WASHINGTON, May 17, 2016 - In a sweeping new study of agricultural biotechnology, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine affirmed the safety of genetically engineered crops that are now on the market, rejecting claims that have linked GMOs to cancer and other maladies.
A panel of 20 scientists reviewed animal studies and allergenicity testing and also compared health data between North America, where genetically engineered (GE) foods have been eaten for two decades, and Europe, where they aren’t consumed.
In a 408-page report released Tuesday, the scientists said “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 panel also said there was no evidence linking “the consumption of GE foods and the increase in prevalence of food allergies.” However, the study recommended post-commercialization research to ensure that possible allergens hadn’t been missed in pre-market studies.
The panel’s review of the health effects of eating GE foods is likely to get more attention than anything else, given that the report comes as Congress is debating whether to mandate disclosure of biotech food ingredients.
Based on their health findings, the scientists said there is no justification for requiring labels on biotech foods for safety reasons. But the scientists said there are other reasons to label, since the issue involves social and economic choices, although the panel said that the food industry could incur significant long-term costs.
“If required to label, manufacturers would probably reformulate products to avoid labeling by using non-GE ingredients where possible instead of putting on a label that will lead to a loss of sales,” the study said.
The findings were part of an extensive review of the benefits and impacts of biotech crops and a study of future techniques and products. The study, which also included recommendations to regulators, said that the government should focus more on the products of plant breeding than the techniques used to produce new crop traits.
The committee held public hearings and examined almost 900 studies and other publications on the development, use, and effects of biotech corn, soybean and cotton, the primary biotech crops that have been commercialized to date.
“We dug deeply into the literature to take a fresh look at the data on GE and conventionally bred crops,” said the chairman of the panel, Fred Gould, a professor of entomology and co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University.
Gould wrote in the report’s introduction that while there were already numerous published studies on the safety and impact of biotech crops, the scientists “committed ourselves to taking a fresh look at the primary literature itself.”
The National Academies is making available a website where users can look up information in the report and find the reasoning and evidence behind the conclusions.
The study was sponsored by the Agriculture Department, Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the New Venture Fund.
The report said that the biotech crops have “generally had favorable economic outcomes” for farmers and that the use of insect-resistant, Bt traits had reduced yield losses and use of insecticides. But the scientists also warned that overuse of Bt crops had produced insect resistance in some areas and that over reliance on glyphosate-resistant crops had led to the extensive spread of resistant weeds.
Greg Jaffe, director of biotechnology for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group that is often critical of industry practices, said the report’s most significant finding was that the crops are safe to eat. “It’s something a lot of us have known but they look at all the data and evidence … and said there’s no evidence suggesting otherwise.”
The panel compared health data between North America and Europe as a way to investigate claims linking GMOs to various health problems, including cancer, obesity, kidney disease, autism and allergies.
Although there are more data for some maladies than others, the scientists said they found “no evidence of differences … in the long-term pattern of increase or decrease in specific health problems after the introduction of GE foods in the 1990s.”
The panel noted, but didn’t try to resolve, the debate over whether glyphosate, best known as Roundup, can cause cancer.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organization, listed glyphosate as a likely carcinogen. But in a report issued Monday, too late for the NAS study to include, a joint panel of the WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization concluded that the herbicide “is unlikely to pose a cancer risk from exposure through the diet.”
Scott Faber, a leading lobbyist for mandatory GMO labeling who is vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, said the health findings were no surprise although he noted that the scientists recommended more research.
He said the study was “a bold statement in favor of greater transparency and the need for a regulatory system that is as modern as this technology.”