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Non-GMO crop production in a dairy system – Part 1

Joe Lawrence for Progressive Forage Published on 01 October 2018
The need to advance food production

A number of genetically engineered (GE) field crops are currently available for commercial production, with nearly all being utilized in the dairy and livestock industry.

Throughout this article, the term GE is used, as it is more accurate than the widely used term GMO, or genetically modified organism.

The range of benefits GE crops offer to the crop management toolbox – including management flexibility, cost, safety and environmental impact – has led to their widespread use (Figure 1).

Adoption of genetically engineered crops in the U.S. 1996 to 2017

In addition to the substantial acreage of GE corn grown for on-farm use and the increased interest in GE alfalfa, the high percentage of acres growing major feed commodities such as corn, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets and canola at the national level ensures feed ingredients derived from GE crops are common in feeding programs.

For products derived from livestock (notably milk and meat), it should be noted these are natural products with no genetic modification and, even when they are produced by animals fed GE ingredients in their diet, they are not altered in any way compared to these same products from animals fed a diet containing zero GE ingredients.

Emergence of non-GE markets

Due to ongoing supply and demand issues, farmers are facing increasing volatility while food companies continue to look for marketing opportunities that differentiate their products. The strategy of labeling the absence of an ingredient or production technique (often referred to as absence labeling) has gained in popularity, and GE crops have become a target of this labeling practice.

This, combined with the rapid adoption of crops with GE traits, has contributed to a level of misunderstanding and mistrust from the general public.

Adding to the confusion, there is very little uniform regulation of these labeling practices. As a result, companies and third-party verifiers have created their own labels and corresponding definitions of “non-GMO,” which can vary greatly.

As a result, some farmers are facing the tough decision of forfeiting a valuable management tool. In some cases, the decision is to capture a financial premium, while in others it is merely to maintain any market.

While it can be argued agriculture needs to work at being more responsive to consumer preferences, the level of misinformation currently influencing consumer decisions significantly damages our food system.

The risk exists that, over time, all producers could lose access to the technology as market share for products produced with the technology diminish.

A recent example of this is the loss of rBST as a management tool, as virtually all processors eventually jumped on the baseless “no artificial hormones” bandwagon, leaving dairy producers with no market if they choose to use this tool.

The pest management toolbox

The key to the sustained efficacy of each pest management tool is having continued access to them all. Access to all available tools and utilizing each tool where it presents the best fit for management will reduce the chances of pests developing resistance to any one tool and is consistent with the principals outlined in integrated pest management (IPM).

The loss of a tool from the toolbox not only affects management but also puts added pressure on the remaining tools.

While the prospect of losing a tool to market forces is disconcerting, we should also recognize the agricultural industry’s current challenges with pest resistance management and the role our management of GE crops has played.

In some cases, certain GE crop traits have already been removed from our management toolbox by our over-reliance on them. The entire industry needs to continually evaluate our access to and use of these management tools.

Present and future impact of GE crops

In any discussion regarding the implications of a producer’s access to technology, it should be looked at in the context of not just the current technology that will be forfeited, but also how it will jeopardize the development and accessibility of technology.

Despite their many benefits, GE crops alone have not been conclusively shown to increase crop yields. Rather, their role is in addressing certain management challenges, which help to stabilize production levels.

In their 2016 report, titled “Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects,” the National Academy of Science, Engineering and Mathematics noted GE crops have facilitated a narrowing of the gap between a crop’s yield potential and actual yield.

As we see an increased frequency in extreme weather events during critical periods of a growing season, this role will only increase in importance.

Additionally, the applications of the technology continue to reach beyond their common use in crop pest management to altering the nutritional profile of plants, both for direct human consumption and forages. Unlocking the potential of low-lignin alfalfa continues to be explored, while researchers are already looking to other opportunities such as altering tannin content in alfalfa, thereby improving the utilization of the plant’s protein by ruminant animals.

The gene editing technology commonly referred to as CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) is garnering great interest in applications ranging from reducing disease susceptibility in plants to addressing genetic diseases in mammals, including humans.

From a scientific standpoint the precise method in which CRISPR edits a targeted part of the genome is very different than GE; however, it remains unclear how the general public will differentiate the two techniques and what their acceptance of gene editing will be in comparison with GE.

Recently, the EU, which has restricted the use of GE crops for some time, took action to further restrict plant-breeding options, including gene editing. This impacts both crops grown in EU countries as well as imports.

It is critical the entire supply chain be engaged in a scientifically based dialogue regarding the role of this technology in food production and the implications of using exclusionary tactics in marketing food.

The need to advance food production necessitates balancing the acceptance of currently available science on food safety with an openness to new scientific discovery that may cause the need to re-evaluate certain practices.  end mark

PHOTO: The need to advance food production necessitates balancing the acceptance of currently available science on food safety with an openness to new scientific discovery that may cause the need to re-evaluate certain practices. Photo by Mike Dixon.

Joe Lawrence
  • Joe Lawrence

  • Dairy Forage Systems Specialist
  • Cornell University
  • Email Joe Lawrence

Responsible management of GE technologies requires:

• Continual advancement of technologies

• Sound and ongoing scientific review of their safety and effectiveness

• Producer accountability in proper use of technologies

• Public confidence in the scientific process

• Food-chain support of sound production practices 

—Attributed to Joe Lawrence