WASHINGTON, Sept. 17, 2014 – A National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study is normally a sleepy affair that attracts the narrowest of scientific interests, but a two-day meeting of a committee charged with studying biotech crops exploded into controversy that may cast a shadow on the academy’s neutrality.
The launch of the study, “A Science-based Look at Genetically Engineered Crops,” drew sharp criticism (see Agri-Pulse, Aug. 27, page 10) from anti-biotech activists. The National Research Council (NRC), the academy’s operating arm, reacted by inviting many of the critics – whom science writer Keith Kloor characterizes as “a virtual who’s who of cranks, pseudoscientists and ideologues – the worker bees and stars on the anti-GMO circuit” -- to address the panel.
The academy’s decision to entertain the views of the antagonists Monday and Tuesday invited a counter-barrage of criticism from the scientific community and – according to an informed industry lobbyist – members of Congress upset that non-scientific viewpoints would be given a forum before a scientific body that has built a reputation on adhering to facts, not emotion.
The task before the 18-member committee is to produce a report by 2016 after weighing the views of scientists recognized by admission to the academy against the mostly political and ideological views of a handful whose reputations are at the fringes. It will succeed, says Jon Entine, director of the Genetic Literacy Project, if it is based on “what the consensus science shows – no wavering or hedging to appease critics that fail to use good science.”
The two days of presentations appeared equally divided between advocates and critics of crop biotechnology, risking the appearance of what journalists consider “false balance” between conclusions grounded in rigorous science and those selected to present an opposite viewpoint.
Among the most noted scientists who emphasized the benefits of crop biotechnology were NAS members Major Goodman, a corn breeder and distinguished professor at North Carolina State; R. James Cook, retired dean of agriculture at Washington State; Ian Baldwin of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, and Nina Federoff, former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a winner of the National Medal of Science.
“We have had essentially 18 years experience with a clinical trial,” Goodman said. “No one has died or become ill. In medical terms, this would be a pretty definitive and successful experiment. As far as corn is concerned, GMOs have led to roughly a 5 percent increase in yield.”
Goodman acknowledged, however, that excessive reliance on a single variety dominating an entire area is “dangerous situation.” The biotech seed industry has expressed concern that “a specific hybrid in North Carolina had 92 percent of the market,” he said. “It would give them a very black eye if that particular hybrid failed for some reason. . . . In my opinion, we are asking for a 1970s southern corn leaf blight all over again.”
Cook faulted federal regulators of biotech crops for ignoring a 1987 admonition of scientists assembled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to assess the risk of introducing new organisms “on the nature of the organism and the environment into which it is introduced and not the method by which it was modified.” Instead, he said EPA and USDA chose to regulate based on the process by which the product was produced, rather than the product itself. “The regulatory requirements imposed by USDA and EPA selectively on genetically engineered crops are contrary to principles repeatedly confirmed by the National Academy of Sciences with the result that bringing a new genetically engineered trait the market is so expensive that only the major crops served by the major companies can afford it.”
Cook urged the committee to recommend that new genetic modification techniques – those that move genes within a species or from a wild relative of the crop species and other advanced genetic science – be exempted from the purview of the current regulatory scheme. “Plant virologists tell me that it is now possible . . . to control most if not all known viruses,” he said. However, because of regulatory concerns, “the technology remains in the experimental stages and crop varieties now modified and ready for commercial use are on the shelf.”
Cook said the committee should use the NAS report, “Science, Evolution and Creationism,” as the model for its report. It is “another case where there is a lot of conflict between society and science -- the great parallels. That report is now in its third edition and it gives a straightforward description of what is science and how science works, aimed at non-scientists.”
Baldwin, an ecologist and plant biologist who works in Germany, said it would be “simply wonderful if Europe would copy what APHIS (USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) is doing regardless of how backward you may think it is. It is still an enormous advance over what currently exists [in Europe], which is stifling.” Because it is not possible to do field tests of biotech plants in Europe, he said, his institute’s biologists undertake on-farm experiments in Utah.
Federoff, who gave the committee a copy of a letter to the president of the academy signed by more than 100 scientists “addressing several issues concerning this study and this committee,” expressed concern that U.S. regulatory requirements have evolved very little despite decades of biosafety experience. More than a quarter century of experience has upheld the scientific conclusion that “there is no evidence that unique hazards exist in the use of recombinant DNA techniques or in the movement of genes between unrelated organisms” and that their risks are the same as those associated with introduction of unmodified organisms modified by other methods.
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