Alan McHughen, D.Phil.
A recent public workshop on GM crops unearths continued misinformation about GMO safety.
The U.S. National Academies of Science, as part of a new two-year study into the safety of genetically engineered crops, hosted a public workshop in September, giving a prominent, prestigious platform to several antibiotechnology activists, with a sprinkling of legitimate scientists and other experts thrown in to provide (false) balance.
The invited speakers included the most vocal critics of biotechnology, including speakers representing organizations on record as opposed to the use of biotechnology, such as the Center for Food Safety—an organization that likes to sue local, state, and federal governments over genetically modified organisms—and Greenpeace, which has waged a years-long oppositional campaign against golden rice, a public good genetically engineered (GE) product to help fight Vitamin A deficiency in poor parts of the world.
Internally, the Academy was criticized for inviting and thus giving undue credibility to so many pseudoscientists and charlatans on a topic that is already so imbalanced in the public sphere. However, in doing so, the Academy strategically precluded the charge that the most damning arguments against biotech, presented by the most vocal critics, were ignored when the final report is issued next year.
The good news from the workshop is this: There were no surprises and no new data challenging the ongoing perfect safety record of GE crops and foods. If the most vociferous critics of the technology, in front of the world’s most prestigious scientific body, can’t articulate or document any problems new or unique to GE, then this alone shows there is no basis for public anxiety or the resulting regulatory appeasement, setting the approval bar far higher than is justified by scientifically valid concerns.
To be sure, the speakers raised several damning concerns with agricultural biotechnology, including diminishing biodiversity due to monoculture, the patenting of seeds, corporate control of the seed and food industry, “superweeds” evolving herbicide resistance, insects tolerant to Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), and health/safety concerns regarding various pesticides. But not one of these relates specifically to agbiotech.
• Concerns of biodiversity, monoculture, patenting, and corporate involvement in the seed industry are certainly valid topics for discussion, but they all started well before 1996 when the first GE crop was released. Also, not all GE crops are patented, and some are coming off patent, into public domain. Finally, non-GE crops can be and are patented also. None of these issues are unique to GE crops.
• Weedy species evolve resistance to all herbicides and have done since the introduction of chemical herbicides; indeed, weeds evolving resistance to glyphosate is relatively low compared to other herbicides (see chart, from Gilbert, 2013). Again, herbicide resistance is a legitimate concern in agriculture, but not unique to GE crops.
• Similarly, Bt is not unique to GE crops; it is used by conventional and even by organic farmers. Like all pesticides or plants with pesticidal properties (PiPs, in EPA parlance) pest populations eventually will evolve resistance. Hence the development and mandate of science-based management systems to delay the onset of resistance, as recognized in earlier NAS-NRC studies (e.g., NRC 2010).
• Glyphosate and other herbicides are regulated by EPA to assure safety when used as directed, and in any case are not limited to GE crops (contrary to popular belief, not all GE crops are resistant to glyphosate, and not all glyphosate is used on GE crops). Much of the time was spent by the anti-GE folks talking about their concerns with “toxic” pesticides, as if all GE crops, and only GE crops, used these pesticides. There were no toxicity concerns (nor data) presented that relate exclusively to GE crops.
A Consensus on Safety
During the question period, Committee member Neal Stewart asked Jeffrey Smith, a GE opponent, what he would consider the single most important deficit with GE crop/food safety, to which Smith replied, “The (lack of) long-term intergenerational feeding studies on a wide range of parameters.”
That’s a common enough answer from those opposed to GE crops and foods, but has been addressed most recently (and compellingly) by Van Eenennaam and Young (2014), who reviewed animal feeding on GE or non-GE feeds involving long-term, intergenerational feeding trials on billions of animals from a wide range of species and other parameters going back to 1996, with not a single documented case for concern. Satisfied now, Mr. Smith?
Clearly, these most vocal critics of GE in agriculture are unable to provide any actual data, evidence or even logically sound argument showing GE crops as categorically different to justify “special” health/safety regulation. The data, evidence, and years of real world experience shows GE crops and foods are not categorically riskier than crops and foods developed using other techniques. This is what scientific organizations (including NAS-NRC) have been saying since 1986.
This is an opportunity for the Committee to address those concerns and state unequivocally, that there is indeed a consensus on the safety on the rDNA process in the scientific community (contrary to what Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., asserted, without citation or other substantiation). It is also an opportunity to expose the fatal flaws in the various arguments.
GMOs and the Public Good
Interestingly, there was one issue raised by both proponents and opponents at the workshop—and a legitimate issue ripe for discussion: “Where are the public sector and small company GE crops serving the public good?” The anti-GE activists complained that almost all GE crops are owned by a small number of big private companies, and limited to just two traits: herbicide resistance and insecticide producing.
The rhetorical question is easily answered—the public good GE crops are sitting on shelves of public and small private breeding stations, unable to meet the regulatory compliance bar set largely by the public actions of the very anti-GE activists themselves, several of whom presented at the workshop. They may not know about the Specialty Crop Regulatory Assistance (SCRA) program, designed to facilitate U.S. regulatory approvals for small-market GE crops from public and smaller private breeding organizations, especially those with “public good” traits, such as enhanced nutritional profiles or improved water use efficiency.
Perhaps the Committee will address the lack of small-market GE crops in their deliberations and come up with recommendations on how to get public good, small-market GE crops over the regulatory hurdles without compromising environmental or health safety. At this stage we can only hope.
Alan McHughen, D.Phil. ([email protected]), is a geneticist in the department of botany and plant sciences at the University of California, Riverside.
1. Gilbert, N. 2013. Case studies: A hard look at GM crops. Nature 497:24-26. http://www.nature.com/news/case-studies-a-hard-look-at-gm-crops-1.12907
2. NRC, 2010. Impact of genetically engineered crops on farm sustainability in the United States. National Academies Press, Washington DC. http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=12804
3. Van Eenennaam, A. and A. Young, 2014, Prevalence and impacts of genetically engineered feedstuffs on livestock populations. J. Anim. Sci. 2014.92:4255–4278. doi:10.2527/jas2014-8124