GMOs: Distinguishing fact from fiction

By Mary C. Gruszka

Genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms can be controversial subjects. Growers often have to field questions about GMOs from concerned consumers, and it can be challenging to clearly explain what they are and how they differ from traditional cross-breeding.

So it was timely that the keynote speaker at the recent Empire State Producers Expo in Syracuse, Dr. Margaret Smith, Pant Breeding and Genetics, Cornell University, presented a clear and concise overview of genetic engineering (GE), a comparison with traditional plan breeding, commonly grown GE crops, a review of scientific studies on the impact of GE crops and safety, and what to expect in the future.

In her presentation, “GMOs: Distinguishing Fact from Fiction,” Smith said that genetic engineering is a logical extension of what plant breeders have always done, starting with domestication, and continuing to intentional selection of new crops and varieties and traditional cross-breeding. “Genetic engineering is a new tool to breed improved crops,” she said.

Smith noted that she is a traditional plant breeder who doesn’t work in genetic engineering. She cited studies that show “most people have never heard of plant breeding,” and that study respondents did not realize that they most likely had eaten fruits or vegetables that were products of traditional cross-breeding.

In traditional cross-breeding, genes from two parents are combined in an offspring which contains a mix from each. There can be mistakes, called mutations, in copying genetic code. This often produces undesirable characteristics in a plant, but sometimes something useful results. And these plants can then be selected for future breeding.

On the other hand, genetic engineering, as Smith defined it, is the transferring of individual genes between organisms or modifying a gene within an organism. “With genetic engineering you change genes in the DNA so there is no need for sexual cross-compatibility,” Smith said. “There’s no mixing of genes like in traditional cross-breeding,”

For consumers, Smith said, the benefits of genetic engineering aren’t clear and there’s the concern that comes with new technologies.

Since introduction in the 1990s, GE crop production has increased exponentially, with corn, soybeans and sugar beets, leading the way. For GE fruits and vegetables it’s harder to tell which of the approved varieties of plum, apple, radicchio, squash, potato, peanut, tomato, papaya, eucalyptus, flax, and rose are in actual production.

GE crops grown in the US fall into three general categories – Bt, herbicide resistant, and virus resistant.

The Bt crops include corn, cotton, and sweet corn. These are toxic to certain insects especially Lepidoptera, when they ingest this type of plant.

The herbicide resistant crops include soybeans, corn, cotton, canola, sugar beets, and alfalfa. The virus resistant crops include papaya in Hawaii and some summer squash.

Some GE crops like field corn are stacked, meaning that they contain both Bt and herbicide tolerant genes. “Over 90 percent of the field corn in the US is stacked,” Smith said.

In 2014, new GE crop varieties that were approved include an insect resistant soybean, a reduced lignin alfalfa, a potato with reduced black spot bruises and low acrylamide production, soybean varieties with 2, 4-D, dicamba, HPPD tolerance, and a dicamba tolerant cotton.

“We’ll see what happens with potatoes. They are currently building up seed supplies,” Smith said. However, “one fast food chain said that they won’t use it,” she added.

GE crops that are being considered, but not yet approved include a non-browning apple, a potato with late blight resistance, reduced black spot bruise, low acrylamide potential, and lowered reducing sugars, and a 2, 4-D resistant cotton.

As for the farm-level impact of GE crops, Smith reported that a 2010 National Research Council (NRC) study from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) found that more herbicides were used, but a less toxic one. This allowed more reduced tillage practices. Glyphosate use is on the rise, as are the instances of weeds that have evolved resistance. Fewer insecticides are being used. However, corn rootworm has evolved to be resistant to insecticides and crop rotations.

Why the weed and insect resistance? “We forgot that pest management is not a silver bullet,” Smith said. “You can’t use the same management year after year. The pest will get a resistance.”  Another reason is that stacked varieties are providing insect control whether it’s needed or not, and exposes the insect population to select for resistance. “Let’s not forget our IPM muscles,” Smith said.

