Genetically modified crops pose no apparent risk to human health, an extensive study released Tuesday by a U.S. science advisory board has concluded.
Crops created through genetic engineering are as safe to eat as crops developed through traditional plant-breeding methods, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine panel.
The panel could find no link between consumption of genetically modified crops and rates of cancer, kidney disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, gastrointestinal diseases, celiac disease, food allergies or autism, the report stated.
“We compared the patterns in the U.S. and Canada to the patterns in the U.K. [United Kingdom] and the E.U. [European Union], because in those countries people are not eating genetically engineered foods,” said panel chairman Fred Gould, a professor of agriculture at North Carolina State University. “We did not see a difference [in health risks] in those patterns.”
Because of this, there is “no justification for labeling for food safety purposes” any produce in the supermarket as a genetically modified product, said committee member Michael Rodemeyer, an expert on food and biotechnology who is retired from the University of Virginia.
Genetically engineered crops have been planted on about 12 percent of the world’s total cropland, the experts found.
The 388-page report, requested by the National Academies to review the scientific evidence, represented an attempt to clear up a “confusing landscape for the public and policy makers,” Gould said.
“There are people who are saying without genetically engineered crops, we’re never going to be able to feed the world in 2050, and there are people who say eating a genetically engineered crop will cause sterility or cancer,” he said. “There are a lot of things floating around, and there was clear need for a study to carefully examine the evidence behind those claims.”
Joan Salge Blake, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said the report shows that “there could be going forward, based on the science, a marriage of conventional breeding and genetically enhanced food that could help us have sustainable food systems for the world.”
The creation of new crops through genetic manipulation is something that predates modern laboratory genetic tinkering, Blake noted. She cited the tangelo, which is a crossbreed between a tangerine and a grapefruit.
“Nobody gets upset about a tangelo,” said Blake, a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor at Boston University’s Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.
However, the report also found that genetically modified crops — sometimes called GE crops — are not living up to their promise of radically improving crop yields to help feed hungry people around the world.
Crops designed to be resistant to insects and herbicides — used to kill weeds — appear to help farmers in the field. But, “we could find no evidence from USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] data that genetic engineering has increased the rate at which U.S. crop yields are increasing,” Gould said.
There also is evidence that some weeds have developed resistance to herbicides as a result of herbicide-resistant GE crops, the committee found. Some critics have warned that if farmers start laying on heavier doses of herbicide to kill these weeds, then herbicides could threaten human health by working their way into the soil and groundwater.
The committee came to its conclusions after hearing from 80 experts, reviewing more than 700 comments, and evaluating hundreds of studies, the report stated.
There is some evidence that genetically modified crops have benefited human health, the panel found. For example, insect-resistant crops appear to have reduced insecticide poisonings in humans, because farmers don’t have to protect their fields with dangerous pesticides, the report said.
Looking forward, genetically engineered crops now in development actually could protect human health and better feed the world, the panel said.
“Golden Rice,” a type of rice genetically engineered to increase its beta-carotene content, could help prevent vision loss and blindness in developing nations, the experts said. Each year, as many as 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children go blind, and half of them die within a year of losing their sight, according to the report.
So far, farmers have only made widespread use of genetically modified crops engineered for resistance to insects and herbicides, the committee found.
Three crops — corn, soybean and cotton — represent the majority of genetically engineered crop production, even though there are 12 genetically modified crops that have been approved for commercial use in the United States, Gould said.
The committee recommends that future regulation of crops should focus on a plant’s characteristics rather than the process by which it was developed.
Newer scientific techniques like gene editing have blurred the boundary between engineered and naturally developed plant crops, the panel found. “There’s no longer a clear distinction between crop improvement approaches,” Gould said.
Gould likened the situation to how cellphones and laptop computers used to be completely separate devices. “Today, if you asked somebody about their cellphone and what they’re using it for, it would be doing most of the things their laptop was doing back in 1996,” he said.
Bruce Chassy, an emeritus professor of biochemistry and food science at the University of Illinois, told the Associated Press that the report offers a sensible, fact-based evaluation that refutes many fears regarding genetically modified crops.
“There’s just no sound basis for their opposition just as there was never any scientific basis to believe [genetically modified crops] should be viewed any differently than any other,” Chassy said.
Some groups opposed to genetically engineering foods criticized the report before it was released. Food & Water Watch said the National Academy accepted funding from biotechnology firms and used “pro-GMO scientists” to write its reports, the AP reported.
Funding for the report came from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the New Venture Fund, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Academy. It was then reviewed by outside experts.
For more on genetically modified foods, visit the World Health Organization.
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