In recent years, a flood of food and restaurant brands have been getting rid of genetically engineered ingredients in their products, responding to consumers who think that these ingredients are bad for their health—even though most scientists say that they are perfectly safe. Vermont now requires companies label these ingredients on food packaging.
The nation’s most respected scientific body, the National Academy of Sciences, weighed in on Monday and their answer was clear: genetically engineered crops are safe to eat and don’t pose health risks. It doesn’t say whether they should be labeled, though.
The conclusion is unsurprising to anyone who had followed the debate over genetically engineered crops.
The biggest chasm in belief between the scientific community and the public concerns the topic, even more than climate change or the science-denying controversy over vaccines and autism. Even though almost 9 in 10 scientists have said genetically modified foods (often called GMOs) are safe to eat, fewer than 40% of Americans agree, surveys have shown—much of the disagreement owing to psychology rather than evidence. By this point, this report is unlikely to change the debate much. Groups that have long opposed GMOs have criticized the Academy’s process, since some of its members have ties to the agriculture and biotech industry.
The report, which examined 900 studies and held multiple meetings over two years, is most interesting for other reasons.
Since they came into commercial use 20 years ago, GMOs may have been controversial but actually haven’t been very effective, the report concluded, falling short of their promise that they can feed the world. In fact, there isn’t strong evidence that the use of genetic engineering has increased crop yields—which is the main purpose of the two most common traits that are inserted into plants: insect and herbicide resistance. In some cases, they have reduced the amount of insecticides used, saving farmers money. But without proper pest and weed management, the irresponsible overuse in other cases (especially of products like Monsanto’s weed killer Roundup) is leading to the development of resistance anyway—the report calls this a "major agronomic problem." And while Roundup-resistant crops might not be a health problem, there is a much bigger debate over whether the main ingredient in Roundup, glyphosate, poses a cancer risk.
Today, GMOs are commercially available in 12 crops, but mostly used in three major cash crops: maize, soybean, and cotton. The United States, despite its consumer reluctance, grows 40% of the world’s GMOs and regulations are relatively lax (Europe, meanwhile bans them). What the report doesn’t get much into—and what at least some critics of GMOs emphasize—is less about the science and more about the way that these crops are fed into the industrial food system dominated by biotech giants that have stifled small-scale organic farming systems and encouraged unsustainable forms of agriculture to dominate.
This debate over GMOs seems old-fashioned in many ways. The field is poised to change dramatically, with the development of new methods in gene editing like CRISPR—which allows scientists to precisely add or delete DNA to a crop in a sped-up version of what might happen with conventional plant breeding anyway. And so the lines between genetically modified and "natural" breeding methods are not so clear anymore.
Fred Gould, the evolutionary biologist who headed the panel, compares this change to the blurring boundary between cell phones and laptops. Twenty years ago, these technologies were clearly used for different purposes—-today, we do most of the same things on both.
Gene editing introduces entirely new questions about the risks of food technologies that only worsen the regulatory morass. In April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowed the first two gene-edited crops—a mushroom that resists browning and a waxy corn—on the market without going through the agency’s regulatory process.
In general, new regulatory approaches are probably needed for both gene edited and genetically engineered crops. The National Academies says that it’s a mistake that regulations are made based on the technology used to create crops, rather than making individual judgments based on the crops themselves. The Obama administration is now in the processing of reconsidering how federal agencies evaluate all biotech crops, drugs, and other products, especially in light of the explosion in gene editing to come.
University of Georgia crop and soil science professor Wayne Parrott, in a statement, possibly put it best. He said genetic engineering is neither a panacea nor is it a "dreaded monster." He said: "The inescapable conclusion, after reading the report, is that GE crops are pretty much just crops."