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Big report puts seal of approval on GMOs

Release of first third-party comprehensive look at genetic engineering tech for crops offers good news, but shows areas of concern as well. Short answer: The tech is safe.

There's nothing like a report on genetically engineered foods to get people going, yet digging into the 400 page report is where the real work belongs. A new report - Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and prospects - was released this week by the National Academy of Sciences - Sciences, Engineering, Medicine. The short answer is that the study group notes that GMOs are safe, but the report offers a sober look at the technology and raised some questions for the future.

The researchers pored over 1,000 articles, 900 just on commercially available crops available today, to examine work that was done on a variety of aspects of genetically enhanced crops. And while they found there were no health concerns for the technology they also found gaps in animal research and noted that the promise of higher-yielding crops due to genetic engineering had yet to be delivered.

Fred Gould, committee chair, for the 400-page report, explained that the 20 diverse members of the committee did bring a wide range of ideas, and approaches, to the GMO discussion.

"The motivation for this study included the claims and research that extolled the benefits, and risks, which created a confusing landscape for the public and policy makers," Gould says. He pointed to claims by some that without the technology it wouldn't be possible to feed the 9 billion people expected by 2050, and claims by others that GMO's cause sterility and cancer.

"There was a clear need for a study that carefully examined the evidence behind those claims and the rigor of the research," Gould says.

This report is being launched into a contentious environment. During the question and answer period during the release event, one group essentially claimed the report was tainted due to major corporate funding of the National Academy of Sciences by companies including Monsanto. The group - Food and Water Watch - released its own report the day before called Under the Influence: the National Research Council and GMOs, which the group claims is an issue brief that details what it says are conflicts of interst and predicts "watered down findings from a forthcoming National Research Council report."

Gould made it clear from the beginning of the release event that the team evaluating GMO research was being supported by organizations that have no GMO-related interests. The new study from the National Academy of Sciences, was sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the New Venture Fund, USDA and the National Academy of Sciences.

And the committee looking at GMOs for NAS had a wide range of opinions, Gould explains. Committee members with specific issues or concerns about GMO technology couldn't just voice that in committee meetings, he notes. "They had to come back with the data to support [their] claim and if there wasn't support that didn't wind up in the report."

This is a contentious issue, and the group went back to a 1996 National Research Council report called "Understanding Risk: Informing Decisions in a Democratic Society." That report explained that a purely technical assessment of risk could mean you answered the wrong questions. The key was bringing in credible discussion on the topic.

The report was developed in an involved process that included a wide range of public input with the aim of hearing from as many voices as possible. The range of input included the large multinational companies involved in the technology but also small companies raising their concerns and from people with real concerns about the safety and environmental suitability of these crops.

And they opened the process to public comment. "We got 700 comments and we read every one of them," Gould explains.

In addition to the 20-member panel preparing the report, there was a group of 26 members of a review group that subjected the report to a significant and thorough examination before publication.

A changing landscape

The first critical discovery for the committee was that new technologies are already blurring the distinctions for genetically modified crops. In 1996 there were genetically engineered crops and conventional crops and the two products different. Gould compares the distinction to a laptop and a cell phone in 1996.

His analogy was that in 1996 you used a laptop as a computer and a cellphone for calls, but today a cellphone does what most people used to do with the laptop. "It's the same kind of thing with genetic engineering and conventional breeding," he notes. "Conventional breeding is a high-tech practice right now. A major message from this report is that it is not possible to make sweeping generalizations about all genetically engineered crops."

The rising use of genotyping, genomics, proteomics, and other '-omics' in plant breeding are changing the way breeders look at tech. The report takes that into account offering perspective on ways to evaluate future technology in a changing regulatory environment. And the report focused most efforts on two technology areas - herbicide tolerance and insect resistance.

The report did look at agronomic and environmental effects, human health effects, and social and economic effects in the committee's analysis.

First up - agronomic and environmental effects, where Gould says there was no conclusive environmental problem associated with insect resistance or herbicide tolerance. The organization found that:

• Although gene flow has occurred, no examples have demonstrated an adverse environmental effect of gene flow from a GE crop to a wild, related plant species.

• No conclusive evidence of cause-and-effect relationships between GE crops and environmental problems.

