WASHINGTON, Dec. 14, 2016 - Seven months after its release, the report by the National Academy of Sciences on “Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects,” has failed to narrow the divide between the consensus of scientists and evidence-based analysts that biotech crops are safe and the many skeptics or outright denialists who see theoretical dangers lurking in the newest technology.
While the study affirmed the safety of biotech crops that are now on the market, Michael Rodemeyer, a member of the academies’ panel who headed the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology in 2000-2005, believes that it is not likely to do away with barriers to agricultural biotechnology. “I don’t see the various viewpoints changing,” he said. “Frankly, it’s going to be a cost of doing business for some time to come.”
Rodemeyer was one of several experts, including officials of a dozen-plus scientific societies, who spoke last week at a day-long assessment of the May 2016 report, billed by the academies as “the most up-to-date and objective scientific assessment of GE crops available today.” Many speakers echoed frustration that biotech believers have not convinced a doubting public.
“People want simple answers but we don’t have simple answers,” said Rural Sociological Society President Doug Jackson-Smith of Ohio State. Representatives of several societies were “scratching (their) heads about how do we communicate with the public and policymakers,” said Fred Gould, the North Carolina State University professor who chaired the committee that wrote the report. While many people say, “Please, please, just give the public an answer” as to whether GMO’s are safe or not, Gould said. “I’m not sure how we and scholars and scientists address this. We are not used to it.”
Greg Jaffe, director of biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said he was disappointed that the academies did not recommend specific improvements in U.S. regulation of agricultural biotechnology. “It would have had a lot more teeth if it proposed authority for post-approval monitoring” of biotech crops after USDA allows their commercial planting.
Rodemeyer pointed out that the report examined the different biotech regulatory systems in the United States, the European Union, Brazil and Canada that “represent very divergent approaches to regulation.” Some countries consider not only technical safety but “much broader cultural and social issues,” he said. “That divergence is not likely to go away soon,” causing trade disputes.
Although the committee did not offer specific prescriptions for U.S. regulation, it “recommended that we look more to Canada as a rational system of regulation that focuses on novelty as a characteristic of new plants to be regulated,” he said. Such a system would flag new features of a plant to see whether it may pose a hazard, he added. “The idea is not necessarily to prove safety but to prove that it is essentially as safe as its conventional counterpart.”
More pointed criticism of the report came coincidentally in a paper published in the December issue of Nature Biotechnology by Henry Miller of the Hoover Institution and Val Giddings of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Hoover was at FDA and Giddings at USDA when the current biotech regulatory system was devised 30 years ago.
The report “contains far more equivocation than the data justify,” they wrote, and “fails to offer U.S. policymakers clear, concise conclusions and recommendations on the single most salient and critical policy issue – the need for regulatory rationalization to make government oversight of new plant varieties scientifically defensible and risk-based.”
“Most important, it muddies the debate about yields of GE crops compared with ‘conventionally’ bred crops, gives undue credence and prominence to views backed by paltry peer-reviewed evidence,” Miller and Giddings asserted. The report also “provides precious little direction to policymakers on how to recalibrate the regulatory framework to emphasize science-based risk assessment and reduce discrimination against GE products compared with non-GE products.”
The committee failed to recognize that current regulation imposes “egregiously disproportionate constraints on GE products with lower hazards and risk potential than those crafted with conventional genetic modification techniques,” they wrote. “In other words, federal agencies have created regulatory regimes in which risk is inversely related to the degree of regulatory scrutiny.” They faulted the system for creating disincentives to research, development, and innovation with “no benefits whatsoever in terms of safety or improved sustainability.”
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