Since genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were first invented in the 1970s, genetic engineering has taken off. In the food and agriculture industries, genetically modified crops dominate many global markets, particularly in the United States where upwards of 90 percent of soy, corn, and certain types of cotton are genetically modified to maximize their output.
GMO chickens, on the other hand, have been subjected to another kind of genetic modification through years of selective breeding, a process that has accelerated rapidly over the past hundred years. This process has produced serious health deficiencies in commercial chickens, whose welfare suffers as a consequence.
What Is GMO Meat?
No meat available for purchase comes from an animal who has been “genetically modified” in the commonly held sense of the phrase. If any commercially available meat is labeled GMO or non-GMO, it refers to whether or not the animal was fed GMO crops.
However, scientists have been experimenting with genetically modified animals for a long time, with the hope of introducing them into the food system. Some examples of GMO animals include pigs engineered to have healthy Omega 3s in their flesh, salmon with DNA from an eel that allows them to grow twice as fast, and goats who produce milk containing antibacterial proteins that can prevent diarrhea.
Scientists do have the ability to tweak an animal’s existing genes, leading to a series of “useful” mutations, sort of like an accelerated selective breeding process. Examples include tweaking genes to breed hornless cattle, which would end the painful practice of dehorning. Advancements in genetic engineering also have the potential to reduce the suffering of animals used in medical experiments. Additionally, genetic engineering technology could reduce the methane output of cattle, as well as making livestock more resistant to disease.
However, there are ethical questions around the use of genetic engineering on animals. For example, consider a situation where farmed animals’ contribution to greenhouse gasses was significantly reduced due to genetic modification. This would be great news from an emissions standpoint but could lead to a situation where many more animals were therefore raised, at the expense of deforestation and animal welfare. That said, the potential of this technology remains impressive, if slightly intimidating.
What Is GMO Egg?
GMO eggs are not available for purchase, although the world of science is engaging with them in surprising ways. Researchers at Charles Stuart University, Australia attempted to insert a green fluorescent protein from jellyfish into the sex chromosome of chickens. This would theoretically allow a scanner to identify which eggs are male or female at an early stage of incubation and avoid the mass gassing and live-blending of male chicks, which remain standard practice in the egg industry.
Alternatively, GMO eggs could be beneficial to human health. Researchers have genetically modified chickens to lay eggs that contain drugs useful for combatting arthritis and certain cancers. This mode of production is cheaper than creating the drugs on their own, but the use of animals as a means of delivery immediately raises concern over animal welfare. If the pharmaceutical industry expanded its profits by creating drugs through egg-laying hens, then this would simply create more demand for chickens in an egg industry that is already riddled with disease.
Are Chickens Genetically Modified?
Chickens are not “genetically modified” in the way that term is commonly understood. That is to say that the industrially farmed chickens being raised for meat today have not been subject to gene transfers, DNA editing, or splicing in a lab. However, their genes have been modified in a broad sense through the process of selective breeding.
Selective breeding is the process by which people choose to breed animals with the most desirable traits, like the capacity to lay more eggs or have more body mass. This process benefits farmers’ bottom line, creating populations of animals with profitable characteristics. The chickens used in the animal industry of today are extreme examples of this process. Their welfare has been jeopardized in the pursuit of profit.
Firstly are the broiler chickens, who in the last century alone have quadrupled in size, from weighing under 1kg each to over 4kg today. This is because modern broiler chickens have mutations in their TBC1D1 gene, which slows their metabolism and allows the chickens to gain an enormous amount of weight. The extra weight is too much for many chickens to bear, and as many as 19 percent of broiler chickens suffer from moderate to severe lameness. In addition to lameness, GMO chickens suffer from heart failures like sudden death syndrome and ascites.
Battery chickens, who lay eggs, have a mutation of their TSHR gene. In the wild, this gene associates reproduction with the length of days and thus helps chickens confine breeding to a specific season or time of the year. The TSHR mutation disables this gene, allowing hens to lay eggs continuously. For reference, wild jungle fowl, the chicken’s ancestor, lay twelve eggs a year; the modern layer will produce as many as three hundred. This leads to severe calcium deficiency in chickens, making their bones frail and brittle. Between 3 and 17 percent of all laying hens have broken bones in the U.S. due to this issue.
Which Ingredients in Chicken Feed Are Typically Genetically Modified?
Soy and corn are the primary components of chicken feed, and in the U.S. over 90 percent of these crops are genetically modified ingredients in animal feed. There is at present no evidence to suggest that using GMO feed directly impacts the health of chickens, but research is ongoing.
What Is Non-GMO Chicken Feed?
Chicken feeds are normally made from a combination of cereals and oilseeds. Commonly this means corn and soy, although barley, sorghum, and canola are also ingredients in non-GMO chicken feed. This special type of feed is grown from plants that have not been genetically engineered.
Who Benefits From GMO?
Hypothetically, everyone could benefit from GMOs, with GMO crops’ potential resilience to disease and pesticides, with bigger crop yields in smaller amounts of land. It has even been suggested as a solution to world hunger. However, GMO seed production is dominated by a handful of private companies, like Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) which holds 15 percent of the global genetically modified seed market and supplies many different players in the agriculture industry.
The company also holds a patent on glyphosate-resistant seeds, which allow farmers to kill weeds with the pesticide glyphosate without damaging their crops. However, Monsanto owns 80 percent of the glyphosate market in the U.S., and because it is such a wealthy company, Monsanto has the resources to purchase smaller companies in the process of developing its products. Smaller farmers who seek to compete with Monsanto are forced out, and many of them have even accused the company of effectively having a monopoly over the GMO crop industry.
