The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine already examined genetically engineered (GE) crops once, concluding six years ago that the facts do not justify the fears about “Frankenfoods.” Overblown worries nevertheless continue to proliferate, prompting a movement to stigmatize genetically engineered crops by requiring labels on food packaging. Meanwhile, the technology also has advanced: New tools will allow scientists to more precisely cut and paste genetic code. So the National Academies have again tried to sort things out, releasing another authoritative report Tuesday that refutes the counterproductive scaremongering from the anti-genetically-engineered side. It also points to a bright future in which these crops help solve a range of problems — if governments get the policy right.
The National Academies experts reviewed the relevant studies and solicited huge amounts of feedback. The upshot? “No differences have been found that implicate a higher risk to human health safety from these GE foods than from their non-GE counterparts,” they concluded. They based their findings partially on a comparison of European countries, where genetically engineered crops generally are not used, and the United States, where they are plentiful. They could find no significant differences attributable to genetically engineered crops, across a range of diseases and disorders.
Moreover, the experts concluded, “the committee found no conclusive evidence of cause-and-effect relationships between GE crops and environmental problems.” Among other things, the scientists found concerns that the crops are degrading plant and animal biodiversity to be insubstantial.
The major problem with insect- and herbicide-resistant genetically engineered plant varieties appears to be that, particularly if used irresponsibly, they can lead to resistant bugs and weeds, which would require more gene editing and new herbicides. The experts also found that, while small and large farms seem to be benefiting from the crops, there is mixed evidence — at best — that planting them has increased yields, which is a major goal of the research.
Rather than be discouraged by these findings, the experts argued that research and investment in genetically engineered technologies should increase. Crops could be modified to show “improved tolerance to abiotic stresses, such as drought and thermal extremes; increased efficiency in plant biological processes, such as photosynthesis and nitrogen use; and improved nutrient content,” the report noted. The experts concluded: “If deployed appropriately, those traits will almost certainly increase harvestable yields and decrease the probability of losing crop plantings to major insect or disease outbreaks.” Though not a silver bullet, genetic engineering could help feed a growing world population.
World governments must balance needed regulation with innovation. The report’s authors recommend that regulators spend less time worrying about how new crops are made and instead focus on how different they are from earlier ones. Strong rules should ensure that new crop varieties do not lead to unsustainable farming and environmental degradation on marginal lands. It will also be important to train farmers in how to prevent resistance among the bugs and weeds at which genetically engineered crops are targeted.
By contrast, giving in to extravagant and unfounded fears, as the Europeans have, would shut down fruitful research that could help feed many people, especially in poorer parts of the world.