An expert committee of scientists has released its conclusion of a comprehensive analysis looking into the safety of genetically engineered (GE) foods. It found that there doesn’t seem to be any difference between them and conventionally bred crops, and that genetically modified organisms pose no greater threat to the environment, either.
The experts note that there are difficulties in establishing long term trends, but that the only immediate risk posed by the food stuffs related to major pests developing resistance to the genetically engineered crops. They also found that there was no significant increase in productivity from GE crops.
They found that modern advances in genetic engineering are blurring the once clear lines that distinguished between GE and conventionally bred organisms. With the development of new techniques, such as the precision gene editing procedure of CRISPR, there is expected to be an explosion over the coming years in terms of new genetically engineered crops entering the market, and as it differs to older, more traditional methods, regulators are struggling to keep up.
The report was compiled by a group of 20 expert scientists, who started reviewing all the evidence over two years ago, with the support of the National Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Since then, they have analyzed almost 900 publications and studies from the last two decades relating to soybean, corn, and cotton (which make up almost all commercial GE crops), listened to 80 speakers at three public meetings, and read over 700 comments from the public to give them an insight into the issues that concern the general population.
The report states that the regulation of new foods should be not be simply based on how they are produced, but on the product itself. This means that safety testing for new products should be done in exactly the same way regardless of whether it was created through conventional breeding or was the result of genetic engineering. They also conclude that the labeling of foods as GMO, rationalized only on the grounds that they risk public health, is not justified.
They found that while many different attributes had been added to crops, such as longer shelf life and higher vitamin content, only two characteristics had become commonplace and widely used, one that gives them resistance to herbicides and that which makes them toxic to insects. Because only these two features are frequently engineered, the committee felt it should avoid sweeping generalizations about the risks or benefits associated with GE crops, as there are simply not enough other examples from which to draw conclusions. Claims about the effects of specific GE crops assume that they apply for all engineered products, but it is simply not known whether this is true.
The report has already received criticism, with some claiming that the experts were under the thumb of the agricultural industry. But Fred Gould, who chaired the committee, pushed back against this, saying that the industry even refused him seeds and plants with which to do the experiments for the new report. While the plants may be safe to eat, and pose no threat to the environment, they did find that some of their benefits had been exaggerated. For instance, they have not significantly increased the productivity of crops.