Q&A on GM in animal feed


The European Union has taken an active interest in the question of genetically modified food and feedstuffs. In the last year alone the European Parliament has twice voted upon GM issues.

At the beginning of the year (13 January 2015), the Parliament voted by 480 votes to 159 to grant Member States the freedom to ban the cultivation of GM crops across their territory. In many respects allowing Member States to determine what crops are planted and raised in their own soil might sound like a modest concession to states’ rights. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The EU is a staunch upholder of the single market and all the rules that underpin it; derogations and deviations from the market rules are permitted under only the most exceptional conditions and then only when there is a wealth of evidence to support the adjustment. (Scotland is presently experiencing just such an EU challenge to its unilateral declaration that a minimum price for alcohol is the only way of addressing Scotland’s love for the bevy). So the opportunity for a Member State to distort the Single Market on the basis of political opinion rather than verifiable evidence is quite a radical step. You can read my reaction to vote here.

A second GM vote took place in the Parliament just last month (28 October 2015). This time MEPs voted by 577 votes to 75, to ban Member States from restricting the import and use of all GM food or animal feedstuff into and within their own territory.

So the first vote allowed Member States the right, in the absence of scientific evidence, to ban the cultivation of GM crops within their territory, whilst the second vote prevented Member States from choosing to ban the import of GM food and animal feedstuff into their territory. Same Parliament, quite different views.

In some ways the second vote is a blessing for many Member States. European livestock depends upon GM feedstuff. It has done for several decades. Some 85% of the EU’s flocks and herds eat GM feedstuff. In Scotland the figure is even higher. A ban would certainly have resulted in starvation in the short to medium term.

A contradiction is revealed in the votes which is worth considering. In Scotland, the first vote was welcomed by the Scottish Government which quickly banned the cultivation of GM crops declaring them anathema to Scotland’s ‘clean and green’ image. The Government’s two MEPs were quick to declare how they had voted in the European Parliament. Roll forward seven months, same two MEPs vote to prevent the Scottish Government from restricting imports of GM food and feedstuff. Whatever your views on GM, one thing is clear: that position is not clear. What happened to the ‘clean and green’ argument?

If the argument is that GM is unsafe for humankind (again, in the absence of scientific evidence), why is it safe for animal kind? Why have we been feeding our livestock GM feed for over twenty years? I have written about this contradiction here.

Before both votes I received a number of letters from Scotland and beyond. In truth most were the same letter sent multiple times - one of the delights of the cyber age - but some were not. Some delved into the issues and demanded of me - an elected representative who would be voting on the issues - that I do the same. So it should be.

Following an exchange on Twitter, where it became evident that 140 characters was not enough to do justice to the debate, I agreed to respond to the questions via other means. So that is what follows below.

The questions from the concerned individual are detailed below (in italics). The answers have been sourced from Scotland’s Roslin Institute. The scientists of the Roslin Institute deal with a range of questions on all aspects of GM. They are an authority on these issues, respected world-wide.

Q. GMO’s within our eco-systems provide clear systemic risk. Given the limited advantages that the technologies have been so far able to provide and the inherent potential for unforeseen risks the precautionary principle is firmly justifiable.

A. The “clear systemic risk” is an assertion for which there is no evidence despite numerous field trials. So-called GMOs are not different biologically from any other plants or animals generated by selective breeding or extensive mutagenesis that may or may not present a risk of feral invasion or harm to the environment. For example, hybrid wheat is no more “natural” than herbicide or insect-resistant crops. It is a hybrid of three species (clearly a GMO), extensively mutagenized (with unknown consequences) contains many insertions of mobile genetic elements (of unknown origin) and causes allergies in humans. If it were not already consumed extensively by humans, it would certainly be deemed a GM crop and banned in certain EU Member States. The precautionary principle cannot be justified based solely on a doctrine-based opposition to the technology.

Q. GM is inherently linked with large scale monoculture crop production which provides a weakening of food security and brings with it substantial environmental issues as does.

A. GM is not inherently linked with large-scale monoculture crop production. It can be applied to any trait that improves crop yield or resilience.

Q. The main commercial application of GM within our agricultural systems has been to create crops that can tolerate glyphosate application. This continues the trend of excessive reliance on environmentally damaging synthetic chemicals. This is in spite of considerable uncertainty surrounding the potential implications for human and environmental health issues related to glyphosate and other synthetic chemicals.

A. This is an incorrect assertion. Much of the current research, and many of the proposed applications of genetic modification are within academia, and will be applied to crops that affect the livelihood of the poorest farmers. The assessment of the impacts of GM crops by opponents are frequently partisan and selective. However, a large meta-analysis of 147 studies concluded that the introduction of the pesticide resistant crops has both increased yields and reduced overall pesticide use (Klumper & Qaim, PLoSOne 2014 9:e11629). The most important statistic is the amount of product produced for each unit of chemical input.

