Genetically engineered crops may be completely safe for human consumption – but they also are an unlikely solution to world hunger. A comprehensive new analysis found that genetically engineered (GE) crops, often called genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or biotech crops, do not appear to pose health risks, nor have they accelerated increases in yield.
A committee of 20 from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (the National Academies) examined more than 1,000 studies, heard testimony from 80 people with diverse expertise and perspectives on GE crops, and analyzed over 700 comments submitted by the public to produce the roughly 400-page report, Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects, released on Tuesday. Their efforts concentrated on the GE crops that account for the vast majority of those grown in the United States: corn and cotton resistant to certain insects thanks to bacterial genes; and soybeans, corn and cotton resistant to herbicides, particularly glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup.
Almost all from academia, the committee members were all reportedly screened for conflicts of interest. None of the committee members were from biotechnology companies such as Monsanto or DuPont, though The New York Times reports that some have developed GE crops and might have acted as consultants for such companies. The study was sponsored by the New Venture Fund, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Academy of Sciences.
Anti-GMO group Food & Water Watch accused some members of the committee of having ties to the industry, but the committee chair Fred Gould, who has been known in the past as a GMO critic and is someone who has pushed for restrictions on GMO crops, found their attack frustrating.
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“I have not been a darling of the industry. As a matter of fact, they denied me seeds and plants to do my experiments,” Gould said. The committee maintained an important rule, he explained: “If you had an opinion, you had to back it up with data. If you didn't have the data, it didn't go into the report.”
Unsurprisingly, the report is unlikely to quell the highly polarized debate around GMOs that has developed since farmers began growing soy genetically modified to tolerate Roundup 20 years ago. The document’s conclusions are rife with caveats, and the authors assert that we should evaluate GMOs on a case-by-case basis given the extent that crops differ.
“We received impassioned requests to give the public a simple, general, authoritative answer about GE crops,” Gould wrote in the report’s preface. “Given the complexity of GE issues, we did not see that as appropriate. However, we hope that we have given the public and policy-makers abundant evidence and a framework to inform their decisions about individual agricultural products.”
That said, the report does include several conclusions:
- GE crops are not risky to eat. The authors found no evidence of harm even when comparing incidences of cancer, obesity, diabetes, kidney disease, autism, celiac disease, and food allergies in North America, where GE crops have been part of the diet since 1996, and Western Europe, where biotech crops are not eaten as much. Several other regulatory, scientific and health organizations have previously also concluded that the foods are safe.
- GE crops have helped farmers protect yields from insects and weeds, but have not improved the potential yields of maize, cotton, or soybean in the United States.
- Economic benefits for farmers have been well-documented, although individual results vary. Small-scale farmers in particular may have trouble seeing such gains because of the higher cost of seed and lack of access to credit.
- Both herbicide-tolerant crops and crops with the organic pesticide Bt built-in have decreased pesticide use, although those decreases came early on, and some have not been sustained.
- Increased use of glyphosate has caused a widespread and expensive problem of glyphosate-resistant weeds.
- No cause-and-effect relationship was found between GE crops and environmental problems, including biodiversity. Food production is a major cause of environmental degradation, but GE crops were found to be no more guilty than non-GE crops.
Importantly, the report authors assert that an overhaul of our regulatory systems is needed. They propose a tiered regulation model “that is based not on the breeding process but on considerations of novelty, potential hazard, and exposure as criteria” so that potentially riskier products receive greater scrutiny before they can be marketed. In other words, regardless of whether a crop is GE or not, they suggest regulations should be based on the characteristics of the crop.
The authors also stress that transparency and public participation are important for ongoing public conversations about GE crops. The report notes that there is no safety reason to label foods which contain GE ingredients, though it may be justified for other reasons such as consumers’ right to know.