Most of the corn and soybean that make up a modern horse's diet are genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Corn and soybean GMOs were introduced in 1997. By 2014, 93 percent of corn, 94 percent of soybean, and 95 percent of sugar beets—staples in horse feed—produced in the United States were genetically modified. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture also approved introduction of genetically modified alfalfa.
GMO crops are plants whose DNA has been manipulated to resist damage by insects, herbicides, and viruses. Scientists either modify the plant's own DNA or insert genes from another organism. Genetic modification increases crop yields by creating hardier plants. Some manipulation increases a plant's nutritional value or reduces toxins in the plant. Corn, soybean, and sugar beets are among GMO crops that benefit from increased nutritional value. GMO potatoes for human consumption contain less acrylamide, a probable human carcinogen released by non-GMO potatoes when they are fried at high temperature.
Papaya is the GMO success story most cited by experts. In the early 1990s, half the Hawaiian papaya crop was wiped out by ringspot virus. Scientists introduced genes from the ringspot virus into papayas, which, in essence, vaccinated the plants against the disease.
GMO alfalfa enables better weed control, which reduces toxic weeds, such as fiddleneck, in the crop. Repeated exposure to fiddleneck causes death from chronic liver failure in horses and cattle. Without genetic engineering, farmers must use powerful chemical herbicides to kill toxic weeds.
A new method for genetic engineering of soybean promises to improve its digestibility, and therefore, feed efficiency.
Genes from the natural pesticide Bacillus thuringiensis are incorporated into genetically modified (GMO) corn to reduce the need for insecticides. A research product at the University of Kentucky aims to use B. thuringiensis as a novel dewormer for horses because of its safety.
The Anti-GMO Movement
Anti-GMO activists would have you believe that consumption of GMOs is harmful because they are “Frankenplants” with hidden, unknown dangers. They claim GMO plants require farmers to use more chemicals in their production. Economically, they maintain that GMOs benefit Big Farma and rob local farmers.
“There have now been over 100 billion animals who have consumed [GMO feed] in the United States for the last almost 20 years, and we haven't seen anything,” said Alison Van Eenennaam, Ph.D., professor of Animal Genomics and Biotechnology at the University of California-Davis. “So at what stage do we say, ‘I think the data suggests that there is nothing going on here from a health perspective?' ”
Van Eenennaam, a cooperative extension specialist, said horse owners should not be concerned that GMO products in feed will hurt their horses.
“There are hundreds of studies that have shown that it's DNA, and DNA doesn't hurt you,” she said. “We eat it every day, and it's not magically poison just because it's genetically engineered. The data couldn't be more solid on that.”
Van Eenennaam said 10 billion farmers worldwide are producing GMO crops because of their increased yield and reduced need for chemical pesticides, herbicides, and virus control.
“Unfortunately, people who are opposed to it tend to shout louder than what the science shows,” she added. “So everybody gets an idea that [GMOs] are somehow dangerous and that they haven't had any benefits and that there are no studies. And that's just patently wrong in terms of what the data says.”
Leading British activist Mark Lynas, who some credit with starting the anti-GMO movement, stunned followers in 2013 when he reversed his stance on GMOs. In an address before the Oxford Farming Conference, he said his closer review of the science behind GMOs had changed his mind.
“I discovered that, one by one, my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths. … I'd assumed that GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis for example; GM just moves a couple of genes, whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial and error way. But what about mixing genes between unrelated species? The fish and the tomato? Turns out viruses do that all the time, as do plants and insects and even us—it's called gene flow.”
Cost of Non-GMO Feed
Some small, local feed mills offer non-GMO, boutique horse feeds, but at significantly higher cost. For large, commercial feed producers, this would not be a viable option.
Martin Adams, Ph.D., equine nutritionist for national brand Southern States, which markets the Triple Crown horse feed line, blogged that there is no inexpensive way for Southern States to produce non-GMO horse feed.
“While specific non-GMO grains or ingredients could be purchased,” he wrote, “because there are such small amounts available and the cost of production is greater, the cost would be prohibitive to use these products in commercial manufactured horse feeds with the current demand situation.”
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