WASHINGTON, May 18, 2016 - A landmark study of genetically engineered crops provides some timely assurance to the public about the crops’ safety. But the report released Tuesday by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine also cast doubt on some of the loftiest claims and predictions for the technology.
The study, conducted by a panel of 20 scientists over two years, had a mixed message on the issue of biotech labeling. While there is no safety justification for labeling, the panel said there may be other societal concerns for doing so. “There clearly are strong non-safety arguments and considerable public support for mandatory labeling of products containing GE material,” the study said.
But the 408-page report also warned that mandatory labeling is likely to encourage food companies to stop using GMOs.
The study affirmed the safety of biotech crops that are now on the market based on an extensive review of animal studies and allergenicity testing – and by comparing health data between North America, where genetically engineered (GE) foods have been eaten since the 1990s, and Europe, where they aren’t officiallyconsumed. The scientists said they found no differences in cancer and rates of other health problems between North America and Europe.
The chapter on health effects had more than 200 references to various studies. “We really looked at that as carefully as we could,” said the panel chairman, Fred Gould, professor of entomology and co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University
A NAS “study stating that foods and ingredients made from GM crops don’t have any health risks or impacts associated with them is clearly an important finding that I hope will alleviate concerns that members of the public may have,” said Greg Jaffe, director of biotechnology for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group.
Brian Baenig, executive vice president of food and agriculture for the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, said the study “reiterates what the world’s scientific authorities have repeatedly concluded over the years: that agricultural biotechnology has many demonstrated benefits to farmers, consumers, and the environment.”
But the study also will provide ammunition to critics of biotechnology who question whether it is needed, safe or not. The scientists reviewed USDA data and found no evidence that biotech varieties had substantially increased the rate of U.S. yield growth, which Gould said came as a surprise to the scientists.
Traits that could have a significant impact on yields in the future, including nitrogen efficiency and enhanced photosynthesis, were very difficult to develop and were a long way from getting to the market, the study said.
“There is great uncertainty regarding whether traits developed with emerging genetic-engineering technologies will increase crop potential yield by improving photosynthesis and increasing nutrient use. Including such GE traits in policy planning as major contributors to feeding the world must be accompanied by strong caveats,” the study said.
The two main existing traits that have been commercialized so far, pest resistance and herbicide tolerance, will likely be added to new crops, said Gould.
Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group and a leading lobbyist for mandatory biotech labeling, said the finding that biotechnology hasn’t increased crop yields “flies in the face of popular perceptions of GMO crops.”
Still, the scientists said there was evidence that Bt crops had decreased yield losses as well as the use of synthetic insecticides. In fact, the Bt toxin has been so successful in fighting the European corn borer in parts of the Midwest that it no longer makes economic sense for farmers to use the trait, the study said.
The report said herbicide tolerances offer different benefits to farmers, including savings in labor and herbicide costs. The study said that planting of herbicide-tolerant soybeans had increased at the same time as no-till conservation practices had spread, but the scientists said it was not clear that one caused the other.
The most immediate impact of the study may be on the GMO labeling issue. Consumers Union immediately seized on the report to support its push for mandatory labeling. “When it comes to GMO labels, the NAS report points out that there are value choices that consumers want to make when they shop for food. We’re pleased to see that the report cites the wealth of polling data showing consumers want GMO labeling,” stated Michael Hansen, senior scientist for the group, which publishes Consumer Reports.
The study warned that the short-term cost of labeling biotech products would be small, but the long-term impact could be significant, because companies would be forced to ensure that ensure that their supply chains keep non-biotech commodities separate from GMO versions.
Panel member Michael Rodemeyer, a science policy specialist who founded the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology after serving as a science adviser in Congress and the Clinton administration, told Agri-Pulse that the researchers couldn’t find good estimates of the cost.
“The cost of just putting a label on a can is trivial. That’s not the issue. The issue is if the label is viewed as a warning label by consumers, companies are going to want to reformulate their products as they have in Europe to get rid of GM ingredients so they don’t have to label,” Rodemeyer said. “If they do that, they also have to monitor the supplies coming in.… The result of that is that there is this pressure downstream to say, ‘Let’s just get rid of GM content entirely.’”
Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he remains optimistic that he can reach an agreement on the biotech disclosure issue amid signs that companies will reformulate products to avoid GMO labeling.
Roberts told Agri-Pulse that an executive with Coca-Cola warned him that the company could change its sweetener so it didn’t have to label. High fructose corn syrup and beet sugar are both genetically engineered. “Reformulation is happening, which is what I’ve been saying for a long time,” Roberts said.
A spokesman for Coca-Cola would only say that a senior executive from the company had recently visited Senate offices. The company’s official statement is that it supports national labeling standards. “Until Congress adopts the best uniform approach for consumers, we will continue to comply with all applicable labeling requirements,” the statement says.
USDA said Tuesday that it was increasing imports of cane sugar to deal with U.S. demand for non-GMO sweetener.
The latest compromise proposed by the committee’s ranking Democrat, Debbie Stabenow, includes some provisions that are still “problematic,” Roberts said. He didn’t specify what they were, but he did provide one detail of what is likely to be in a final agreement: USDA will be assigned to decide what language or symbols should appear on food labels.
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