The NAS-NRC study found that for farmers, they benefitted economically in growing GE crops with advantages for worker safety and convenience. However the study concluded that the social impacts, as well as effects on prices and growers who don’t use GE crops aren’t well understood and that there needs to be more study of market concentration of GE seed producers.

Market concentration has been increasing with about three-quarters of approved GE crops controlled by four companies, Monsanto (with the largest proportion), Dupont, Syngenta, and Aventis

Whether there’s too much concentration, is not a science question, Smith said. Rather, it’s a social issue that relies on the political process.

Smith said that 60 to 70 percent of supermarket foods have ingredients from a GE variety, especially products made with soy or corn or with their derivatives. And this raises the question, is it safe to eat these foods.

Smith explained that food safety tests are focused on compounds that are novel or unique. A 2014 summary of over 1,700 studies about food and feed safety and the environmental impact of GE crop products found no credible evidence of safety concerns. “There were studies that expressed safety concerns but they were discredited as to validity,” Smith said.

This led into the topic of labeling and how to determine if a food or refined ingredients are genetically engineered or derived from GE foods. Smith explained that if a food, like whole produce, contains protein, there are measurements to detect the DNA and to see if it’s been modified.

But if an ingredient that is derived from a plant, like vitamins, lecithin, canola oil, or corn starch, does not contain protein, there’s no DNA present to analyze. Corn starch, as an example, is made up of chains of glucose molecules, Smith said. “No DNA, no protein.” Beet sugar was another example Smith gave. It’s composed of sucrose and is identical to cane sugar. “Both are purified to be just sugar,” Smith said.

This can complicate labeling. Smith showed a slide listing over 50 common food ingredients that are derived from corn or soybeans. A cereal, for example, could make a claim that it contains no genetically modified ingredients if the ingredients themselves don’t have any GE components, even though those ingredients could have been derived from GE plants.

Labeling will have a cost for the consumer. Smith said estimates vary, but for New York it could be around $500 a year increase in food costs for a family of four. Smith explained that while the cost of the label itself is small, most of the expense involves tracking every chain in production. Smith said that consumers already have choices in certified organic, non-GMO verified and other voluntarily labeled food products.

So are we eating foods with ingredients from GE crops? Most likely we are, but as Smith said, “most are refined ingredients with none of the novel DNA or protein in them.” The exception would be GE fresh produce as sweet corn, papaya, and some summer squash. “Credible evidence to date shows no risk,” Smith said. “But future products need to be evaluated.”

Combating antibiotic resistant bacteria

CEW-MR-1-COMBATING-BACTERIA1by George Looby, DVM

For years the critical question of antibiotic resistant bacteria and it’s relationship to the health and welfare of the general population has been debated and discussed at a variety of levels. Now the question has reached the highest level of government prompting President Barak Obama to issue an Executive Order to thoroughly study the problem. This order would appear to signal a significant shift in the thinking of those who have long been involved in studying the problem. For decades the addition of antibiotics to animal feed has been an accepted practice defended by animal scientists as having little or no impact on the possibility of antibiotic resistance.

In recent years a mounting body of evidence would suggest that this line of reasoning is no longer valid. Of the total volume of antibiotics produced annually in the United States the great percentage of that production has been added to animal feed to promote more efficient feed utilization and provide a low level of antibiotic to control possible intestinal infections.

Bacteria are remarkable resourceful organisms able to adapt to a wide variety of adverse conditions that man and nature have developed to greatly modify or halt their activities. These changes have not always occurred quickly but given enough time the bad bugs will usually find a way to survive. This period of adaptation has led in many instances to the development of the so-called super bugs which now plague physicians and hospitals throughout the world. It was this serious public health problem that led to an Executive Order issued in Sept. 2014 entitled, “Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria”. This act created a five year, $1.2 billion overview that would bring together experts in both human and veterinary medicine to develop a plan that would resolve the problem.

