KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI, US — The potential costs of increasing use of feed produced free from genetically modified (GM) ingredients would butt up against competing demands of rising food prices, greenhouse gas concerns and other environmental and sustainability goals, according to a new study spearheaded by the Institute for Feed Education and Research (IFEEDER).

Funded by IFEEDER, Dairy Management Inc., MFA Inc., the National Corn Growers Association, the US Poultry and Egg Association and other partners, researchers from Iowa State University and Decision Innovation Solutions, the study investigated the potential economic and environmental impacts that increasing GM-free feed production could have on farms, at grain elevators and in feed mills.

“The research found that fairly large-scale, systemic changes would be needed to accommodate increasing production of non-GM grain in grain handling, as handling two differentiated product streams deviates from the high-volume commodity system that has developed in the United States,” the study noted.

Crop production impact

With the US adoption rate of GM seeds (over 92% for both corn and soybeans) and the on-farm benefits of GM traits (from reduced labor and fuel use to improved crop yields and soil health), a significant premium would be required to entice a farm’s return to non-GM seeds, according to the study. The study found that GM seeds are more expensive than non-GM seeds, but herbicide costs for GM corn production can be higher or lower than non-GM herbicide costs, depending on the area of production and chemicals used. For soybeans, GM seeds typically are priced higher than non-GM seeds, but the herbicide costs are typically significantly lower than non-GM production.

“In most cases, the higher costs of GM seeds are offset by lower costs for herbicides, insecticides and field operations when compared to non-GM production,” the researchers concluded. 

The study, which examined land use in primary crop-producing states across the United States from 2007-16, found that a shift away from non-GM seeds creates land-sparing benefits. For example, the use of GM seed traits produced between 6.8 million and 15.9 million acres of land sparing and 35% to 65% less land conversion from grassy habitats to crop production than would have occurred otherwise.

“If a very conservative 5% yield advantage is acknowledged for GM corn over non-GM corn, grassy habitat conversion would need to have increased by 54% to 11.6 million acres,” the study found. “It would almost double to 13.7 million acres if a more realistic yield advantage of 15% is considered for GM corn. Similarly, grassy habitat conversion would have to increase to 9.1 million acres to overcome the 3% soy GM seed trait advantage.”

The study concluded that GM seed technology has environmental and economic benefits on the farm that non-GM seeds cannot yet meet. GM traits promote reduced tillage and fuel use, thus reducing overall costs and CO2 emissions. 

Grain elevators and feed mills

For grain handling and feed production, a GM-free product incurs potentially higher investments and costs to segregate non-GM grain and ingredients.

As an intermediary, the grain elevator not only buys non-GM at a premium price but also sells it at a higher price. Therefore, clarity and transparency on costs of segregation and isolation are critical for grain elevator decisions on whether to handle non-GM grain.

The study found that the grain elevator would spend an additional 5¢ to 7¢ per bushel to handle and segregate non-GM soybeans, compared with regular soybeans, and 7¢ to 9¢ per bushel for non-GM corn.

The feed mill, at the end of the feed production chain, would see the largest increase in the price of the final product, which has direct bearing on the price of meat, milk and egg products derived from animals fed with non-GM feed.

The report noted that the additional costs of segregating non-GM product ingredients ranges from $4.91 to $9.08 per ton for swine feed, $4.93 to $9.11 per ton for broiler feed, $5.14 to $9.32 per ton of layer feed, 44¢ to $2.68 per ton of beef cattle feed, and $1.32 to $3.57 for dairy cattle feed.

“For the feed mill, the choice of the segregation strategy has greater weight in the final additional costs,” the study said. “Spatial segregation entails higher costs, especially for smaller facilities, relative to temporal segregation or dedication.”

When calculating the final costs for beef and dairy cattle, the researchers said it is worth remembering that these animals consume a significant fraction of their diets from ingredients produced on the farm rather than feed mill ingredients, the study said.

The study examined the impact of adventitious presence (the unintended presence of low levels of transgenic material in non-GM ingredients or products) at the farm, grain elevator and feed mill levels and the extent of segregation strategies needed to have a high probability of achieving three common trade tolerances (0.9%, 3% and 5%) of AP (adventitious presence) of GM in non-GM grains.

The study noted that incoming grain impurity has a strong influence on the level of AP. For the segregation scenarios modeled in the study, a 5% tolerance was achievable. Elevator configurations plays a significant role in determining segregation capability, with increased flexibility leading to a higher probability of achieving the lower tolerances of AP. A key finding by the researchers was that “even facilities that may not be ideally configured can still implement combinations of strategies and achieve AP goals with reasonable confidence.”

“For feed production, the ability to be part of a potentially expanding GM-free feed market has capital and operating cost considerations,” the study noted. “The ability to segregate to achieve desired AP tolerance levels is feasible, but the management requirements add a higher level of complexity unless the facility is solely dedicated to non-GM feed.”

There are also environmental issues for feed mills that must be weighed.

“As the animal sector pursues sustainability targets, feed implications will need to be considered,” the study noted. “For example, feed is a significant component of an animal’s carbon footprint. The scope of the GHG impact linked to GM vs. non-GM feed will need to be considered as the animal sector explores pathways to meeting their evolving targets.”

Commenting on the 156-page report, Lara Moody, executive director of IFEEDER, said: “Like many industries involved in the production of America’s food supply, the US animal feed industry is diligently working to be more sustainable and efficient, using all available tools at its disposal, as part of our commitment to consumers to be good environmental stewards. The research released today shows that when you limit the use of safe, proven technologies, like GM crops, the costs for both environment and consumers can increase. 

“As food retailers and manufacturers pursue ambitious sustainability goals in the future, we hope this research will inform their decision-making on the value that GM feed provides.”