Ultimately, none of this speaks to the efficacy of GMO technology, which may well be revolutionary in its own right. Yet the advantages and profits produced by genetically modified crops are reaped by large corporations, often at the expense of smaller farms. As long as it is exclusively controlled by large private companies, genetically engineering technology will have a limited positive effect. More beneficial types of agriculture, which also reduce poverty, may be more promising and egalitarian in their impact.
Which Countries Use The Most GMOs?
The countries which use the most GMOs are the U.S., Brazil, and Argentina, with Canada and India not too far behind. The U.S. and Brazil are clear global leaders with 71.5 million hectares and 52.8 million hectares of land respectively dedicated to the growth of GMO plants. As for its use, the majority of GMO plants are still used in animal feed, but the regular American consumer still consumes GMOs through a variety of common household foods.
Which Countries Have Banned GMOs?
Many European countries have banned GMOs, including major economies like France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and the Netherlands. In Asia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kyrgyzstan, and Bhutan have also banned the use of GMOs, as have Peru, Ecuador, and Belize. GMOs are generally banned in Africa, while South Africa and Nigeria, two of the continent’s major economies, and Burkina Faso and Sudan are exceptions. In the U.S., only a few select counties of California have banned the use of genetically modified crops.
Should GMO Food Be Labeled As Such?
There has been a lot of controversy over the issue of GMO labeling, which has now become mandatory for products with over 5 percent GMO contents in the U.S. GMO advocates and farmers claim that the new labeling singles out their produce unfairly; that by labeling it as “GMO” it implies something negative about their foods, which to date have not been proven to be less healthy or more harmful for human consumption than conventional crops.
However, in terms of consumer awareness and consent, there is a strong argument for labeling GMO foods as such. It may be the case that sectors of the general public have an unfounded bias against GMOs, although there are legitimate, good-faith, and plausible concerns about them, which we will discuss below.
What Are the Disadvantages of GMOs?
Evaluating the benefits and disadvantages of GMOs is a tricky task, especially because theory and practice seem to play out differently. There are theoretically huge benefits to GMO technology, yet these have historically been underwhelming in practice, or not manifested at all. Take, for example, the creation of glyphosate-resistant crops, which has allowed farmers to use glyphosate on their farms to kill weeds while leaving the crop undamaged. This is ostensibly good because glyphosate is thought to be a less toxic pesticide than most, but the WHO has revealed that the pesticide is likely a carcinogen, and therefore harmful for human consumption.
Bayer, the corporation that now owns Monsanto, which produces the popular glyphosate weed-killer Round-Up has had to pay billions in damages in cancer lawsuits related to their product. The world’s reliance on glyphosate has also led to a rise of glyphosate-resistant weeds, which in turn has led to more glyphosate being used or other, more toxic pesticides returning to use. This has the potential to damage us and our environment by leaching into soils and watercourses and by appearing in our food.
There is also the question of fairness when it comes to other farmers, mainly because of outcrossing. Outcrossing is a phenomenon whereby seeds from GMO crops can cross-pollinate into wild or conventional crops, which could result in organic farmers losing their organic certification. There is further resistance to the very idea that seeds can be patented in the first place. Previously, this technology was in the public domain. It is argued that this provides an unfair advantage for GMO farmers and seed producers.
Another concern about GMOs is how much money is poured into them, while potentially superior alternatives languish in development. There is excellent evidence that smallholding agriculture based on rotating crops is better for both poverty reduction, one of the supposed advantages of GMO crops in the developing world, and for improving ecological health.
It may therefore be the case that GMO crops, at least as they have appeared so far, have acted as “good faith” for the agribusiness industry as it tries to quell public concerns about the climate crisis. But if GMO crops are not actually environmentally friendly then this reasoning doesn’t work, especially as a huge amount of these crops are grown in the form of soy and corn to feed animals. Whether or not crops are GMO, the amount of land and water is unsustainable. Other solutions, including the move towards a plant-based diet, offer more promising outcomes.
What Is The Difference Between GMO-Free And Non-GMO?
GMO-Free indicates that a product that is free of GMOs. None of the raw materials in these products are genetically modified, and it will test negative for genetically modified protein or DNA, meaning it has no traces of GMOs in it whatsoever.
Non-GMO, on the other hand, does not connote the same level of freedom from GMOs. Non-GMO means that the product is not derived from genetically modified sources, but does not assure that there is zero contamination from GMO plants. As outcrossing can affect non-GMO farms, there can be trace levels of GMO in otherwise traditional breeds of crops.
The Road Ahead
Genetic engineering is a reality of modern farming. For chickens, the welfare consequences have been devastating. We have created non-functional creatures, who are perennially plagued with pain, whose sole purpose is to produce and die. This example shows us the danger of GMO technology. It may appear to have great benefits, but it will certainly come with costs, some of which may be too hard to bear.
Although there are many potential boons that GMOs could bring, these have not yet fully materialized. The benefits are reaped by private companies, and GMOs are farmed in large monocultures that continue to use toxic pesticides. Alternatively, there is a strong case for more fundamental revisions in the ways we farm, from our exploitation of animals and soils to our use and abuse of pesticides and the land. Addressing these concerns may provide more tangible and more long-lasting benefits to humanity and our planet.
UK based writer opposed to the unnecessary suffering of all beings. Dissecting our treatment of animals in history, philosophy and culture. Founder of The Liberator online magazine.