To oversee this ambitious project the President created an interagency task force with the Secretaries of Agriculture, Defense and Health and Human Services providing the necessary leadership and direction. Five goals were outlined in the plan which included slowing the emergence of resistant bacteria and preventing the spread of resistant infections; strengthening the One Health surveillance effort; developing rapid diagnostic tests; accelerate the research and development of new antibiotics, vaccines and other therapies; and improve international collaboration on prevention, surveillance control and research.

The Executive Order is far reaching in its outline but the matter of funding has yet to be resolved so until Congress gives its authorization very little is going to happen. Assuming that the funding is approved those involved in animal agriculture, especially in the beef industry, are going to be required to make some significant changes in their management practices. Under FDA Guidelines the use of medically important antibiotics presently used for growth promotion in food producing animals will be eliminated and there will be veterinary oversight of such antibiotics when used for treatment, control or prevention of disease. This change in a long standing practice will require that all of those involved at any level be informed of the changes.

This will not be a quick fix. Some farmers, veterinarians and feed dealers may not stay abreast of what is going on in the cutting edge of the industry. To address this potential concern the FDA will be developing a plan to insure that all potentially involved parties are informed of the mandated changes.

Another issue that must be addressed is the need to bring livestock producers and veterinarians up to speed on that which now constitutes the acceptable use of antibiotics. This new usage has been given the name, “stewardship of antibiotics in animals”. Veterinary colleges may be required to revise some of their course materials in order that future graduates are fully in tune with new treatment protocols. Both the FDA and the USDA will be developing new guidelines to insure that all involved are fully aware of their new responsibilities. Many will find themselves somewhat confused as they work their way through regulations that are crystal clear to the bureaucrats who wrote them but murky to those in the trenches.

A program will be developed to monitor the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. Within five years the FDA, the USDA and the industry will evaluate and report on the total sales of antibiotics in animal agriculture and the types and prevalence of antibiotic-resistance among selected foodborne pathogens and commensals isolated from retail meat and farm animals. The latter group are those organisms which exist in a given environment without doing harm. A baseline for the use of antibiotics will be developed using the sales of antibiotics from 2009 through 2013. The present plan calls for a study to look at production practices at selected points in the food chain to determine whether certain antibiotic use practices in food production facilitate the development of resistance. At this time the National Animal Health Monitoring System collects voluntary on-farm use information but there is need for increased on-farm antibiotic use data so the USDA will be developing a plan to increase monitoring. On farm sampling will continue to be voluntary.

In the face of increased antibiotic resistance there is an urgent need for new antibiotics, vaccines and other therapeutic measure to combat disease. For reasons that remain somewhat unclear the development of new antibiotics has slowed to a snail’s pace in recent years. The large pharmaceutical companies have scaled back on their research and development creating a huge void in the creation of new antibiotics. It has fallen on smaller companies to take up the slack and their research activities are often limited by inadequate funding and facilities. The Federal Government has stepped into the picture offering grants and support to assist these smaller innovators. The great likelihood is that one or more of these innovators will come up with a new class of yet to be defined antimicrobials that will supplement or replace antibiotics as we now know them. At this time there are so-called biopharmaceutical incubators that allow academics and independent start-ups the opportunity to brainstorm among themselves to hopefully come up with ideas that may change current treatment and preventative programs.

At this time there is an increasing movement towards the “One Medicine’ concept where all health care providers interact and move towards a common goal. All animals, two legged and four legged, often interact at some level and sharing of information becomes increasingly important as the planet continues to shrink and especially in the face of a disease that many species share in common. Response times, isolation protocols and treatment programs need to be in place to insure maximum effectiveness in times of extreme urgency. Data collection in all aspects of a disease outbreak needs to be complete, accurate and swift making it critical that all members of the health care network are working together. In this era of instant communication a major obstacle has been overcome.There are in place a number of systems that monitor bacterial resistance and they can provide almost instant information about a suspect case anywhere in the world. Knowing what not to do becomes almost as important as what to do.

