Reclaiming the future of food and farming

New GE report misses its own point

Marcia Ishii's picture
Ge seedlings lab

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.

Marcia Ishii
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SAWeir's picture
SAWeir /
<p>Thanks for pointing out, as I have many times in various venues, that the fact that no harmful effects of eating GMOs have been discovered -- yet -- does not by any means suggest that they are "safe." I still see unqualified claims to that effect in Scientific American magazine and elswhere, by people who should know better.</p> <p>I also oject to the use of the term, "genetic engineering." Engineering posits a much higher degree of understanding of the consequences of an action than we presently have of tinkering with genetic material. When modern engineering became a field of academic study (initially structural and mechanical engineering) we were building on several millennia of practical experience and a fair amount of rule-of-thumb theory. When electrical engineering became recognized as a topic of study we were building on nearly a century of intensive experimentation and analysis.</p> <p>While Mendels's fortuitous experiments were made more than a century ago, knowledge of the double-helical structure of the DNA molecule is only about 65 years old, and basic understanding of the mechanism of coding for specific amino acids barely fifty. Gene modification predates the discovery of the significance of the tertiary structure of DNA 15-25 years ago, which is still developing, with the very existence of epigenetic processes only recently confirmed.</p> <p>Living organisms are the most complex systems humans have ever attempted to analyze, with the probable exception of economies and societies, much of our "knowledge" of which is dubious at best. To claim that we can "engineer" genetic material to produce narrowly specific effects and no others may be the greatest act of hubris our species has comitted.</p>
risolom's picture
risolom /
<p>Thanks for a thorough summary of the flaws in this report. Perhaps they failed to make the appropriate conclusions because so many of the members are/have been affiliated with the biotech industry? &nbsp;Reminds me of the way in which research on tobacco was so flawed for so many years.</p> <p>I saw a documentary film on GE soybean plantations in Argentina. &nbsp;Apparently, the farm workers and their children living near the fields experienced dramatic increases in cancer rates secondary to pesticide exposure to these crops. Monsanto, of course, denied this. &nbsp;So did the ministry of agriculture in Buenos Aires. &nbsp;But then the Minister himself had received substantial financial contributions from Monsanto.</p>
Caw Z's picture
Caw Z /
<p>This article makes some very good points about this new report.</p> <p>The ambiguity of the report marks that it's really a pro-GMO technology piece of marketing work.</p> <p>Bascially, GMOs are safe according to the manipulated data of the corrupt corporate science community whose disinformation the corrupt mass media gladly distributes among the general unwitting public. Just like they did with this report. The uncorrupted science on GMOs shows they are not safe by any reasonable standard, whether to humans or the environment.</p> <p>What everyone should know is that there has been a long history of ignoring and suppressing the real dangers of GMO foods which are saturated with pesticides from the biotech industry.</p> <p>One of the earliest cases that has demonstrated that fact is the infamous tryptophan disaster of 1989 where the FDA ignored the warnings of their own scientists about the real risks of GMOs, simply to protect the business interests of the GMO industry, which they've been colluding with for decades - see</p> <p>The big benefits from GMO go to the corrupt GE industry and their associated profiteering "scientists" and government pawns such as the FDA but surely not to the public. It only does according to this cartel's hype and propaganda.</p> <p>The government-biotech industry cartel has the average person believing that they're protecting their health. Yet, lying about real facts, denying real facts, or minimizing or ignoring real facts is not protecting or helping the public, it's deceiving the public. That cartel also pays online trolls to denounce anti-gmo commentators and spread the corporate GMO hype.</p>
JBan-GMOs's picture
JBan-GMOs /
<p>“It is time to stop treating groups like the NAS as genuine scientists when all they do is promote products with propaganda that will further the ecological destruction of the earth and continue to ruin lives. In the reviews that I have read, not one mentioned anything about how this report will be used as a propaganda tool to push GMOs further into the world with fewer regulations. Not one.”<br /> GMO Information: May 29, 2016 - Ban GMOs Now; May 29, 2015<br /> [ ]</p>
Marcia Ishii's picture

Marcia Ishii is director of PAN’s Grassroots Science Program and a Senior Scientist with a background in insect ecology and pest management. Her campaign work focuses on supporting and strengthening agroecology movements and policies in the U.S. and globally, in addition to challenging corporate control of our food and seed systems. Follow @MarciaIshii