Megan Brown sells beef from grass-fed cows, but the Butte County rancher’s choice is motivated more by the higher price she can get for organic beef than worries about the health consequences of eating meat from cows that ate genetically modified grain.
“GE (genetically modified) foods don’t freak me out at all,” said Brown, who works on her family cattle ranch. Brown has toured both organic farms at UC Davis and facilities run by Monsanto, an agricultural bioengineering company that sells genetically modified seeds.
“Each method has its pros and cons,” she said. “I think the majority of people don’t understand the technology behind GE, so they’re afraid of it.”
Her views are supported by a UC Davis study, released earlier this year, that reviewed research in the field and found genetically engineered animal feed poses no significant threat to humans who consume meat or dairy products from the animals.
The study, by UC Davis researcher Alison Van Eenennaam, sought to establish whether there was any scientific consensus on ill health effects of genetically modified feed on animals.
Van Eenennaam reviewed 100 previous studies on the use of genetically engineered feed. The study also looked at production trends in commercial livestock populations – both before and after the 1996 introduction of genetically modified feed, said Van Eenennaam, a specialist in animal genomics and biotechnology at UC Davis.
None of the studies suggested any health effects from genetically modified feed, said Van Eenennaam, a onetime Monsanto employee. Her review found that the genetic material and protein consumed by animals are broken down during digestion and as a result not found in milk, meat or eggs.
“These products are literally indistinguishable in every way from milk, meat and eggs from animals that have eaten equivalent non-GE feed,” Van Eenennaam said.
Some critics of genetically modified food criticized the study as incomplete. Michael Hansen, senior scientist with Consumers Union, said reviewing 29 years of data is problematic because livestock practices changed dramatically during that period.
“If you want to know whether genetically engineered crops have an adverse effect on animals’ health you need to do a controlled feeding study – where animals are kept the same way – with one group fed non-genetically engineered feed and the other fed genetically engineered feed,” Hansen said. “And the data from these studies are not from controlled studies.”
Genetically engineered foods have become a hot political issue. In 2012, Californians defeated Proposition 37, which would have required genetically engineered foods in California to be labeled as such. Voters in Oregon and Colorado defeated similar measures Tuesday.
Until 2013, there was no rule for GMO-free meat labeling. It was that year that Claire Herminjard worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service to set a standard for such labeling. As a result, Herminjard’s Mindful Meats brand became the first to get approval to use non-GMO labeling from the USDA for the meats she sells out of Sonoma and Marin counties.
Herminjard said she thinks the verdict on whether GMOs affect health or not is still out. “We think the science is still early on GMOs,” she said.
Even so, Herminjard said using GMO feed runs contrary to her belief in the benefits of organic farming. “Most of the feed crops that have been genetically engineered are engineered to withstand major pesticides, and that’s a system we do not support,” she said. “We believe in biodiversity and organic farming.”
Humans have manipulated the genes of plants and animals for centuries through selective breeding. But the introduction of genetically modified food dates to 1996, when Monsanto introduced genetically engineered soybeans.
Today such crops are widespread in the food chain – as feed for animals, produce at the grocery store and ingredients in processed food.
Use of genetically engineered feed is now pervasive. Crops, like corn, have been engineered to tolerate weedkillers such as Roundup, made by Monsanto, and to resist insect infestation.
Roughly 94 percent of soybeans and 90 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Between 2000 and 2011, it is estimated that 100 billion animals have consumed some level of GE feed, and few health effects have been quantified by any studies, genetic engineering proponents say.
For some ranchers and dairy operators, consumer preference is paramount – regardless of what scientists say.
“Many of my peers are cashing in on the paleo and grass-fed movements and finishing their beef on pasture, said Brown. Her approach, where cows are fed on pasture, allows her to sell her product as organic. “I get more for grass-finished beef,” she said.
To be labeled organic, cattle or dairy cows must either forage on pasture that is GMO-free or must eat GMO-free feed.
Typically, Brown gets $100 more for each head of cattle than she would if they ate conventional feed, although it takes longer for them to reach slaughtering size.
Since 2006 the Diamond W dairy ranch in Petaluma has been raising organic dairy cows, but it also has some non-organic cows as part of its 680-cow operation, said Dayna Ghirardelli, the operation’s compliance manager.
The non-organic milk cows are housed, grazed and kept separate from organic cows.
The impetus for going with organic feed practices and not with genetically engineered feed? It’s about market dynamics – not health fears.
“Price stability and premium was actually the primary reason for converting to organic,” Ghirardelli said. “Organic milk prices are less volatile than conventional milk market prices.”
Cattle rancher Steve Kopp is no purist when it comes to feed. Still, at his 70-acre Silver Springs Ranch in Martinez, his organic cattle forage across pastures.
“Cattle can be raised properly on grain,” Kopp said. “And we have talked about using genetically engineered feed in the past, but I see our clientele as our friends and family and we want them to have the best meat possible.”
A few studies have concluded that genetically engineered food can cause health problems in animals. Some have been vilified by the scientific community, such as a 2012 study by French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini. That study, published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, found that rats fed genetically modified corn grew tumors.
The scientific community widely criticized the study for using a type of rat susceptible to tumor growth. The research was withdrawn a year later and republished in a less prestigious science journal.
Some scientists claim research that finds any effect of genetically engineered food is quickly vilified or put through uncharacteristic scrutiny, and that lack of labeling makes it difficult to study the effect of GMO food on humans.
Americans, in general, know little about whether the food they eat is genetically modified. A 2013 nationwide survey by Rutgers University found that 54 percent of respondents know little or nothing at all about genetically modified foods. A quarter said they had never heard of them.