Today there are few, if any, disease outbreaks in which one country can stand alone in resolving problems that are of universal importance. Effectively combating antibiotic resistance throughout the globe will require government, industry, academia and the human and animal health sectors working together. The global community has limited tools to address this global threat due to the critical lack of data on the magnitude, epidemiology and economic impact of antibiotic resistance, as well as the lack of diagnostic and therapeutic options. It is important that in the face of an outbreak in one part of the world that it be rapidly detected, diagnosed and contained at the point of emergence. Many organizations exist worldwide that are focused on this problem.

Everyone involved in animal agriculture at any level should be aware of this emerging problem and the threat it poses to both humans and animals. Funding to support all of the many levels of research will be necessary to find all of the answers lies in the hands of our representatives in Washington. If this problem affects you in any way contact your person in Washington and let him/her know of your concerns.

Grazing a variety of species for a specialty market

CE-MR-2-Grazin-Angus71481by Sally Colby

When Dan and Susan Gibson purchased a farm in Hudson, NY, it wasn’t their intent to operate it as a working farm.

“We weren’t farmers, said their son Keith Gibson. “We used it as a place to ride our four-wheelers.” The family started to attend livestock auctions, and eventually purchased cattle. “If you have five animals, it’s fun. If you have 10, it’s still fun. If you have 20, it’s work, and if there are 20, we figured we’d better make it 100 and do something with them.”

Grazin’ Angus Acres started as a seedstock operation, with the goal of developing purebred cattle with the best possible genetics. The home farm includes 450 acres, but the family works a total of 1,500 acres to ensure sufficient baleage and hay for the herd. Gibson relates that the seedstock operation wasn’t all that profitable, and when a family friend visited the farm and offered to purchase a beef animal that had been raised solely on grass, their thinking — and farm dynamic — changed.

After doing some research, the family switched their operation to strictly grass-fed. The Gibsons had built a herd with superior genetics for marbling, so the main change was to achieve that marbling on grass alone. The Gibsons culled and retained the healthiest females that successfully raised calves on grass. They paid close attention to which calves thrived and continued to grow on grass, and kept the best bull calves to use as herd sires for the 120 cows.

Although the seedstock herd was bred via A.I. for two calving periods, that has changed. “We were calving twice a year with the seedstock herd,” said Gibson. “We started out calving twice a year with the grass-fed, but about three years ago, we switched to one big calving period in spring.”

Gibson’s goal is to have all the calves on the ground before it gets too hot, then the youngsters have all summer to accompany the cows in rotational grazing. “The calves aren’t leaving the farm until they’re fully finished,” he said, “so when they get the hang of grazing with mom, it makes it a lot easier the next year when they’re weaned.”

Grazing season begins in early May and goes through October. Although moving cattle onto fresh grazing is dependent on weather and grass growth, the goal is for cows to repeat the grazing rotation every 14 days. “At the home farm, we have seven large continuous pastures that are a circuit around the entire farm,” said Gibson. “We use single-strand polywire to cordon off where we want them for that day.”

Throughout winter, cattle are fed baleage. “We used to use haylage, but last year we transitioned to only baleage,” said Gibson, adding that they make their own baleage and dry hay. “It’s really expensive to have custom work done, and it’s a scheduling nightmare. But the most important reason is that the cows do better with a longer strand of grass in baleage, so we do all baleage and dry hay.”

Pasture species include timothy, brome, red clover, white clover and three varieties of high-carbohydrate, high-sugar ryegrass. The rotation begins with cattle, then about three days after the cattle have been in a paddock, 800 laying hens go through. Gibson explains the hens consume the fly larvae in cattle manure. “The chickens also distribute the cow manure,” he said. “We don’t have to use a drag. The chickens leave behind their own nitrogen-rich droppings, and we can see a definite green-up after they go through.”

In addition to the laying hens, Grazin’ Angus Acres raises 1,000 meat birds in hoop houses that are moved to fresh grass every morning. “We can see a line of fertilization moving across the pasture,” said Gibson, adding that the farm has no need to use additional soil amendments. “We can see the stripes left by the hoop houses. It’s a lot of work but it pays off.”

While most beef cattle are processed at around 15 months, it takes about two and one half years to achieve the same amount of marbling in grass-fed animals. The family has established several outlets for finished meat products, including their own two restaurants — one in Hudson, NY, and one in the Tribeca section of New York City.

