Genetically manipulated food remains generally safe for humans and the environment, a high-powered science advisory board declared in a report on Tuesday.
The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine concluded that changing the genetics of what we eat does not produce the “Frankenfood” monster some opponents claim – but is not feeding the world with substantially increased yields, as proponents promised.
With the line between engineered and natural foods blurring because of newer techniques such as gene editing, the 408-page report said, regulators need to make their safety focus more on the end product of the food that is made rather than the nuts and bolts of its making.
The report avoided to an extent the hot political issue of whether genetically modified food should be labelled. The study’s authors said labels aren’t needed for food safety reasons, but potentially could be justified on transparency, social and cultural grounds, somewhat similarly to stickers such as made in America. That stance was praised by some environmental and consumer groups, but criticised by some scientists as unnecessary because the food poses no unique risks.
There is no evidence of environmental problems caused by genetically modified crops, but pesticide resistance is a problem, the report said. Farms that use genetically modified crops in general are helped, but it may be a different story for smaller farmers and in poorer areas of the world, it said.
Most of the modified plants are soybean, cotton, corn and canola; in most cases, genetic tinkering has made them resistant to certain herbicides and insects. When farms switched from conventional crops to the engineered varieties, there was no substantial change in yields. While experimental results suggest that there should be an increase in production, the US Department of Agriculture data doesn’t show it, the report said.
The report first said it is important not to make sweeping statements on genetically engineered foods, which it called GE. Still, “the committee concluded that no differences have been found that implicate a higher risk to human health safety from these GE foods than from their non-GE counterparts”.
The National Academy, established by President Abraham Lincoln to provide scientific advice, has issued reports before saying it could find no safety problem with eating genetically modified food. But the academy committee chairman Fred Gould, of North Carolina State University, said this report is different because his study team started by listening to critics of such foods, examined anew more than 1,000 studies, and created a website that allows consumers to look at evidence and decide for themselves.
“To some extent we know more about some genetically engineered food than we do about other food,” committee member Dominique Brossard of the University of Wisconsin said. “There are limits to what can be known about any food. That’s something we’re not used to hearing as consumers.”
Many scientists who work on the issue but weren’t part of the study team lauded the report as sensible but not surprising. Mark Sorrells at Cornell called it “very well balanced, accurate, and reiterates much of what has already been published many times”.
“Science is science, facts are facts,” emailed Bruce Chassy, an emeritus professor of biochemistry and food science at the University of Illinois. “There’s just no sound basis for their opposition, just as there was never any scientific basis to believe GM plants should be viewed any differently from any other,”
One dissenter was Charles Benbrook, formerly of Washington State University but now a private consultant. He said he felt the risks of genetically engineered food were more serious than more mainstream scientists did, and that the human health assessments were not far-reaching enough.
Some groups critical of genetically engineering foods criticised the report before it came out. Food & Water Watch castigated the National Academy for 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 US Department of Agriculture, along with the academy itself. It was peer-reviewed by outside experts, and committee members were vetted for financial conflicts of interest, said academy spokesman William Kearney.
Unlike many scientists, Marion Nestle of New York University, who was a reviewer but not an author of the report, said “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 polarisation over these foods, “This won’t do the trick.”