Commentary

Prestigious Panel Finds GE Crops Safe To Eat; 'Buts' Remain

All the evidence shows that genetically engineered foods are safe to eat, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine decreed yesterday in a long-anticipated report that nonetheless provided critics with talking points to keep swirling the controversy over their widespread adoption. For one thing, the claim that they significantly increase crop yield — and are therefore critical to ending the global hunger crises — is apparently overblown.

Conflicting claims and research “have created a confusing landscape for the public and for policy makers,” the 20-person committee chaired by GMO critic Fred Gould, a professor of entomology at North Carolina State University, states in the introduction to the 420-page free download. “This study is intended to provide an independent, objective examination of what has been learned since the introduction of GE crops, based on current evidence.”

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The findings come “as the federal government is reviewing how it regulates biotech crops and as big packaged-food companies like Campbell Soup and General Mills are starting to label products as being made with genetically engineered ingredients to comply with a new Vermont law,” points out Andrew Pollack for the New York Times.

“On the issue of whether the government should require that products sold at grocery stores be labeled if they contain genetically modified organisms … the panel declined to take a firm position. It instead detailed pro and con arguments,” Joel Achenbach writes for the Washington Post.

“Michael Hansen, a senior scientist with Consumers Union, praised that element of the report: ‘When it comes to GMO labels, the NAS report points out that there are value choices that consumers want to make when they shop for food. We're pleased to see that the report cites the wealth of polling data showing consumers want GMO labeling,” Achenbach reports.

“The report also says that new techniques, like a way to make small genetic changes in plants using genome-editing, are blurring the distinction between genetic engineering and conventional plant breeding, making the existing regulatory system untenable. It calls for a new system that pays more attention to the attributes of the crop, as opposed to the way in which it was created,” the NYT’s Pollack continues.

“In a statement sent to reporters, Portland State University’s David Ervin, who was not involved in the work, said this was a ‘major contribution’ of the committee’s report,” writes Tracy Vence for The Scientist

“‘The move to product characteristics would avert potential problems of not reviewing new crops made with new genome editing and synthetic biology techniques that may not trigger regulatory review under current procedures,’ Ervin said. (See “The Unregulation of Biotech Crops,” The Scientist, November 25, 2015.)”

“Even before this report came out, an anti-GMO group called Food & Water Watch attacked it. The group accused some members of the committee that prepared the report of receiving research funding from biotech companies, or having other ties to the industry,” reports NPR’s Dan Charles.

“The preemptive attack frustrates [Gould], Charles continues. “Gould has been known in the past as a GMO critic. He has pushed for restrictions on the planting of some GMO crops. ‘I have not been a darling of the industry. As a matter of fact, they denied me seeds and plants to do my experiments,’ he says.”

While referring to the report as “thorough and comprehensive,” the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s,biotechnology director Gregory Jaffe, says in a statement that “it is disappointing that the report does not recommend that FDA’s oversight of GE crops change from a voluntary to a mandatory process. That would have been consistent with the report’s acknowledgement that federal oversight is important to ensure both safety and public confidence.”

“The report specifically addressed a commonly cited link between GE crops and falling populations of monarch butterflies,” Elizabeth Weise reports for USA Today. “As of March 2016, there was no evidence that the suppression of milkweed (the only food of the insect in its caterpillar state) by the use of herbicides caused declines in the monarch population, the committee found. In fact, the monarch population has seen a moderate increase in the past two years.”

As definitive as some of the findings may appear, we’ll no doubt still be writing about issue years from now. 

“There was a little something for everyone in the report, which likely will fuel more debate even while guiding policymakers on future policy and regulation,” as Greg Trotter puts it in the Chicago Tribune.

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