Farmer’s friend or Frankenfood? GE crops reviewed, once again

Genevieve Croft
May 19, 2016

In the United States, knowingly or not, we all consume genetically engineered (GE) foods. Scientists and social activists have long clashed on whether these foods are safe for human consumption and the environment, and whether we even know enough about them to make this call. Last week, the National Academy of Sciences* released a consensus study on Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects to provide the latest evidence-based guidance on this contentious topic.

GE crops have been commercially available since 1994, when a tomato engineered with a gene to delay softening first hit the markets. Although the FLAVR SAVR tomato was not commercially successful, it paved the way for future crops.

The past twenty years have seen the exploration and refinement of laboratory tools and processes for genetically enhancing edible plants. While the first efforts inserted single genes into cells with little target specificity, scientists now contemplate applications of synthetic biology and highly precise gene editing techniques including CRISPR/Cas9.

Today, the most widely adopted crop modifications confer insect and/or herbicide resistance to corn, soybean, and cotton. They take on the most serious yield suppressors in the most economically important crops.

Public resistance to GE crops started strong and has shown no signs of relenting. At first glance, who would not want to eat only “natural” foods? Unfortunately, many anti-GE organizations delve no deeper than the surface. They commonly motivate the public, not with comprehensive data analyses demonstrating alleged harms, but rather by instilling doubt about research results a priori by accusing scholars of bias. They rename GE crops “frankenfoods” and fail to acknowledge that hybrid and other “conventional” seeds – presented as safer and more socially responsible alternatives – themselves result from increasingly technical breeding methods that individual farmers cannot replicate. Such campaigns have fueled public demands to label GE foods because “consumers have a right to know.”

And yet, there are costs to shunning available technologies. There are also costs to setting up an artificial food choice dichotomy. Much like labeling textbooks with stickers declaring that “evolution is just a theory,” labeling GE products implies a value judgement – in this case that there is something about GE foods that should concern the public.

The committee behind the 400-plus-page Academies study reviewed 900 academic references and 700 public comments. It convened three public meetings and 15 webinars over two years. Each element of the study process, findings, and recommendations is documented on the committee’s transparent study website. After extraordinarily detailed and careful consideration, it concluded that “no differences have been found that implicate a higher risk to human health safety from these GE foods than from their non-GE counterparts.”

Perhaps the most important finding of the committee is that “it is the product, not the process, that should be regulated.” Labeling foods may provide some illusion of consumer safety. However, true risks – to human health, the environment, or societies – cannot be determined solely on the basis of how a seed came to be.

Image: Glenn Carstens-Peters / Unsplash.com

Genevieve Croft

Genevieve is an Alumni Fellow (USAID, 2013-2015). She blogs about biotechnology, food security, and biodiversity. She has worked in Latin America as an evolutionary biologist, USAID representative, and Peace Corps volunteer. You can follow Genevieve on Twitter at @gencroft.

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