GMOs Safe, but Better Regulation Needed: Study

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By Casey Wooten

May 17 — Genetically engineered crops don't pose an immediate threat to public health or to the environment, but there are still benefits to labeling genetically modified (GM) foods, according to a sweeping report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Released May 17, the report is the result of a multiyear study into the agricultural, economic and social effects of GM crops by the National Academies. The release also comes as Senate lawmakers continue to negotiate a nationwide labeling system for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that would preempt a Vermont law establishing a statewide, mandatory labeling system set to take effect July 1.

The researchers didn't take a position on GMO labeling, but instead pointed to possible benefits.

“Mandatory labeling provides the opportunity for consumers to make their own personal risk-benefit decisions (regardless of the regulatory determination of safety) and to express a preference for a method of production,” the report said.

New Testing

New methods of genetic engineering, such as genome editing, synthetic biology and RNA interference are not covered well by current regulations, the report said.

“Emerging genetic technologies have blurred the distinction between genetic engineering and conventional plant breeding to the point where regulatory systems based on process are technically difficult to defend,” the report said.

Regulators should test all new plant varieties, created through traditional means or in a laboratory, if they have unique traits that may pose a potential hazard, the report said. That should come in a new, multitiered approach that compares the molecular profiles of each variety, the researchers said.

Crop Yields

The report also looked at how much GM crops actually boost farmland yields. Researchers examined corn, soybean and cotton data provided by the Agriculture Department and found that, while using GM crops did offer a small boost in productivity, “there is no evidence from USDA that they have substantially increased the rate at which U.S. agriculture is increasing yields.”

No Long-Term Problems

The study examined health data from the U.S. and Canada, which have a high percentage of GM crops in the food supply, and Western Europe, which scarcely uses GM foods. Researchers found no link to GM foods and long-term health problems.

“More specifically, the incidences of a variety of cancer types in the United States and Canada have changed over time, but the data do not show an association of the changes with the switch to consumption of GE foods,” the report said.

Those conclusions extend to environmental issues as well. Despite finding that GMO use may increase the prevalence of herbicide-resistant weeds, the report found no conclusive evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship between GE crops and environmental problems.

Nonprofit Reaction

Environmental and agriculture policy groups interpreted the report differently.

Even before the National Academies released the findings, one consumer advocacy organization criticized it as biased.

Food and Water Watch accused the National Research Council, the research wing of the National Academy of Science, of a conflict of interest after accepting donations from biotech and agriculture companies such as Monsanto Co.

“These conflicts greatly limit the scientific capacity of the NRC, including, most obviously, its ability to discuss the impact of conflicts of interest on science, a pressing issue in GMO research,” Food and Water Watch said in a statement May 17.

The National Academies responded to reporters following the release of the report, saying that committee members are carefully vetted for financial conflicts of interest.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), however, focused on the report's finding that a mandatory GM labeling system could improve consumer knowledge.

“Today’s report—which includes a broad call for greater transparency in food and farming—provides a new rationale for action,” Scott Faber, EWG vice president of government affairs, said on the organization's website.

To contact the reporter on this story: Casey Wooten in Washington at cwooten@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

For More Information

The report is online at http://src.bna.com/e4M.