While the debate rages on, a recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine states genetically engineered crops pose no risk to human or animal health and do not harm the environment. The 388-page report was compiled over two years by a committee of more than 50 scientists who dug through hundreds of research papers, publications and public comments, and heard from 80 speakers at public meetings.
“We dug deeply into the literature to take a fresh look at the data on genetic engineering [GE] and conventionally bred crops,” says Committee Chair Fred Gould, professor of entomology and co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University. “The committee focused on listening carefully and responding thoughtfully to members of the public who have concerns about GE crops and foods, as well as those who feel there are great benefits to be had from these crops.”
But researchers say the distinction between genetic engineering and conventional plant breeding is blurring, rendering murky results on whether GMOs actually increase crop yield. Farmers who grow GE crops do, however, appear to make more money than competitors who grow conventional crops.
Scientists have long used genetic engineering to produce particular characteristics in plants such as longer shelf life for fruit, higher vitamin content and resistance to diseases. However, the only genetically engineered characteristics that have been put into widespread commercial use are those that allow a crop to withstand the application of an herbicide or to be toxic to insect pests. Because of this, the committee avoided sweeping, generalized statements about the benefits and risks of GE crops.
The report garnered praise from many in the food industry and scientific community, but was rejected by some consumer and special interest groups. For instance, Food & Water Watch questioned the report’s findings, alleging the National Research Council has “far-reaching, unmanaged conflicts of interest.”
“Weak, watered-down or biased findings from the NRC have a very real impact on our food system. Policymakers develop ‘science-based’ rules and regulations on GMOs based on what the science says—especially what the NRC says, because it is part of the National Academy of Sciences, chartered by Congress to provide scientific advice to the federal government,” the group says.