The debate over genetically modified (GM) crops has raged in Europe since 1996, but had barely risen above a whisper in the USA until recent labeling debates raised public attention. This article will explain GM crops and traits discuss safety assessment provide a view on safety from authoritative organizations discuss selected issues of current debate, and provide the author’s perspective as to why the public debate has drifted so far from scientific reality.
The economic and environmental benefits of GM crops are beyond scope, but references are provided. GM food and feed undergo comprehensive assessments using recognized approaches to assure they are as safe as the conventional congener. Issues of food safety and nutrition, unrelated to the GM process, may arise when GM foods display novel components or composition. Unanticipated genetic effects in GM crops appear to be limited in contrast to existing variations among conventional varieties resulting from breeding, mutation, and natural mobile genetic elements.
Allergenic potential is assessed when selecting genes for introduction into GM crops and remains a theoretical risk to date. Emerging weed and insect resistance is not unique to GM technology and will require the use of integrated pest management/best practices for pest control. Gene flow from GM crops to wild relatives is limited by existing biological barriers but can at time be a relevant consideration in gene selection and planting practices.Insect-resistant GM crops have significantly reduced use of chemical insecticides and appear to have reduced the incidence of pesticide poisoning in areas where small scale farming and hand application are common. Changes in herbicide patterns are more complex and are evolving over time in response to weed resistance management needs.
Recent public debate is driven by a combination of unfounded allegations about the technology and purveyors, pseudoscience, and attempts to apply a strict precautionary principle... Authoritative organizations such as the FDA, World Health Organization, AAAS, the Royal Society of Medicine, and the National Academy of Science have affirmed the safety of GM crops. So, how did the public conversation on GM crops become so negative? Opponents of GM have used three approaches to drive negative public opinion. The first approach has been to create negative impressions about the developers and purveyors of this technology... A second approach is to question the science underlying GM safety, often via misinterpretation of data obtained in inappropriate test systems...
A third approach is to invoke the “precautionary principle.” As originally proposed, the principle stated that risk assessors and policy makers should take account of uncertainties... to provide adequate margins of safety. The absolute version employed by some suggests that in the presence of any uncertainty, we should not move forward. This is of course a “black hole”—one can never prove a negative and hence one can never move forward when employing the absolute precautionary principle. The latter ignores both the risks of existing technology and the benefits of innovation and leaves decision making in the hands of anyone who chooses to raise doubts. GM crops have a more than 20-year track record of being grown and used commercially without a single human illness known to be caused by GM food or feed. Moreover, billions of animals have been fed predominantly GM diets for consecutive generations with no evidence that animal health and productivity were affected. The safety assessment paradigm for GM crops is robust and well established, and the approach has been confirmed by authoritative regulatory agencies and scientific organizations around the globe. These are, by far, the most thoroughly assessed foods and feeds in human history, and the National Academies of Science concluded that risk or unintended effects of GM technologies falls within the range of risks for conventional breeding technologies—which include forced inter-species crosses and radiation-induced mutagenesis. We can move forward with high confidence that GM food and feed are as safe and nutritious as their conventional congeners and perhaps look forward to rationalizing food safety assessment across conventional, GM, and other new breeding technologies to achieve a more focused and resource-efficient safety assessment process.
Via Alexander J. Stein