As biotech crops have become widely grown around the world the safety of eating products from livestock and poultry fed biotech crops has been an issue. While supporters of biotech crops may think the issue is settled, it remains unsettled in the minds of many people and is a critical issue in international trade. The Council for Agricultural Research and Technology (CAST) recently released a report “Safety of Meat, Milk, and Eggs from Animals Fed Crops Derived from Modern Biotechnology” that provides a good overview of recent research. The report is based on work supported by the United States Department of Agriculture and Iowa State University.

CAST acknowledged the trade policy implications by creating a seven member task force, with five members from outside the U.S. Richard Phipps of the School of Agriculture, Development and Policy, University of Reading, in the United Kingdom served as the Chair. Ralf Einspanier of the Free University in Berlin, Germany and Marjorie Faust, ABS Global, Inc., DeForest, Wisconsin were the authors. The report had four reviews: Andrew Chesson of the University of Aberdeen, United Kingdom; Gerhard Flachowsky of the Federal Agricultural Research Center, Braunschweig, Germany; Marilia Regini Nutti of Embrapa Food Technology, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and William Price, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Rockville, Maryland.

The authors begin by citing research that people get one-sixth of their energy and one-third of their protein from animal sources. As per capita incomes continue to rise those percentages will increase. According to the International Society for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) the land area used for biotech crops has increased rapidly from 4 million acres in the first year of commercialization in 1996 to 222 million acres in 2005, 6 percent of the world’s 3.7 billion acres of cultivable land. Biotech varieties now account for 60 percent of the global acres of soybeans, 24 percent for corn, 11 percent for cotton and 5 percent for canola.

The regulatory framework for biotech crops is based on two factors: are the biotech crops different from traditional crops and are animals that eat biotech crops and the products from them the same as those who do not. The authors note, “Because risk factors are unique for given crops and for introduced traits, the specific analyses and comparisons are determined on a case-by-case basis.” Government regulators and consumers assume that conventional crops are safe because of their history of safe use. This has given rise to the concept of substantial equivalence (or “not materially different” in the U.S.) to determine whether the biotech crops are as safe as traditionally bred crops. This has been accepted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the 173 country group created by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to develop food standards, codes of practice, guidelines and other recommendations to protect the health of consumers and ensure fair practices in trade.

The authors state, “For most conventional feed crops, the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) has identified the key nutrients, antinutritive factors, and natural plant toxicants that are important for human and animal nutrition and safety.” Recent studies have shown that biotech crops are compositionally equivalent to the conventionally bred controls. This addresses one of the arguments against biotech crops that they are nutritionally deficient compared to conventionally bred crops.

Feeding trials have shown that compositional equivalence is a good indicator of nutritional equivalence. Measurements in these studies included feed intake, nutrient digestion, animal performance, and animal health. The authors explain that multi-generational studies have been done on quail and laying hens with no influence on health and performance or on meat and eggs. The authors concluded “these results indicate that for compositionally equivalent biotechnology-derived crops, routine-feeding studies with target species generally add little to safety and nutritional assessments.”

The report provides details about “DNA and protein digestion by livestock, because these represent the novel constituents in biotechnology-derived crops.” Research shows that, “Under normal conditions in both ruminants and monogastrics, digestible proteins are broken down in the digestive tract and absorbed as free amino acids (mostly) and di- and tripeptides.” Some researchers have reported “minute amounts of intact ingested proteins and DNA in blood samples from humans and animals.” Studies with livestock and poultry have not found the presence of transgenic genes in products and tissues from farm animals. A just published 2006 study reported detecting very small fragments of transgenes in milk, but they were too small to have any integrity or functionality. The authors concluded, “There is still no scientific evidence to suggest that meat, milk, and eggs derived from animals receiving biotechnology-derived crops are anything other than as safe as those derived from animals fed conventional crops.”

The report has four recommendations: 1) continue using the case-by-case assessment approach for addressing identified risks, 2) assess risks, as opposed to hazards, using science-based approaches to maintain a balance between making reasonable risk assessments and imposing excessive regulatory burdens, 3) provide adequate funding to regulatory agencies, and 4) increase significantly public outreach and dialogue about biotechnology-derived crops and their benefits and risks.

As food safety become more important in trade policy, groups like CAST will need to continue to translate scientific research about biotech crops into useable information for policy decision makers. Trade policy cannot go where politicians and their constituents are not comfortable with the science.