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Cattle Geneticist and Active Spokesperson for Ag

Alison Van Eenennaam is one of agriculture’s leading voices of reason and persuasion in support of good science in food production. 

The personable and articulate cattle geneticist from the University of California-Davis can talk about genetic engineering of animals or GMO corn and soybeans,  and make nearly everyone believe and trust her. Such a trait is sorely lacking in many of our industry experts.

She spoke at the Cattle Industry Convention about the future of genetically engineered (GE) animals. The only GE animal that has been approved is AquaAdvantage Salmon, granted FDA approval last November but not yet actively grown in the U.S. It can reach market size in 16 to 18 months (rather than the normal 30) and do it on 20% less feed. 

The GE salmon was actually developed 25 years ago, Van Eenennaam says, and has been fighting its way through the regulatory process ever since. That journey has cost at least $85 million, according to the company that developed it, AquaBounty Technologies (aquabounty.com). Lawsuits still threaten to stop it from proceeding commercially. 

“All the genetic engineering science was done 25 years ago, and it’s just been perpetuating from generation to generation of the salmon since then, waiting for commercial approval,” she says. “To me, at this point, it’s just animal breeding.”

Van Eenennaam says the newest wave of animal genetic engineering involves not a gene transfer process, but rather a technique that is often called knock-out technology. A single gene is modified  (or knocked out) to change how an animal performs and what it passes to offspring. It might add extra muscling, make cows hornless, or help pigs resist disease. 

While it’s controversial to some, Van Eenennaam questions whether gene editing is really the same as GMO, where a gene from one species is transferred to another. 

“It’s estimated we lose about 20% of animal production to disease. What if these new technologies can change that and maybe provide an alternative to antibiotics?” she asks.

Van Eenennaam, a native Australian, has found many avenues to become an active spokesperson to the general public about agricultural science. “It’s not always just about the science. It’s more about earning trust. People want to know if your message is believable, or if you are bought off by someone. My goal is to get their trust.”

She shared a story at the 2016 Cattle Convention to make her point. A year earlier, Van Eenennaam was invited to appear on a TV debate show in New York called Intelligence Squared. It pits two advocates, one on each side of a controversial issue, against one another. They both have a chance to sway a live audience, with the results displayed both before and after the debate. 

Van Eenennaam’s episode was about genetically modified food, and she represented the positive and safe role against other panelists who opposed it.

In her closing statement, she told a story about her own family at a holiday meal and the safety they felt in consuming food that was a product of modern, science-based agriculture. 

At the beginning of the show, the New York audience was about evenly split on GMOs: 30% for, 32% against, 38% undecided. By the end of the show, the same audience was 60% for, 31% against, and 9% undecided. 

Her believability resonated with the undecided viewers and won – at least for one day.

Q&A with Alison Van Eenennaam

SF: Is the gene-editing technology regulated by government?

AVE: That’s still unclear. If we edit a gene but have no transfer of a new gene, should that be regulated? You could argue that there is no new protein introduced, so no regulation is needed. 

SF: It took more than 20 years to introduce the GE salmon. Is that a long time or a short time to study something for human food?

AVE: I suppose we should look at that case by case. We have had 20 years of a genetically engineered papaya. There has been no indication of any allergens that would make it unsafe. It all has to be looked at in the regulatory process, but I would ask, after 20 years with no problems, what is the risk?

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