|What Crop Traits are Genetically Engineered (or GMO)?|
|Joe Lawrence, Cornell PRO-DAIRY|
|A great deal of discussion continues on potential markets for “GMO Free” crops and products, such as milk, from animals fed these crops.
GMO is the commonly used term for a genetically modified organism, and is really being misused in this context. In reality many things in agriculture are genetically modified compared to its ancestors. Humans have used selection criteria to propagate crops that better fit their needs for thousands of years. In the last century this has been accelerated by what are now commonly referred to as conventional plant breeding techniques.
When we hear terms such as GMO free corn or GMO free milk the groups looking for these products are actually referring to genetically engineered (GE) crops. The definition of genetic engineering is “the deliberate modification of the characteristics of an organism by manipulating its genetic material.” The primary examples of this in row crops are herbicide tolerant crops and crops with traits that protect them from certain insect pest, notably the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) trait.
As producers are asked to consider shifting production to “GMO Free” and the potential price incentives attached to that shift there are a number of questions surrounding what it means to be “GMO Free.”
Here we will address a few areas of question.
What traits are derived from genetic engineering?
Table 1 provides a list of crop traits, which ones are derived from genetic engineering and which ones are derived from natural breeding.
How do conventional varieties/hybrids compare in yield and production cost?
It is difficult to find clear data on this question. The yield potential of conventional varieties and hybrids is on par with their genetically engineered counterparts. However, the cost, management considerations and potential risk for problems during the growing season can vary widely and produce scenarios that can favor either convention or GE crops.
What is GMO contamination?
GMO contamination refers to the fact that there is cross pollination of crops and in some cases a GE plant will pollinate a conventional plant. This contamination can be found in seed used for planting as seed production is often concentrated to certain regions and there are likely to be conventional and GE seed produced in these areas.
In the case of “GMO free” milk, guidelines are being developed referring to the total amount of contamination in the total ration fed to the dairy herd. In this case the producer needs to account for potential contamination from all feed ingredients from homegrown forages to purchased grains and other additives. The producer assumes a great deal of risk in assuring the final product remains under defined thresholds for contamination. When purchasing seed for planting or feed ingredients it will be important to verify with the supplier if they have tested their products and what level of contamination has been found.