U.S. study finds no risks to people, planet in GMOs

Biologists isolate novel genes from cauliflower to improve crop nutritional value. A study committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine looking at gene-altered crops notes a genetically engineered characteristic that alters the nutritional content of a crop is “unlikely to have the same environmental or economic effects as a characteristic for herbicide resistance.” (Peggy Greb photo courtesy ARS/USDA)

It’s time for the task of regulating new crop varieties to focus on plants’ characteristics rather than on how the plants were developed, a team of U.S. scientists recommends in a new report.

A study committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine on Tuesday released an “extensive” study of genetically engineered crops, finding “no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health” between the genetically modified (GMO) crops now on the market and conventionally bred crops.

The committee also reporting finding no “conclusive cause-and-effect evidence” of environmental problems from GMO crops.

The committee said it searched “all available research studies” and found no “persuasive evidence” of adverse health effects directly attributable to eating GMO foods.

Studies with animals and research on current GMOs’ chemical composition found “no differences that would implicate a higher risk to human health and safety” than in conventional crops.

Long-term epidemiological studies haven’t directly addressed GMO food consumption, the committee said, but “available” epidemiological data show no associations between any disease or chronic conditions and eating GMOs.

Based on the evidence, the committee said it doesn’t believe mandatory labeling of foods for GMO content is justified to protect public health.

However, it added, “the issue involves social and economic choices that go beyond technical assessments of health or environmental safety; ultimately, it involves value choices that technical assessments alone cannot answer.”

“Complex nature”

Environmentally speaking, insect-resistant or herbicide-resistant GMO crops “did not reduce the overall diversity of plant and insect life on farms, and sometimes insect-resistant crops resulted in increased insect diversity.”

Gene flow has occurred between relative species, the committee said, but “no examples have demonstrated an adverse environmental effect from this transfer.”

Overall, the committee said, it found “no conclusive evidence of cause-and-effect relationships between (GMOs) and environmental problems.” That said, “the complex nature of assessing long-term environmental changes often made it difficult to reach definitive conclusions.”

From a farming standpoint, the committee also noted “damaging levels of resistance” have evolved in some target insects for pest-resistant crops, and resistance to glyphosate has evolved in weeds in “many locations.”

The committee recommends integrated approaches to managing pests and/or weeds, including incentives for planting appropriate refuge crops.

Also, the committee wrote, while insect-resistant crops such as Bt corn have cut down on crop loss and insecticide use, data on overall rates of increase in yields of soybean, cotton and maize crops in the U.S., both before and after GMOs were introduced, show “no evidence that GE crops had changed the rate of increase in yields.”

That’s not to say greater increases in yield won’t be seen in the future, or that GMO traits aren’t beneficial to farmers, the committee said. It recommended funding of “diverse approaches” for boosting and stabilizing yields, but also for research that “isolates” effects of various environmental and genetic factors on yield.

Product, not process

All that said, it follows that any new plant varieties — whether GMO or conventional — which have “intended or unintended novel characteristics that may present potential hazards” should undergo safety testing, the committee said. In other words, “it is the product and not the process that should be regulated.”

The committee noted new “-omics” technologies will be critical to detecting unintended changes in new crop varieties, and could “dramatically” increase the ability to detect even small changes in plant characteristics.

The committee based its recommendations on “evidence accumulated over the past two decades” to assess the “purported negative effects and purported benefits” of the GMO crops now commercially available.

Granted, the committee said, while biologists have genetically engineered certain crops for longer shelf life, higher vitamin content and resistance to diseases, the only GMO characteristics in “widespread commercial use” are for herbicide tolerance or to be toxic to insect pests.

For that reason, the committee said, it avoids making “sweeping, generalized statements” about GMOs’ benefits and risks, such as assuming the effects of existing GMOs would apply to all such crops.

“A genetically engineered characteristic that alters the nutritional content of a crop, for example, is unlikely to have the same environmental or economic effects as a characteristic for herbicide resistance.”

The committee’s recommendations called for “investment of public resources in conducting careful experiments and analyses,” which in turn would allow for “more rigorous” assessments of GMOs’ potential benefits and problems.

Such analyses, the committee said, “would be seen as more legitimate by concerned members of the public than experiments funded by the developers of the (GMO) technology.”

In a separate release Tuesday, the U.S. Center for Science in the Public Interest said the academies’ report “should give consumers confidence about the safety of eating foods that have (GMO) ingredients.”

Gregory Jaffe, the center’s director for biotech, said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture should implement the report’s recommendation for integrated weed management and to “incentivize both developers and farmers to use Bt crops in a way that preserves their effectiveness for future generations.”

Jaffe said the Washington-based centre also supports the academies’ call for transparency and public participation in the oversight of GMO crops and for federal agencies to “do more to communicate their regulatory decisions to the public.”

The academies’ study was backed by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the New Venture Fund, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with “additional support” from the National Academy of Sciences.

The academies, headquartered in Washington, are billed as private, not-for-profit institutions, operating under an 1863 congressional charter, to provide “analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine.” — AGCanada.com Network

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