SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Supporting new agricultural technologies is an important responsibility for scientists.
“I’m passionate about genetics and sticking up for technology because if we don’t stand up for it, we’re not going to have access to it,” said Alison Van Eenennaam, Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Animal Science at University of California, Davis.
“The livestock industry doesn’t have access to GMOs because of the debate around plant GMOs,” Van Eenennaam said during a presentation at the 2018 American Agri-Women Convention.
There are trade-offs with new technologies, Van Eenennaam said. For example, when artificial insemination for dairy cattle was first introduced in the 1940s, it was a very controversial technology because bull breeders realized it would potentially threaten their business.
“In 1944, there were 25.6 million dairy cows in the U.S. and today we have around 9 million cows but we’re producing 1.6 times the amount of milk,” said Van Eenennaam, who has presented over 525 presentations to audiences globally. “So, the 9 million dairy cows are very efficient relative to the ‘40s, but there’s a lot less of them and consequently a lot less dairy farmers.”
Fewer dairy cows also means the amount of feed they eat is less, there is less water consumed, less land is required and amount of manure produced is reduced.
“A glass of milk today has about one-third of the environmental impact of greenhouse gas emissions of a glass of milk in 1944,” Van Eenennaam said. “That two-thirds reduction is pretty impressive.”
The broiler industry also has achieved amazing changes in the genetics of chickens.
“In 1957, it took much longer to get to a five-pound broiler, today it takes less than 43 days on feed,” Van Eenennaam said.
“In 2009, we consumed about 52 billion chickens globally,” she said. “If we hadn’t genetically improved our broilers through conventional breeding, we would need about 18 billion additional chickens and on average five pounds of additional feed per chicken to get to a five-pound broiler marketweight.”
As demand for meat increases, particularly due to the developing world middle class emerging, Van Eenennaam said, there are two ways to satisfy the demand — increase the number of animals or raise more productive animals.
“From an environmental perspective, I’d rather have more productive animals,” she said.
One example is the AquAdvantage salmon that achieves marketweight in 18 months compared to three years.
“This fish that carries a transgene was first developed in Canada in 1989,” Van Eenennaam said. “It was approved by the FDA on Nov. 19, 2015; however, it is still not commercially available in the U.S.”
There are no genetically engineered animals for sale in the United States, Van Eenennaam said.
“We’re stopping this technology because of the debate around genetically-modified crops,” she said. “And now we have social media that can really amplify the message.”
A search on Google of GMOs, Van Eenennaam said, will result in some horrific images.
“These images focus on the emotions of mothers and talk about allergens, autism and infertility,” she said. “Marketers are weaponizing this fear and misinformation.”
Fearmongering is driving uniformed consumers who have been misled to make bad choices for their family’s health, Van Eenennaam said.
“They are preying on parents’ instinctive desire to protect the health of their children by using lies to scare them into paying more money for absence-labeled food,” she said.
Van Eenennaam has seen the impact of this with poorer sectors of the society.
“They avoid all fresh produce because they can’t afford organic so they don’t serve their kids fruits and vegetables,” she said. “That is probably the worst thing you can do for the health of your children.”
In global cotton production, growers have decreased the insecticide use by 56 percent with the use of genetically-engineered crops mostly in India and China, Van Eenennaam said.
“I can’t think of another technology that has had that kind of environmental impact in agriculture over a 20-year time frame,” she said.