Scientists Again Say GMOs Are Safe, but They Might Not Always Be

A major new report presents a nuanced outlook on the present and future state of genetically engineered crops.
(Photo: Lance Cheung/USDA)
May 18, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Genetically engineered crops are safe to eat and safe for the environment. That’s the takeaway, in the broadest possible sense, from a weighty new report released Tuesday by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine—and no doubt it’s the conclusion the agricultural industry and other proponents of genetic modification will be crowing about in the days to come.

But the 408-page report, which examines a wide range of issues related to G.M. crops—from their environmental and human-health risks to their regulation and potential—is peppered with enough caveats and hedging that it is far from likely to settle the debate over the controversial science. That debate has intensified over the two decades since widespread adoption of G.M. staple crops such as corn and soybeans began.

In his preface to the report, committee chair Fred Gould of North Carolina State University admits as much. “We received impassioned requests to give the public a simple, general, authoritative answer about GE crops,” it reads. “Given the complexity of GE issues, we did not see that as appropriate. However, we hope that we have given the public and policy-makers abundant evidence and a framework to inform their decisions about individual agricultural products.”

Gould and his fellow committee members, primarily academics from major American universities, pored over the scientific evidence, reviewed more than 700 comments from individuals and organizations, and listened to 80 presentations. In the end, they found “no conclusive evidence of cause-and-effect relationships between GE crops and environmental problems,” such as a reduction in plant biodiversity related to the use of herbicide-resistant G.E. crops. Likewise, when the committee compared epidemiological data from the United States and Canada, where G.E. crops are widely consumed, with similar data from the European Union and the United Kingdom, where consumption is far more limited, they found no evidence to support a link between G.E. foods and higher rates of a range of ills—from cancer, obesity, and kidney disease to autism and allergies.

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But the committee also carefully warns that there are limitations to the scientific evidence and that it is difficult to determine long-term effects—standard scientific caveats that will no doubt fuel the suspicions of G.M. skeptics. More troubling, perhaps, is the picture that emerges of our collective G.M. future when we read between the lines of the committee’s cautiously crafted prose.

To understand what I’m talking about, first we need to reiterate a fact about the current state of G.M. crops: Despite the swirl of controversy surrounding GMOs, precious few strains are being commercially grown. That’s not to be confused with the total amount of American cropland devoted to G.M. crops such as soy, corn, and cotton. The vast majority of these crops grown in America today are GMOs, but they’ve all been designed with a limited number of traits.

With, for example, upwards of 90 percent of U.S. corn genetically modified, in some ways you could say the G.M. revolution has already happened. But in other important ways, you could say the G.M. revolution has only just begun. After all, we’re really only growing two broad strains of G.M. crops—those engineered for insect resistance and those engineered for herbicide resistance. Even if the committee’s conclusions about the safety of those two types of crops are correct, those conclusions can’t be applied to any of the seemingly countless types of G.M. crops that could be developed.

The committee says as much, as when it states its conclusion about the health effects of eating G.M. foods: “The committee states this finding very carefully, acknowledging that any new food—GE or non-GE—may have some subtle favorable or adverse health effects that are not detected even with careful scrutiny, and that health effects can develop over time.”

New technologies, such as genome editing, are poised to make our definitions of what constitutes “genetic engineering” obsolete. That certain problems with G.M. crops— whether regarding health or the environment—may not become evident until those crops are grown on a commercial scale would seem to suggest that we should have a robust regulatory system empowered to impose restrictions or require more testing after the crops come to market.

But we don’t—at least not in the U.S. While other countries have agencies that continue to monitor G.M. crops after they’re on the market, our own Department of Agriculture has taken a more or less hands-off approach. As the committee notes by way of example, had federal authorities continued to monitor crops engineered to withstand the herbicide glyphosate, they might have been able to impose restrictions that would have thwarted the epidemic of glyphosate-resistant superweeds plaguing certain areas of the country.

You can be sure the agricultural industry is happy with the status quo—the less meddling by the feds in the regulation of G.M. crops, the better. But who out there is advocating for a better regulatory system? It’s an in-the-weeds policy debate that gets lost in the polarization of the issue into pro- and anti-GMO camps. If the NAS report makes anything clear, it’s that it may be time for GMO skeptics to stop trying to roll back the clock and start fighting for more stringent oversight of a technology that’s already been let out of the gate.