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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 (25), GMOs (12), GMOs (12), Peggy Lemaux (8)

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

GMOs featured in a healthy debate at Berkeley

Pamela Ronald says genetic modification is just as safe as the plant breeding humans have been doing for 10,000 years.
A lecture hall with 700 UC Berkeley students enrolled in "Edible Education 101" heard Pamela Ronald, professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at UC Davis, explain her opinion that there is a place for genetically modified organisms in modern agriculture, reported Amanda Little in the New Yorker.

The class' co-instructor, food writer and activist Michael Pollen, said he is still opposed to the use of GMOs in agriculture, but admitted it's getting lonely in his camp. He said he believes GMOs are tending to more firmly establish mono-cropping practices, favor large-scale industrial agriculture and that Roundup resistant crops are leading to the development of Roundup resistant weeds.

"It's a shame to demonize an entire technology because of Roundup Ready,” Ronald said.

In the New Yorker article, Little shared several of Ronald's points:

  • Bt cotton has cut the amount of chemical insecticides applied to crops globally by millions of pounds a year

  • Papayas genetically engineered to resist ring-spot virus helped to save the Hawaiian papaya industry

  • “Scuba rice,” a strain of flood-tolerant rice that can grow in submerged fields, is being grown by four million subsistence farmers in Bangladesh and India

  • The world is filling with ever more people and we need ever more food from the same amount of land

  • Genetic engineering will play a critical role in protecting finite soil and water resources, staving off crop diseases, and responding to the pressures of climate change.
Posted on Monday, April 28, 2014 at 1:15 PM
Tags: GMOs (12), Pamela Ronald (7)

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