Dr. Troy Ott is Associate Director of the Huck Institutes of Life Sciences at Penn State’s main campus in State College. As a reproductive biologist, he studies dairy cow fertility. “I’m going to give you sort of a history lesson…because things are moving fast, and whenever things move fast people tend to get alarmed by that, and they get caught off-guard.”
The Dairy Summit program, held in Lancaster, PA the second week in February, described Ott’s agenda as explaining how and why GMOs have been used and their effect on agricultural production, describing the basics of how organisms are modified, and offering his perspective on a future enabled by modern technology. “Agriculture has come a long way in the last 70 years,” says Ott. “We have seen tremendous advancements in technology which has improved our ability to produce food in a way that we never could imagine.
“Back in 1940, there were 27 million dairy cows in the United States. Today we have a third of that number — nine million. Yet we are producing two-thirds more milk. We went from spending about 50 percent of our disposable income a hundred years ago to less than 10 percent of our disposable income.” And Ott learned last year we now spend more money eating out than we spend on food at home. What have we done with the extra money? For one thing, we’ve developed technologies in our pockets — cell phones that have more computing power than the original space missions. Ott says we have also developed the ability to buy insurance, to afford healthcare, and to put children through college. GMOs are part of the technology which will carry us forward. As people get wealthier, they want to include more high quality protein in their diet. Such high quality protein tends to involve milk and meat.
One overarching question is “can we feed a growing world population and at the same time reduce the environmental impact of farming?” Scientists have always studied the natural world. Referencing genetics, Ott says, “we learned that the story of life is written in these four letters — A, C, G and T. Whether you’re an apple or an orangutan, if I sequence your DNA, it will be made up of repeating units of ACGT. Those letters are arranged in sentences, and each sentence would be a gene that codes for a specific trait — milk production, disease resistance, muscle growth, etc. In nature, organisms cut, copy and paste DNA and move it around. We then knew that we could do that as well.” As understanding increased of the role DNA plays in these traits, it was discovered random mutations could occasionally result in a favorable outcome. Many crops have been created using mutation breeding. “You might be surprised to know that there are more than 1,600 crops we currently eat that were made with mutation breeding.”
Turning to wariness stemming from people’s collective concerns about GMOs, Ott cited fear of the unknown, we could lose control and what’s happening? Those are generally the fears Ott hears. But, he adds, “as we become more familiar with things we tend to accept those things more and more. We are hard-wired to be afraid…I’m here to tell you that one can be overly cautious.” In other words, what if we did not adopt new technologies, new medicines, or other things make our culture, society, and healthcare some of the best in the world? There is a cost to being too cautious.
Ott wanted to know, “Has anyone heard of the enviropig? This pig has been genetically engineered to express the enzyme phytase in its salivary glands. When this pig consumes plant-based diets, he can use phosphorous in the plants more efficiently. It also reduces phosphorous in the manure by about 50 percent.” However, these pigs do not exist anywhere on the hoof; they exist only as frozen embryos in a liquid nitrogen tank at this point, because when these were developed there was no regulatory path to bring them to production. That has been a stumbling block on the animal side for decades. The plant side is significantly ahead of the animal side.
That is one example of a GMO, albeit in regulatory limbo. Ott then showed a picture of a chicken which does not officially transmit bird flu. This particular chicken was developed by the same group who cloned Dolly the Sheep (born July 5, 1996). In 2016, there was a slaughter of 55 million poultry in the U.S. due to avian influenza. “Every year, scientists from the CDC are in Southeast Asia trying to find out what will be the next strain of influenza that’s going to follow the migration routes and bring flu to this country. With such GMO technology, we could slow down the spread of bird flu.”