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Posts Tagged: GMOs

Science and public opinion square off in GMO debate

UC scientists are studying sorghum genetics to understand plant drought tolerance. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The biggest disconnect between science and public opinion is the differing view on genetically modified foods, according to Alison Van Eenennaam, a UC Agriculture and Natural Resources specialist in animal genetics. Van Eenennaam was quoted in a story reported by Dave Marquis of ABC 10 News in Sacramento.

Van Eenenaam examined 20 years of records on the health and production of livestock populations eating GMO feed and has not found any measurable trends or changes.

"And those field observations agree with the many hundreds of carefully controlled studies that have been done by researchers globally," she said.

The story also raised consumer concerns about genetically modified foods. A Sacrament shopper interviewed for the story said she believes farmers are spraying more pesticides on GMO crops. Van Eenennaam confirmed that crops modified to resist herbicides have encouraged greater use of herbicides and some weeds have become resistant to herbicides as a result. 

"But I would argue that the trade-offs haven't been that significant and, unfortunately, this public concern around it is forestalling the development of what I would argue is much more sustainable plant and animal species," she said.

In her Twitter feed, Van Eenenaam provided links to additional information about the impact of current GMO crops.

One possible benefit of GMOs is helping crops adapt to a warmer world resulting from global climate change, reported Matt Weiser on Vox.

For the article, Weiser spoke to Peggy Lemaux, UC ANR Cooperative Extension biotechnology specialist based at UC Berkeley. Lemaux is the lead researcher on a project aimed at engineering drought resistance into crops — in this case, sorghum. Her goal is to discover how epigenetics, the process by which environmental change triggers new genetic functions, could be used to improve drought tolerance.

If she and her colleagues can figure this out for sorghum, it could be applied to other species such as tomatoes and rice, also part of Lemaux's research, through genetic engineering or by inducing mutations using radiation or chemicals.

Posted on Tuesday, January 26, 2016 at 11:13 AM
Tags: Alison Van Eenennaam (29), GMOs (17), GMOs (17), Peggy Lemaux (9)

Scientists using genetic editing to delete dairy cow horns

Graduate student Lindsay Upperman (left) and UCCE specialist Alison Van Eenennaam with gene-edited hornless dairy calves. (Photo: Karin Higgins)
Two calves whose genes have been edited so they won't grow horns are being raised and will later be bred at UC Davis, reported Edward Ortiz in the Sacramento Bee.

Dairy cows have been bred for optimal dairy production, but the gene mix brought along horns. Angus beef were bred for optimal beef production, and don't have horns. Since the dairy industry doesn't want animals with horns because they can hurt each other or farmworkers, it is common practice to remove them shortly after birth.

Removing the horns involves an uncomfortable procedure called debudding, in which, after being treated with a local anesthetic, the cells on the animal's head that would grow into horns are killed with an electrical appliance.

"Consumers are concerned about how we care for dairy animals. They expect us to do a good job and are concerned about pain and discomfort," said UC Davis veterinarian Terry Lehenbauer in a video about the advancement (See the video below).

Using precision genetic "editing," scientists were able to delete the dairy cow gene that produced horns and replace it with the angus gene that resulted in hornlessness. 

At UC Davis, the two calves' growth and development will be tracked. Eventually they will father cows with horned mothers to see if the hornless trait is passed on to the offspring. The odds of them doing so, Van Eenennaam said, are 100 percent, if "Mendelian genetics hold true." Mendelian genetics are laws of gene inheritance discovered by 19th century monk Johann Mendel.

Van Eenennaam said it's not clear whether other, unexpected effects of the gene editing will occur. However, if successful, gene editing will allow the dairy industry to bypass decades of breeding for hornless cows.

Posted on Monday, December 21, 2015 at 2:20 PM

Safety of GMOs debated online

Using genetic engineering, science has found a way to produce alfalfa with less lignin, a component of the plant that has no nutritional value.
A UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) genomics expert participated in an online debate about GMOs with a Canadian scientist who argued against the ubiquitous use of the technology. The debate can be viewed on The Real News.

Alison Van Eenennaam, UC ANR Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Animal Sciences at UC Davis, said research has shown that genetically engineered crops do not pose a risk to human health.

"There's a recent review paper where they summarized data from 1,700 different studies, and about half of those are publicly funded. And basically the results of those studies have been that there haven't been any unique risks or hazards associated with the use of this breeding method in the production of crops," she said.

The counter point was offered by Thierry Vrain, a soil biologist and genetic engineer with Agriculture Canada. He focused on the fact that more than 90 percent of the genetically engineered crops now in use were altered to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate. He said this fact results in overuse of the herbicide.

"In terms of specific toxicity of the molecule glyphosate, which has very little acute toxicity - as it is advertised, it is safer than table salt. But in terms of chronic toxicity over time, over weeks and months, it will damage the microbiome and induce all kinds, all kinds of symptoms. In mice, and probably in humans," Vrain said.

Van Eenannaam tried to keep the discussion focused on the safety of GMOs.

"I think the most misunderstood thing is it's a breeding method that can be used to introduce all sorts of crop traits into crops and animals, and we always seem to get discussing the one particular application rather than looking at how it could be used to address many different problems that are associated with agriculture, including things like drought tolerance, disease resistance, biofortification of crops," she said.

Vrain agreed with most of Van Eenennaam's points.

"I agree with you, Alison, that GMOs are not necessarily toxic, et cetera, et cetera," he said. "There's all kinds of benefits, it's a very powerful technology. Used properly, it's probably very beneficial to humanity.

