If you want to pick a fight with someone, take a side on the debate about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on social media. GMOs are also called genetically engineered crops, transgenic crops or biotech crops.
Whatever name you use to describe them, the topic is contentious and comes down to whether or not you believe or trust the science.
GMOs are important to the livestock industry. Approximately 70 to 90 percent of all GM crops produced are used in livestock feed. These crops were engineered primarily for insect resistance and herbicide tolerance. Feedstuffs from GM crops have the same nutrient composition as their non-GM counterparts.
The exception being GM crops engineered for improved digestibility like low-lignin alfalfa and the GM white clover in research trials now.
There is some evidence that an additional benefit of insect-resistant crops is decreased levels of mycotoxins, which are naturally occurring carcinogens produced by fungi and often found in livestock feedstuffs.
Feeding GM crops to livestock doesn’t result in residues of transgenic DNA in the meat, milk or eggs. There is no detectable difference in the composition or nutritional value of animal products from animals fed GM feedstuffs compared to animals fed non-GM feedstuffs.
GM crops tolerant to glyphosate (a broad spectrum nonselective herbicide) such as corn, soybeans and alfalfa allowed producers to implement no-till production practices over the last 20 years. Jeremy Ross, an agronomist at the University of Arkansas says, “The use of no-till and reduced tillage practices benefit the environment by reducing soil erosion and nutrient runoff, increasing irrigation efficiency and decreasing trips across fields with equipment.
Without glyphosate, no-till production would be difficult due to weed competition. Additionally, no-till practices potentially reduce greenhouse gas emissions by trapping carbon in the crop residue in the no-till cropping system.”
Pesticide usage has decreased since the introduction of GM crops, Ross says. “Herbicide use has declined with the introduction of glyphosate-resistant crops, and insecticide use has declined with the introduction of Bt-producing crops.”
GM crops improve profitability, Ross says. “With the narrow profit margins producers are facing today, any tool or production practice that can be used to potentially reduce input cost is greatly needed.”
Worldwide use of GM crops
GM crops were adopted over 20 years ago and have become widely utilized in the U.S., Canada, Brazil, India, China, Argentina and in about 20 other countries worldwide.
There are countries that prohibit the cultivation of GM crops, including Russia and 19 of the 28 nations in the European Union (EU). Despite the EU’s prohibitive policies on GM crops, it imports more than 30 million tons of GM corn and soybeans for livestock feed.
Government policies on GM cultivation are driven by politics, trade policies and pressure from environmental activists. Stuart Smyth is an assistant professor and holds the industry research chair in agri-food innovation – department of agricultural and resource economics at the University of Saskatchewan.
Smyth says, “Many international environmental groups are headquartered in Europe. Environmental groups feed information into the green parties in coalition governments and they influence policy, ensuring the GM crops are rejected for production in Europe.”
Smyth says, “About five years ago, there was a big push from the environmentalists in Europe to ban all GM animal feed. European scientists studied the implications of this move for the hog industry alone and determined that sourcing non-GM feed globally would push the price of pork up by 7,700 percent.
EU politicians considered those economics and completely rejected the environmental groups’ lobbying. Europe’s current position is to import GM corn and soybeans, feed it to their livestock and consumers eat the meat. It is not an issue.”
There is international diplomatic pressure to shun GMOs. Smyth says, “European diplomats to developing countries say, ‘Look, if you adopt GM crops in your country, don’t expect to export any commodities to Europe.’ So they’ve gone out and virtually blackmailed developing countries to prevent their implementation of GMOs. They have a frightening amount of power and no accountability.”
Europe’s resistance to adopt production of GMOs is a complex issue. John Vicini, food safety scientific affairs lead, Monsanto Company says, “The release of GMOs on the market coincided with outbreaks of mad cow disease and hoof-and-mouth in the EU. Timing and conflation of issues undermined public trust in new technologies which probably made Europeans question food safety regulations.”
Distrust for academic research
A large body of worldwide academic research exists that proves the safety of GMOs and their positive contribution to agriculture.
Smyth says that initially academics were willing to answer the legitimate research questions posed by environmental groups regarding the safety and efficacy of GM crops. Smyth says, “From about 2000 to 2005, academics all over the world dug in and started to produce research in industrial countries where GMOs were commercialized, like Canada, the U.S., as well as developing countries where [GMOs] were commercialized, like India, China, South Africa and the Philippines. I believe the academics did a very thorough job of responding to those initial criticisms.”
Then, according to Smyth, environmental groups changed the rules of the game. Smyth says, “Instead of environmentalists saying, ‘The academics have done a rigorous job of collecting data, doing the analysis and reporting unbiased results,’ they simply moved the goal posts and said, ‘It’s not about those issues anymore; it’s about a whole new set of issues.’ What the activists found was they didn’t need to oppose GM crops based on science; they could be successful basing their opposition on emotions.”
Vicini says, “We live in a new world of mass information. When it comes to topics on how food is produced, there is a lot of misinformation. Further bolstering the misinformation trend is the rise of predatory journals – where those with ulterior motives can readily post any ‘science lie’ information, regardless of its reliability.”
Failure to communicate with the end user
In the early years, developers of GM crops failed to communicate with the entire supply chain, and consequently, consumers of the end products have concerns about the safety of GMOs and a lack of trust of the research produced by the agriculture industry.
These information-seeing consumers often share their concerns with one another on social media platforms. April Pollard is a financial consultant, a mom and a consumer who values information about safety of food. Pollard says, “When I was pregnant with my first son, I started reading more about the negative effects of GMOs on rats. I also started learning about BPA, arsenic in baby rice and feeding my baby peanuts before he was a year old. I tend to go against the grain of popular belief.”…
ILLUSTRATION: Illustrations by Corey Lewis.