“We supply eggs, poultry and beef,” he said, “and we have a small herd of grass-fed Jerseys for dairy. The dairy farm is just over 40 acres with several large pastures, and the cows are rotated regularly after milking.” The dairy produces about 100 gallons/week during the off season, and about 300 to 400 gallons/week during the grazing season. The family has established a successful niche market for cream line milk, some of which goes to their restaurants, and they also make cheeses.

Although Gibson enjoys working with the beef herd, his favorite animals on the farm are the Tamworth pigs. The five sows and one boar are all kept on pasture, with individual paddocks for each sow at farrowing time. For the rest of the year, pigs rotate among the six pastures. Gibson says Tamworth pigs do well on grass, which cuts down on feed costs, and they also eat garden vegetables. Pigs are weaned at eight weeks, spend seven months on pasture, and are processed at 225 pounds.

Gibson’s parents are active on the farm throughout the year. Susan works at the Hudson restaurant, and also cares for the organic garden that supplies the restaurants. Dan acts as a facilitator, working to coordinate farm and product marketing along with land activities.

To learn more about Grazin’ Angus Acres, visit www.grazinburger.com

New York Farm Bureau 2015 Feast East promotes Ag education

CE-MR-2-FB-Feast11by Elizabeth A. Tomlin

A large turnout of folks attended New York Farm Bureau’s Feast East, which benefits agricultural education in New York State.

“Your support validates your understanding of the importance of agricultural education for consumers of all ages,” said New York Farm Bureau Foundation BOD Chairman/NYFB President Dean Norton in his message. “We must eliminate misconceptions and misinformation to allow agriculture to function effectively and efficiently, which benefits each and every one of us in our businesses and personal lives each and every day.”

Each year the Foundation hosts two fund-raising “Feasts”, one “East” and one “West”.

Sandra Prokop, Managing Director for the Foundation, spoke to attendees about ongoing projects and promotions of the Ag industry in schools, at fairs and through family farm events. A ‘Foundation Ag Fact’ school calendar has been distributed to more than 3,500 third-grade classrooms, where each day a fact is read to the students providing a “steady enhancement of the students’ knowledge” of the Ag industry.

Prokop also reported that more than 19,000 placemats have been developed through sponsors and grants, and distributed to schools. The placemats were “piloted” in several areas of New York State. “The pilot was extremely successful! They have information on them about agriculture and are a fun way for people to learn.”

The “Ag Master Kiosk Project” is also going strong through support of sponsors. This project uses an interactive game that presents visuals and facts in a 5 or 10 minute question and answer game format, in a variety of agricultural topics. “It’s a fun game,” said Prokop. “And people are coming away having learned something.” Prokop said the Kiosk is being continually updated so it doesn’t become “stale” and is available on different levels for different age groups.

Many other educational projects are taking place around New York State through the Foundation, including community programs, adopt-a-calf, orchard-to-table and field-to-fork programs and others.

Videos about agriculture have also been developed.

Prokop reported the NYFB Foundation for Agricultural Education, Inc. has received funding from the American Agriculturist Foundation, Inc. supporting the Foundation’s newest “pilot” program; “Food & Farm Experience,” which is being launched this year.

This is an annual, two-day, in-depth program, which will target a different audience each year, educating them on the production of different crops, with on-farm experiences.

“We are very excited to be able to put together the Food and Farm Experience,” remarked Prokop. “The funding from the American Agriculturist Foundation, allows us to plan and launch the program during its inaugural year.”

Prokop says for the Oct. 16-17 initial event, the invited attendees will be specifically chosen from the media. “Future attendees will come from other food influential business sectors. These could include high school guidance counselors, chefs, restaurateurs, packing/manufacturing industry leaders and many more.”

Applications are now being accepted and reviewed for participation in the Farm & Food Experience.

“As agriculture is essential to our lives, so is education essential to the future life of agriculture!” said Prokop.

For more information contact Prokop at SProkop@NYFB.org .