Genetically engineered crops are no more of a health risk than conventional crops, according to a new analysis released Tuesday by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
However, it is unclear whether genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have increased crop yields, the study says, and the evolution of resistance in insects and weeds is a problem.
“The study committee found no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between current commercially available genetically engineered (GE) crops and conventionally bred crops, nor did it find conclusive cause-and-effect evidence of environmental problems from the GE crops,” the report says. “However, evolved resistance to current GE characteristics in crops is a major agricultural problem.”
The report comes as the federal government is trying to decide how to define “natural” on labels, as well as related questions such as whether only raw agricultural products deserve the term and what ingredients might render a food ineligible.
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Lawsuits have prompted federal judges to ask the FDA for a determination of whether ingredients produced using bioengineering may be labeled as “Natural,” “All Natural” or “100% Natural.”
Big packaged-food companies like Campbell Soup and General Mills are starting to label products as being made with genetic engineering to comply with a new Vermont law, The New York Times reports.
The report also says that new techniques, such as 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, according to The Times.
The 400-page report, which analyzed the impact since the 1980s, is not likely to end the heated dispute over biotech crops and food labeling.
The drumbeat has steadily grown louder for mandatory labeling, as consumers and food advocates say they have a right to know what’s in their food, the Chicago Tribune reports. Many food companies say the labeling would be misleading because there’s nothing harmful about GMO food.
“This new NRC study is a massive effort to survey the latest science on genetically engineered crops,” said David Ervin, professor emeritus of environmental management and economics at Portland State University. “The findings will help the public sort through a jumble of contentious allegations, both pro and con, to understand the salient issues on GE crops going forward.”
Some groups critical of genetically engineering foods criticized the report before it came out, according to U.S. News & World Report. Food & Water Watch criticized the academy as taking funding from biotechnology firms and using “pro-GMO scientists” to write its reports. The report was funded by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the New Venture Fund, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with the academy itself. It was peer reviewed by outside experts and committee members are vetted for financial conflicts of interests, said academy spokesman William Kearney.
Marion Nestle of New York University, who was a reviewer but not author of the report, said in the article that “the report reveals how little is known about the effects of GE foods.” She said if the people behind the report wanted to end the polarization over these foods, “this won’t do the trick.”
The report acknowledged limitations:
“Policy regarding (genetically engineered) crops has scientific, legal, and social dimensions,” according to the report summary. “For example, on the basis of its review of the evidence on health effects, the committee does not believe that mandatory labeling of foods with GE content is justified to protect public health, but it noted that the issue involves social and economic choices that go beyond technical assessments of health or environmental safety; ultimately, it involves value choices that technical assessments alone cannot answer.”
In releasing its report, the committee established a website that enables users to look up the places in the report that address comments received by the committee from the public, and also find the reasoning behind the report’s main findings and recommendations.
“The committee focused on listening carefully and responding thoughtfully to members of the public who have concerns about GE crops and foods, as well as those who feel that there are great benefits to be had from GE crops,” said committee chairman Fred Gould, a professor of entomology and co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University.
A tiered process for regulating new crop varieties should focus on a plant’s characteristics rather than the process by which it was developed, the committee recommends.