residues in milk, meat or eggs from animals consuming GMO crops, she said.

Meanwhile, there are genuine risks to food safety and public health, such as foodborne illnesses, heavy metals, dioxin and mycotoxins. Focusing instead on non-health risks associated with GMO feed is going down a path that’s not improving food safety and jeopardizing technology that can, she said.

In addition, abandoning the technology has huge environmental consequences. The adoption of GE crops has reduced global pesticide use 20 percent and decreased the use of more toxic pesticides. Through reduced fuel use and tillage changes, they’ve also significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions from those cropping areas — equivalent to removing 12 million cars from the road in 2015, she said.

She reminded the audience the public wasn’t keen on artificial insemination in animal agriculture when it first came about in the 1940s, but the result has been a significant increase in milk production from far fewer cows. That efficiency is attributable to genetic improvement enabled by AI. And genetic editing holds even more potential.

Referring back to the loss of rBST, she asked, “What if the public doesn’t like genetic selection? Are you going to give that up, too?”

Agriculture needs to work together to defend the technology and alter the discussion, focusing on the problems the technology is trying to fix, she said.

“It’s pretty simple math. Anytime you decrease the efficiency of agricultural production, you increase the environmental impact,” she said.

“If it’s safe technology, you have to stand up for all of them because eventually they’re going to come after the one you love,” she said.

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