Last week, the National Academies of Science (NAS) attracted much media attention with the release of its new report, "Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects." The report assessed a range of health, environmental, social and economic impacts of GE crops.
According to report authors, genetically engineered (GE) crops have failed to live up to the hype advertised by corporate manufacturers. And more rigorous monitoring and oversight by regulatory agencies is needed, they say, to protect against unexpected adverse outcomes. I heartily agree.
Unfortunately, these and other important findings are buried within the report’s 400+ pages — and then glossed over in the authors’ own recommendations, as well as in the NAS press release that paints a decidedly more upbeat picture of the impacts of GE crops.
Failure to deliver
A popular and oft-repeated claim by the biotech industry is that GE crops boost yields and are necessary to “feed the world.” The prestigious and most comprehensive assessment of agriculture ever to have taken place — the UN-led International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) — already shredded that thesis in its 2008 landmark study authored by over 400 scientists and development experts from more than 80 countries. GE crops, the IAASTD found, primarily serve to boost multinational corporations' profits rather than to benefit poor and small-scale farmers around the world.
The 20 authors of the far more limited NAS study agreed that GE crops have not contributed to measurable increases in crop yield or even “readily identifiable economic benefits” for many farmers. And the authors acknowledge that given the considerable uncertainty around emerging GE technologies’ potential future impact on yield, and the fact that feeding the world involves “much more than simply increasing crop production,” GE products themselves are unlikely to offer much in this regard. The NAS report even emphasized the importance of agroecology in meeting global food demands, stating its awareness “of the central role that agroecology plays in fostering resilience in agriculture” — a high-level finding of the IAASTD as well.
Disconnecting the dots?
Yet, despite its findings on these issues of global concern, the NAS authors frequently backpedal when it comes to articulating salient recommendations. For example, on the one hand, the authors state that "given the uncertainty about how much emerging genetic-engineering technologies will increase crop production, viewing such technologies as major contributors to feeding the world must be accompanied by careful caveats."
But next, the authors recommend that “balanced public investment in emerging genetic-engineering technologies and in a variety of other approaches should be made because it will be critical for decreasing the risk of global and local food shortages.” This statement, like many others in the report, can easily be misconstrued as a call for continued or increased investment in GE technologies in order to “feed the world,” when such a recommendation does not follow logically from the report’s conclusions.
While I am pleased to see NAS tackle many of the controversies surrounding GE crops, it's disturbing to notice that all too often the committee’s recommendations are disconnected from the substance of its own findings. As ever, the devil is in the details of what is subtly rephrased — with the resulting take-away message no longer in line with the evidence supplied.
Digging deeper into the weeds
The NAS study concludes, not surprisingly, that widespread planting of GE crops in the U.S. has led to a significant increase in herbicide use (primarily glyphosate, now classified by the World Health Organization as a probable carcinogen). The report acknowledges that the emergence of glyphosate-resistant weeds — now infesting over 60 million acres of U.S. farmland — is a “major agricultural problem.” USDA’s controversial approval of a raft of new herbicide-resistant GE seeds, such as Dow’s 2,4-D resistant corn, cotton and soybean, is duly noted.
Yet the NAS authors inexplicably stop short of fully investigating and forming much-needed recommendations relating to the complex rippling effects of the pesticide-and-transgenic treadmill — or related impacts of seed and pesticide industry concentration — on farm size and viability, farmers’ livelihoods, and rural communities’ health and wellbeing.
In terms of environmental impacts of GE crops, the NAS group states they found little evidence for concern. Here, again, the report's conclusions don't square with specific findings. How can there be little evidence for environmental concern when report authors recognize that herbicide-resistant crops have led to the expansion of acreage devoted to pesticide-intensive industrial agriculture and a dramatic increase in herbicide use? Entire landscapes and regions of the world have been altered as a direct result.
Safe for whom?
The NAS study's most publicized conclusion is that authors found no evidence of adverse health effects from consumption of GE foods. Not surprisingly, several media outlets quickly latched onto the grossly simplified finding that “GMOs are safe.”
But as Maywa Montenegro, a PhD candidate in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley, points out,
“The NAS report’s approach to assessing risk has been circumscribed to a very narrow slice of 'safety': that is, risk to the person of ingesting GE food. Does this blinkered approach to safety warrant neglecting the safety of farmworkers and family farmers who produce the food? Has this study sufficiently queried the long-term human and environmental impacts of using glyphosate and 2,4-D? How safe is the spread of patented GE seed technologies for Indigenous knowledge, practices and culture? And how safe is it for a handful of corporations to control roughly 60% of commercial seeds globally?"
These are the types of questions that the NAS committee ought to have been investigating from the start.
From the earliest days of this exercise, many of us in the scientific community — including 67 scientists, researchers and professionals — expressed concern and skepticism regarding the NAS’ selection of committee members. An investigation by Food and Water Watch revealed that, ultimately, over half of the NAS GE report committee has or had ties to the biotech industry — or to industry-sponsored or funded groups.
Clearly the NAS could and should have done better in its investigation. More fundamentally, it should not be “good enough” to find evidence of little or no harm (a conclusion we dispute, in any case). If GE technologies are not in fact improving sustainability, resilience or equitable relationships within our food system, we should not be wasting our time trying to legitimize our continued reliance on them.