Producers are facing more and more difficult conversations about GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, and their place in the industry and in the marketplace. This year at the World Ag Expo, Progressive Dairyman hosted a seminar featuring presenter Alison Van Eenennaam, Ph.D., of the University of California – Davis, who came to help attendees understand more about GMOs, some of the common misconceptions and how to convey important information to opponents, fellow producers and consumers.

Van Eenennaam began by defining the term “GMO,” emphasizing that at its core it is just another breeding method used to give a plant a characteristic from another plant to give it a useful property, such as resistance to a pesticide or disease.

Van Eenennaam said, “I think that people inflate GMOs where it’s really just a breeding method, and that’s the bottom line.”

Since those inflated or misinformed opinions affect the public opinion, Van Eenennaam addressed several common misconceptions about GMOs.

False: GMOs aren’t well regulated
To highlight the prevalence of misinformation about GMOs, Vann Eenennaam pointed out the idea that GMO wheat is responsible for increasing the number of people with a gluten allergy. She stated that there is no GMO wheat available in the market and misinformation like this must be dealt with as the industry moves forward.


False: The scientific community doesn’t agree that they are safe
Another misconception is a lack of oversight in GMO crops. Van Eenennaam shared that it takes an average of 13 years and $130 million to bring a new seed variety through development and regulatory hurdles, including studies through the FDA, EPA and USDA.

Van Eenennaam said, “As a scientist looking at the data associated with the safety of these products, I believe there is a strong scientific majority around the safety of using this particular breeding method.”

Proponents of the safety of GMOs include the American Medical Associate, the World Health Organization and other national and international scientific groups. Van Eenennaam acknowledged that there are a few groups who disagree, but the overwhelming majority state that GMOs are safe.

False: Eating GMOs hurt or change the animal
Over the last 20 years, the largest consumers of GMOs have been large livestock like dairy cattle. This led scientists to believe that if health problems were going to appear, livestock is where they would spot it first.

Over the years, hundreds of studies have taken place over multiple animal generations. The result?

Van Eenennaam stated that the studies found that there isn’t a nutritional difference between GMO and non-GMO plants, and GMOs are safe to be used in the food chain.

Further, she showed that the majority of the more than 100 billion food animals raised in the U.S. since 2000 have consumed some level of GMO feed and haven’t shown any negative health effects. In fact, average SCC and postmortem condemnation rates have lessened over time, denoting a healthier population.

False: GMO effects can be passed on to humans
“When you eat an egg, you digest the protein and DNA, and none of the chicken genes are going to express themselves. I had an egg for breakfast, and I’m not too concerned about growing wings because I know that’s how digestion works.”

She further emphasized that the tests have shown that milk from cows fed GMO crops versus non-GMO crops are “absolutely indistinguishable.”

See more extensive research into the safety of meat, milk and eggs here (PDF, 2 MB).

Mandatory labeling

Initiatives across the country have been discussing the need and wisdom of mandatory labeling for GMO products. Currently, manufactures can use labeling like USDA Organic to identify non-GMO products, but it is voluntary.

Van Eenennaam raised concerns that mandatory labeling of a breeding method that doesn’t affect the end product could cause a “logistical nightmare” and would ultimately be impractical, expensive and difficult to manage.

“To me, it’s a bit of a slippery slope. Once you start mandatory labeling for a breeding method that doesn’t affect the end product, where do you stop?” said Van Eenennaam.

The presenter also shared quotes from various activist organizations, which stated that labeling is a first step to banning products. Van Eenennaam cited examples from mandatory labeling laws in Europe, which resulted in the boycotting of GMO-friendly stores and products.

Since producing organic (non-GMO) milk costs roughly three times as much, the decision to require GMO labeling has the potential to impact the market in a big way.

Free to share

Overall, Van Eenennaam advised attendees to learn enough about GMOs to share information effectively and to not be afraid to personalize the answers to friendly questions.

She said, “Personalize it and make it a story. Farmers have a great story to tell. Farmers are very convincing because you are actually using the technology. Share why you are using GMOs and how it contributes to the health of your family.” PD