Q.Are organic or nongenetically modified hays better for horses?

—Via e-mail

A.This is a hotly debated and emotionally charged topic that Emily Glunk Meccage, MS, PhD, says comes down to personal preference. Meccage, an extension forage specialist and assistant professor at Montana State University (MSU), in Bozeman, co-owns Field and Fodder Consulting LLC, a private equine nutritional consulting company. Since 2014 she has been studying the forage-animal interaction, as well as best management practices for forage production.

“What I ask people to do is evaluate why they want to feed organic versus conventional,” she says. “Is it to reduce potential pesticides that your animal might be eating? Then organic may be a better option, but there are organic-approved pesticides, and these are often applied at higher rates than synthetic pesticides.

“There is a smaller body of research for many of the organic herbicides compared to the synthetic ones,” she continues. “Overall, the development of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) has helped to reduce the amount and rate of pesticide that we are applying per acre and has not been found in any accredited, scientifically sound research to cause harm to the ingesting animal.”

She cites the “100 billion animal study,” in which Alison Van Eenennaam, PhD, of the University of California, Davis, analyzed research on animals consuming GMOs from 2011 onward, as well as research from 1983 until the introduction of GMO feeds in 1996. “She ended up having data on over 100 billion animals eating trillions of GMO meals and found no negative effects on animal health,” says Meccage.

“Both (organic and conventional) systems have their positives and negatives and, instead of excluding one or the other, I think we should look at ways at incorporating both and pick our hay based on its quality,” she says. “My biggest thing is, if you have the opportunity, talk to a hay producer, the people on the ground that are producing your forages. And talk to ones that are using organic as well as conventional. Using either type of hay is not going to be a problem for your horse or community, provided they are grown responsibly.”