Q. I also have concerns about the level of influence that the major global agri-businesses have their expenditure on lobbying and efforts to distort the arguments around GM and other agricultural practices are to the considerable detriment of informed debate and agricultural strategy progress.

A. There is no informed debate. There can be no informed debate with individuals or organisations who enter the debate with a preconception. Arguably, the companies involved in major GM crops are marketing their products, and their interest is transparent. But the opponents of GM have no lesser agenda than the proponents. They clearly wish to ban a technology on the grounds of a perceived risk for which there is no evidence nor rational basis. The opponents do not offer any alternative that can sustain production of food to field the world’s population. You will be aware that the EU is entirely dependent on importation of GM Soya to feed its livestock.

Q. Industry is biased [toward] the pro-GMO case and associated branches of its business: [for example] presenting non-peer reviewed data to keep its products safe from loss of revenue after being described as “probably” carcinogenic by the non-biased advise of the World Health Organization. …are you not even slightly concerned about how much scientific information around the safety of GMOs is missing… As well as the bias that the industry clearly has towards its own products? On the other hand… I also note that in the USA most of the GMOs produced are used as animal feed. I have read that as much as “…95 percent of all feed given to livestock in the United States is designated as GE , . Bearing in mind the metabolic differences between animals and human beings (subtle though they are), I myself am still not convinced about the safety of GMOs as a foodstuff for humans just yet. While no particular signs of ill health have developed in these animals, there have been no real studies into the specifics of any of the animals’ physiologies. Therefore, for the moment, I still want to know if any GMOs are in my food that I eat. Thankfully the UK requires GM foodstuffs to be labeled by law …though I note that Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership could remove this.

A. These comments are not intrinsically anti-GM. However, the writer also confuses the nature of genetic modification. Everything we eat is genetically-modified through the intervention of man. The large majority of the crop plants we eat have been “improved” through deliberate mutagenesis and selection. That is the basis of the second green revolution. A recent initiative uses radiation to increase the rates of mutant generation . Plants generated from this programme would not be considered GM. Artificial hybrid plants to improve production or resistance traits are not deemed GM. Targeted introduction of a specific gene sequence to achieve the same end is called GM. The distinction is not rational. The epidemiology data on the impact of GM crops for human and animal consumption on health is unequivocal. No significant impact has been shown. More importantly, there is no reasonable hypothesis to suggest otherwise or to propose that humans will be radically different (human and pig xenobiotic metabolism is very similar). There are all manner of claims made about the hazards of foods for human consumption. For example, the latest in a long line of studies has suggested, again, that consumption of red and processed meats increases the risk of colon cancer. The effects are small, the amounts large (daily consumption) and the associations with other variable cannot be controlled. All such studies blur the boundaries between association and causation. There is actually no evidence at all that processed meat consumption increases the risk of cancer. By contrast to the evidence for smoking, where there are proven carcinogens, with known mechanisms, there is no evidence at all that ceasing to consume processed meat at any time in your life reduces your subsequent lifetime risk of colon cancer. It would, in fact, be intrinsically impossible to prove that eating GM food was harmful to human health unless the effects were very large, and there was a large control group that consumed non-GM versions of the same foods in the same quantities and had the same lifestyles and genetic backgrounds. It will always come down to the balance of probabilities and a proposed mechanism for harm that is testable. Assertion that GM crops are potentially harmful is not an argument.

Q. Curiously, would/do you consume GMOs in your (or your family’s) diet presently?

A. [The scientist who prepared the answer was unequivocal]: ‘I would not be the least concerned about eating GM plants or animals. I already do’.

These comments I echo. My husband is American. More much of his life he will have regularly consumed GM produce. As a doctoral student, I too spent considerable periods in the US, and would therefore also have consumed GM food. We all will have consumed meat from livestock fed on GM feedstuff. I have fewer concerns about GM crops than I do about the usage of chemicals in countries currently claiming to be ‘clean and green.’

Q. But perhaps another issue that troubles me all the more is whether the crops of the world should ever be able to be controlled and patented by “Big Business” and a few heavyweight corporations?

A. This aspect of the debate is not one of science but rather business regulation. The same question could be posed about the relatively small number of corporations in any sector, from agricultural chemicals, through mobile phones and laptops, to beer or food. That is an area where the UK and the EU must act to ensure competition.

Further information

To pursue the scientific and technical debate there are a number of websites that I can recommend as a first port of call: