In a recently released 400-plus page report, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine reviewed hundreds of studies and decades of disease data and reached the conclusion that genetically modified organisms pose no increased risk to human health.
For many, including scientists with Texas A&M AgriLife Research, this validates the need to keep GMOs as part of the global food supply as a means to help feed an ever-increasing world population.
“Genetic modifications to crops like corn, soybeans and cotton undergo rigorous testing and approval over a time period of anywhere from five to eight years by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture and/or Food and Drug Administration,” said Dr. Bill McCutchen, executive associate director of AgriLife Research, College Station. “The development of genetically modified crops that are insect and disease tolerant has reduced the amount of chemical inputs needed and reduced the overall environmental impact associated with growing these crops.”
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As an example of how biotechnology can improve crops, McCutchen cited a collaboration by AgriLife Research and Florida-based Southern Gardens Citrus to investigate introducing spinach proteins into citrus trees to provide a genetic defense against citrus greening, a disease responsible for millions of dollars in citrus crop losses annually.
Research conducted by Dr. Erik Mirkov, an AgriLife Research plant pathologist at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco, resulted in the production of proteins that appear to provide effective control of citrus greening, as well as defending against diseases in other plants.
GMO RIGOROUS TESTING
“These genetic modifications will have a positive impact on agriculture, and the public should be aware of the rigorous testing that goes into their development,” McCutchen said.
McCutchen also noted while current regulations regarding GMO development are stringent, advances in DNA editing technology could facilitate approval in the future.
“Some individuals will dig in against technology for a variety of reasons, ethical or otherwise, no matter who speaks on its behalf or the weight of the body of evidence,” said Dr. Peter Murano in the department of nutrition and food science at Texas A&M University in College Station. “Genetically modified organisms and genetically engineered crops and foods are an example of such an issue.”
However, genetic modification techniques and genetically modified crops and foods are already widespread and have been part of the diet of many millions worldwide for years, Murano said.
Murano noted the National Academies’ study was “reportedly conducted free of any biotech industry money, and all the scientists involved were put through a vetting process to be sure none of those writing the report could be charged with having financial conflicts of interests.”
As former director of Texas A&M’s Institute for Obesity Research and Program Evaluation, Murano also said the report effectively rejects assertions by critics that GMOs have been responsible for increased instances of obesity and diabetes.
“Given the result of this study and the potential of GMOs to address crop diseases and pests and abate human hunger, suffering and death as the world population soars to 9 or 10 billion, a compelling case has been made for the continued use of GMOs in the world food supply,” he said.
CITING NORMAN BORLAUG
Murano cited Dr. Norman Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and father of the Green Revolution, saying it is “arrogance” for those in the affluent, developed world who can talk about buying more expensive organic foods produced without chemicals to expect people and nations with little or no wealth to do the same.
“Even if they did, those crops, being more expensive to grow, more expensive to purchase and providing lower yields, won’t meet the increased consumer demand of the future,” he said. “No matter which side you may be on – it is significant that the world scientific community has validated the safety of GMOs and GM foods.”
Borlaug’s granddaughter, Julie Borlaug, who serves as associate director for external relations at the Dr. Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture in College Station, part of AgriLife Research, said her grandfather was a strong proponent of science and biotechnology as weapons in the fight against world hunger.
“He thought whatever technology was available to improve crops and fight hunger should be available to the small-landholder farmer,” she said. “He would have been disappointed and surprised by the unscientific, subjective and persistent misinformation that has been so widely disseminated about GMOs.”
Borlaug said she hopes the study by the National Academies will help take a lot of the “fear and irrationality” out of the GMO debate.
“I realize that in the past we pro-GMO people could have done a better job of explaining the science and safety of GMOs, but this report is a long-term, comprehensive, exhaustive analysis of a huge body of evidence and the results speak for themselves,” she said.
Borlaug reiterated her grandfather’s position that GMOs can help resolve the world’s food crisis and said science and biotechnology can help reduce the need for agricultural chemical inputs, reduce the carbon imprint from mechanized plowing and tilling, and create more nutritious foods that can grow in difficult environments.
“There’s no doubt GMOs will continue to be an effective weapon in the war on global hunger,” she said. “But they aren’t the only weapon and we need to continue to look for additional safe ways to increase agricultural yields to feed a growing world population.”