• No evidence from USDA data that genetic engineering has increased the rate at which U.S. crop yields are increasing.

That last point on yield enhancement was confirmed with a trend-line review of corn, soybeans and cotton yield increases before the release of GMO tech and after. Essentially the yield growth trend did not change, yet farmers adopted the technology because of the increased flexibility for raising the crop with these tools and the reduced use of pesticides.

Gould noted that it is difficult to measure herbicide use and its impact adding that this data is not meaningful because a new herbicide that may be more environmentally friendly but require a higher rate would not show properly in a simple measure of amounts used. Say a new, better environment, herbicide needs 2 pounds per acre versus 1 pound per acre for the older chemistry. That raw number would show higher herbicide use, but the environmental benefit could be better.

Going back to the original

Gould notes that to better understand the development of GMO crops and their regulation, the committee reexamined the original studies conducted for their regulatory approval. "We have the meta-analyses, but we went back to the original studies with fresh eyes to re-examine that work," he notes.

One finding that will require review is that for animal studies "we did find most of them were not optimally designed," he notes, explaining that there wasn't good information on what the end points of the studies should be, and that there was no way to judge what the results meant.

The controversial Seralini study that showed a change in tumors in rats - which was retracted from a peer reviewed publication but later republished in a non-peer-reviewed publication - gets three pages of the 400 in this report. "We found that study to be underpowered," Gould says. "It was preliminary data and not conclusive from our perspective."

He adds that long-term data on health and feed conversion, and the efficiency of conversion was inconclusive.

As for human health, and those concerns, the tech has been in U.S. and Canadian diets for 20 years. "Similar to our projections of [crop] yield, we looked at data for cancers, chronic disease, patterns of disease, and we've not seen any evidence of that," Gould explains.

And for comparison, the committee looked at the same disease indicators in the United Kingdom and Europe - where GMO-food is not widely consumed - and found no difference in the patterns. He adds: "Human health effects can develop over time…it may take 40 years but it's hard to study that. Look at our changing perspective on eggs and salt, it's hard to figure out," Gould says.

Social and economic effects

The committee, in general, found that current evidence finds favorable economic outcomes for producers of GMO corn, soybeans and cotton, however the committee did find "high heterogeneity" in the results. In essence, big winners, but also losers with the tech.

Their caveat on the results is that while the tech provides economic benefits to many small-scale farmers in the early years of adoption, maintaining those gains depends on institutional support and access to profitable local and global markets. In essence, boosting yield for a small farmer does little good in a developing country if the infrastructure isn't there to help sell the crop to make the potential income from that increased yield.

Part of this economic analysis looked at the changing regulatory environment, the rise of emerging technologies and the increased precision of genetic enhancement along with rising complexity and diversity of the technology.

Regulatory impact

The report notes that regulatory processes for the technology differ by country because of broader social, political and cultural differences. And all issues can't be answered by technical assessments alone.

The group also expects disagreements among countries about regulatory models and resulting trade disagreements to continue as part of the international landscape.

The '-omics' discussion - genomics and proteomics are two examples - came up for future regulatory process development. With the ability to quickly "fingerprint" a plant and understand its genome, there could be more precise regulatory review. The committee offered a broad-brush look at that very issue showing a four-tier approach. The idea would be to compare the new variety with current varieties and go through the following analysis.

Tier 1 - if there was no measured difference between the old and new, no further testing would be required.

Tier 2 - if the "-omics" analysis showed differences that were understood and there were no expected health or environmental effects, that would require no further testing.

Tier 3 - If the analysis found differences that were understood with potential health or environmental effects, then further testing would be required.

Tier 4 - if differences can't be interpreted by the "-omics" analysis than further testing would be required.

This is a broad brush look at a way to fine-tune the regulatory process by bringing to bear the latest genetic tools.

Conclusions reached in the 400-page report will draw positive and negative reactions. Gould, during the question and answer session with a panel of committee members, reiterated that this was an ongoing dialogue and that if people had issues they should bring them to the committee for further discussion. GMO technology holds promise in a lot of areas. This objective assessment raises questions about future animal studies and the need to keep the broader social picture in mind when looking at new technology.

If you want to dig deeper into the 400-page report you'll find a link to a free download online (look for the blue download free box).

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