NAS report finds GMO crops safe as non-GE crops

Farm Forum

Many people ask about conventional, organic and genetically-engineered crops and whether or not they are safe to eat. Absent any unknown food safety issue, most scientists will say that the answer is “yes” to all three. Consumers should buy whatever best fits their personal tastes and budgets.

But every so often, someone will start rattling off a laundry list of characteristics that they don’t like about genetically engineered or GMO foods – talking about links to obesity, cancer and environmental ruin. And that line of debate only adds to the confusion.

Now, one of the most comprehensive, independent studies of current and future genetically engineered (GE) crops attempts to clear the air. It may not convince skeptics, but the depth and breadth of this research is undeniable.

The new report, “Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects,” confirmed that there is “no substantiated evidence that foods from GE crops were less safe than foods from non-GE crops,” or conventional crops. And there was no “cause-and-effect evidence of environmental problems from GE crops.”

That’s according to a panel of 20 scientists, convened by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, who released their report last week.

“We dug deeply into the literature to take a fresh look at the data on GE and conventionally bred crops,” said committee chair Fred Gould, University Distinguished Professor of Entomology and co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University. In addition, the committee heard from 80 diverse speakers at three public meetings and 15 public webinars, and read more than 700 comments from members of the public to broaden its understanding of issues surrounding GE crops.

However, the report wasn’t all a glowing green light for the use of new technology. The panel expressed concerns about evolved resistance to current GE characteristics and suggested the dramatic yield increases that many had predicted was not actually occurring.

“Evidence shows that in locations where insect-resistant crops were planted but resistance-management strategies were not followed, damaging levels of resistance evolved in some target insects. If GE crops are to be used sustainably, regulations and incentives are needed so that more integrated and sustainable pest-management approaches become economically feasible.”

The committee also found that some weeds had evolved resistance to glyphosate, the herbicide to which most GE crops were engineered to be resistant. “Resistance evolution in weeds could be delayed by the use of integrated weed-management approaches,” says the report, while also calling for more research on this subject.

In its 408-page report, the panel looked at both benefits and risks, and concluded that there is some evidence that GE insect-resistant crops have had benefits to human health by reducing insecticide poisonings.

“In addition, several GE crops are in development that are designed to benefit human health, such as rice with increased beta-carotene content to help prevent blindness and death caused by vitamin A deficiencies in some developing nations,” they added. But these crops have not yet been commercialized for a variety of reasons.

Since the 1980s, biologists have used genetic engineering to produce particular characteristics in plants such as longer shelf life for fruit, higher vitamin content, and resistance to diseases. However, the only genetically engineered characteristics that have been put into widespread commercial use are those that allow a crop to withstand the application of an herbicide or to be toxic to insect pests, the authors pointed out.

The most commonly grown GE crops in 2015 with one or both of those traits were soybean (83 percent of land in soybean production), cotton (75 percent of land in cotton production), corn (29 percent of land in corn production), and canola (24 percent of land in canola production)

Scientists cautioned that more research needs to be done on the potential of new plant proteins to cause allergic reactions, but the panel said there was no evidence linking “the consumption of GE foods and the increase in prevalence of food allergies.”

Looking ahead at future techniques and products, the report said that that federal regulators should focus more on the products of plant breeding than the techniques used to produce new crop traits.

The panel also pointed out that the distinction between conventional breeding and genetic engineering is becoming less obvious.

For example, genome editing technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9 can now be used to make a genetic change by substituting a single nucleotide in a specific gene.

The same type of change can be made by mutagenic breeding – a method that uses radiation or chemicals to induce mutations and then uses genomic screening to identify plants with the desired mutation. This approach is considered to be conventional breeding and can be used in organic crop systems.

In the end, the panel declined to provide a “simple, general authoritative answer about GE crops. “However, we hope we have given the public and policy-makers abundant evidence and a framework to inform their decisions about individual agricultural products.”

Agri-Pulse Senior Editor Philip Brasher contributed to this article.