At the end of the debate Vrain reiterated his concern that the preponderance of GMOs are for glyphosate-resistant crops.

Posted on Friday, May 22, 2015 at 3:42 PM

Humboldt County voters to weigh in on GMOs

On Nov. 3, Humboldt County residents will vote on Measure P, which would ban GMOs in the county if it passes. Above, cows on an organic farm. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons.)
Voters in Humboldt County will decide on Nov. 3 whether to ban genetically modified organisms - animals and plants - within the county boundaries. The North Coast Journal ran a lengthy analysis of the proposed ordinance, Measure P, with arguments from advocates for and against its passage. Reporter Heidi Walters also sought comment from UC Cooperative Extension.

Alison Van Eenennaam, UCCE specialist in the Department of Animal Science at UC Davis, said there are thousands of scientific studies that have shown that GMOs are not dangerous. Van Eenannaam herself published a review in September that examined 30 years of livestock-feeding studies that represent more than 100 billion animals. She concluded that the performance and health of food-producing animals consuming genetically engineered feed has been comparable to that of animals consuming non-GE feed.

Van Eenennaam cautioned the North Coast Journal reporter that "you can't just say 'GE is safe.'"

"That's too broad," she said. "That's like saying 'electricity is safe.' People who've been in the electric chair would disagree."

One can't say that traditional breeding is "safe," either. People have been breeding organisms to select for specific traits, and creating hybrids by crossing two species (such as a horse and donkey to get a mule) for thousands of years, the article said.

In San Luis Obispo County, where a measure banning GMOs failed in 2004, organic farmers are using buffers and communication with neighbors to allow farmers who use GMOs to coexist with non-GMO farmers.

"Coexistence is not a new idea,"said Mary Bianchi, director of SLO County UCCE. But it's been working. And, she says, nobody has pushed for a GMO-ban in San Luis Obispo County since.

The director of UC Cooperative Extension in Humboldt County, Yana Valachovic, said she and her office haven't taken a side in the debate over the Humboldt County measure.

She said she believes the issue boils down to one question: "Are we more concerned about the risks or more hopeful of the opportunities?"

Posted on Thursday, October 2, 2014 at 11:01 AM

Genetically engineered food labeling examined in new paper

Mandating the labeling of processed foods that contain GMOs is a very complex topic, said Alison Van Eenennaam.
As consumers and legislators across the nation grapple with whether to require labeling of genetically engineered foods and food products, a new “issues paper” addressing that topic is being released today by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technologies (CAST).

The paper, titled “The Potential Impacts of Mandatory Labeling for Genetically Engineered Foods in the United States,” examines the scientific, legal and economic ramifications of requiring that food containing genetically engineered ingredients be labeled as such.

It comes on the heels of the April 23 passage by the Vermont legislature of a bill that would make that state the first to mandate labeling of “GMO” or genetically engineered foods.

Lead author on the paper is Alison Van Eenennaam, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Animal Science at UC Davis.

“Mandating process-based food labeling is a very complex topic with nuanced marketing, economic and trade implications depending upon how the labeling laws are written and how the market responds,” Van Eenennaam said.

Co-authors on the paper are Bruce M. Chassy, a food science professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes, an economics professor at the University of Missouri, Columbia; and lawyer Thomas P. Redick from Global Environmental Ethics Counsel, LLC.

Noting that such labeling would be based not on differences in the content of the crop or food product but on the way it was produced, Van Eenennaam and her co-authors conclude that there is no scientific reason for singling out the process of genetic engineering for mandatory process-based labeling.

They maintain that voluntary labeling programs, such as the Non-GMO Project, motivated by market influences rather than government regulation, currently provide interested consumers with the choice to select non-genetically engineered foods in the United States.

They suggest that state-based labeling laws may run into legal challenges related to interstate commerce, international trade, federal authority over food labeling and First Amendment protection of “commercial speech.”

In terms of economics, they project that mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods would increase U.S. food costs. Just how much food prices might rise would depend on how food manufacturers and retailers respond to mandatory labeling.

The authors project that the impact on food prices would be substantial if food processors decide to switch to non-GMO ingredients to avoid labeling requirements, as has been the case in other countries following the introduction of mandatory GE labeling. The cost increases would be less if processors instead opt to label all of their food products as containing genetically engineered ingredients. 

The paper concludes with a call for more independent, objective information to be provided to consumers and legislators on the scientific issues, legal ramifications and economic consequences of mandatory labeling, especially in states that now have labeling initiatives on the ballot.

“This would help to move the national discussion on mandatory GE labeling from contentious claims and counterclaims to a more fact-based and informed dialog,” Van Eenennaam said.

The Council for Agricultural Science and Technologies (CAST) is a nonprofit organization composed of scientific societies and individual student, company, nonprofit and associate society members. CAST assembles, interprets and communicates credible science-based information using volunteer scientific experts as authors and reviewers. That information is then made freely available to legislators, regulators, policymakers, media, the private sector and the public on the organization's website at https://www.cast-science.org.

Media contact(s):

  • Alison Van Eenennaam, Dept. of Animal Science, (530) 752-7942, alvaneenennaam@ucdavis.edu (Van Eenennaam is traveling but will return to campus the afternoon of Tuesday, April 29.)
  • Pat Bailey, UC Davis News Service, (530) 752-9843, pjbailey@ucdavis.edu
Posted on Monday, April 28, 2014 at 2:33 PM
  • Author: Pat Bailey
Tags: Alison van Eenennaam (29), GMOs (17)

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