GE, conventional plant breeding distinction becoming less clear

Report says regulation should focus on plant's characteristics rather than the way it was developed.

An extensive new study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine (NAS) is generating a lot of buzz in the food and agriculture world.

The NAS study, “Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences & Prospects” found that new technologies in genetic engineering and conventional breeding are blurring the once clear distinctions between the two crop improvement approaches.

While recognizing the difficulty of detecting subtle or long-term effects on health or the environment, the study committee also found no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between the two crops, nor did it find conclusive cause-and-effect evidence of environmental problems from the genetically engineered (GE) crops. However, evolved resistance to current GE characteristics in crops is a major agricultural problem, the report suggests.

A tiered process for regulating new crop varieties should focus on a plant’s characteristics rather than the process by which it was developed, the committee recommended in its report.

Current U.S. policy on new plant varieties is, in theory, a “product-based" policy, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency determine which plants to regulate at least partially based on the process by which they are developed. A process-based approach, however, is becoming less and less technically defensible as the old approaches to genetic engineering become less novel and as emerging processes — such as genome editing and synthetic biology — fail to fit the current regulatory categories of genetic engineering, NAS said.

“Regulating authorities should be proactive in communicating information to the public about how emerging genetic engineering technologies or their products might be regulated and how new regulatory methods may be used,” the report notes. They should also proactively seek input from the public on these issues as not all issues can be answered by science alone. “Policy regarding GE crops has scientific, legal and social dimensions,” the report adds.

For example, on the basis of its review of the evidence on health effects, the committee does not believe that mandatory labeling of foods with GE content is justified to protect public health. However, it noted that the issue involves social and economic choices that go beyond technical assessments of health or environmental safety. Ultimately, it involves value choices that technical assessments alone cannot answer, the report says.

The committee said new plant varieties that have intended or unintended novel characteristics that may present potential hazards should undergo safety testing — regardless of whether they were developed using genetic engineering or conventional breeding techniques. New “-omics” technologies, which dramatically increase the ability to detect even small changes in plant characteristics, will be critical to detecting unintended changes in new crop varieties, NAS added.

The committee used evidence accumulated over the past two decades to assess purported negative effects and purported benefits of current commercial GE crops. Since the 1980s, biologists have used genetic engineering to produce particular characteristics in plants, such as longer shelf life for fruit, higher vitamin content and resistance to diseases. However, the only GE characteristics that have been put into widespread commercial use are those that allow a crop to withstand the application of a herbicide or to be toxic to insect pests.

The fact that only two characteristics have been widely used is one of the reasons the committee avoided sweeping, generalized statements about the benefits and risks of GE crops. Claims about the effects of existing GE crops often assume that those effects would apply to the genetic engineering process generally, but different characteristics are likely to have different effects. A GE characteristic that alters the nutritional content of a crop, for example, is unlikely to have the same environmental or economic effects as a characteristic for herbicide resistance.

The committee examined almost 900 research and other publications on the development, use and effects of GE characteristics in maize (corn), soybeans and cotton, which account for almost all commercial GE crops to date.

“We dug deeply into the literature to take a fresh look at the data on GE and conventionally bred crops,” said committee chair Fred Gould, university distinguished professor of entomology and co-director of the Genetic Engineering & Society Center at North Carolina State University. The committee also heard from 80 diverse speakers at three public meetings and 15 public webinars and read more than 700 public comments to broaden its understanding of issues surrounding GE crops.

“The committee focused on listening carefully and responding thoughtfully to members of the public who have concerns about GE crops and foods, as well as those who feel that there are great benefits to be had from GE crops,” Gould noted.

In response to new report, Brian Baenig, executive vice president of food and agriculture for the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), said, “BIO commends the NAS panel for maintaining a transparent and objective approach throughout the course of the study and for its commitment to a science-based process. Through a series of open meetings and webinars, which generated input from both opponents and proponents of the technology, the committee upheld its promise to embrace open engagement."

Baenig said BIO is pleased that the study reiterates what the world’s scientific authorities have concluded repeatedly over the years: that agricultural biotechnology has many demonstrated benefits to farmers, consumers and the environment.

The study was sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation, the New Venture Fund and USDA, with additional support from the National Academy of Sciences. 

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