National Academies issue report, “Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects”

The National Academies (the collected group of the National Academies of Medicine, Engineering and Sciences) are an independent body that provides advice to thenap government, but does not hold law-making powers.  The National Academies recently released a report, “Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects”. The report was commissioned to examine the evidence behind some of the claims made about GE crops, both those that claim great benefits and those that claim great risks, and it was sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the New Venture Fund, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with additional support from the National Academy of Sciences.

One of the main conclusions of this 400 page report is that we should refine our conversations and get away from the binary (GE or not-GE) arguments and instead talk about specific crop varieties, focusing on their traits rather than the process through which they were produced. The report also observes that even in terms of process, the line between GE and non-GE is blurred by new methods such as gene editing by CRISPR/Cas, RNAi and many forms of mutagenesis that are not classically defined as genetic engineering.

Other conclusions of the report are:

  • The two most widely planted traits, herbicide tolerance and insect resistance have on the one hand led to higher yields and lower applications of insecticides, but management techniques are critical for their success or failure
  • There is no persuasive evidence of adverse health effects directly attributable to consumption of foods derived from GE crops
  • There is no evidence from USDA data that genetic engineering has increased the rate at which U.S. crop yields are increasing
  • GE crops alone are not able to address the complex challenges to productivity on small-scale farms in food insecure places.
  • Balanced public investment in diverse GE and non-GE approaches is recommended to address food security
  • -Omics technologies can provide a “fingerprint” of a plant’s composition and should enhance the ability to evaluate a crop with novel characteristics

Evidence for each of these points, drawn from the primary literature and placed into context, is presented in the report.  Although long, the report is well organized and it would be good to familiarize yourself with its contents (it is free to download) You can also download read a four-page PDF report summary, see videos from the public release event, and browse some of the evidence and presentations viewed during the preparation of the report here.s

As the committee chair Fred Gould, committee chair, says, “We are hoping that our report is not just this big tome, but is something that starts a conversation, and what I mean is a real conversation.” Given that for years scientists and society broadly have been speaking at cross purposes about this issue, it would be a welcome change to engage in a real conversation.

Several news organizations and individuals provided useful context and thoughtful opinions about the release of this report, including:

Achenbach, J. (2016). Are GMO crops safe? Focus on the plant, not the process, scientists say. Washington Post, 17 May 2016.

Editorial (2016). The Observer view on the GM crops debate. Observer, 22 May 2016.

Hamblin, J. (2016). The fading meaning of GMO. The Atlantic, 17 May 2016.

Haspel, T. (2016). Scientists say GMO foods are safe, public skepticism remains. National Geographic, 17 May 2016.

Heikkenin, C (2016). Genetically Engineered Crops Are Safe and Possibly Good for Climate Change. Climatewire (reprinted in Scientific American).

Johnson, N. (2016). Here’s where the science on GMOs stands. Grist, 18 May, 2016.

Shipman, M. (2016). Assessing the Positive and Negative Claims About Genetically Engineered Crops. North Carolina State News, 17 May, 2016.

Pollack, A. (2016). Genetically engineered crops are safe, analysis finds. New York Times, 17 May 2016.

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