The first genetically modified food to hit the market 22 years ago was a tomato that did not win any taste tests. But it did pass the food safety test, and genetically engineered food has ever since turned out to be as safe as any other.
Now in 400-page report released Tuesday, the prestigious National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine has found — based on 900 studies and reviews of the disease data out there — that there is no evidence of human health effects from the embrace of genetically modified crops.
While moving food safety of the genetically modified crops into the “settled science” category, the expert panel left plenty on the table to fight about. There’s disagreement about whether the herbicide glyphosate, often sold with genetically modified seeds, might cause cancer; about how genetically engineered (GE) fields might be impacting weed growth, pest growth and crop yields. The report also came down on the side of “transparency” over whether genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are associated with specific foods.
Since that first genetically engineered tomato showed up, acreage dedicated to so-called “biotech” crops reached 181.5 million hectares by 2014 before falling off by about 1 percent, with the current decline in commodity crops blamed. Developing countries — Central America, Asia and Africa — rely more on biotech crops than industrialized countries.
There are reportedly more than 85 genetically modified products in the pipeline, including water-efficient maize for Africa.
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.
The scientists looked at whether the suppression of milkweed by herbicides is causing any harm to the monarch population and found not only that it is not, but that indeed the monarch population during the past two years has made a moderate rebound. Milkweed is favored by the insect during its caterpillar state.
The National Academies are private, nonprofit organizations set up by Congress to provide advice on science, technology and medicine. The report identified environmental and economic benefits from genetic engineering to American agriculture.
It’s not known if the new findings will help the biotechnology industry get the U.S. Senate to establish a national labeling policy for genetically engineered food and ingredients before July 1. That’s when Vermont will begin imposing stiff fines on food companies that do not disclose on labels if genetically engineered food or ingredients are being used.
If required to make such a disclosure on the label, some advocates predict manufacturers will “reformulate” by using non-GE ingredients.
At about the same time the report was being released, Oregon overturned a voter-imposed ban on planting genetically engineered crops that voters in Josephine County approved. The ban was overturned by a local judge who said the ballot measure came too late to be effective as law.
The decision leaves only a ban on genetic crops in Jackson County, OR, as legally effective because it was approved before state lawmakers pre-empted local governments on the issue. Two local sugar beet farmers sued Josephine County when they sought to plant 100 acres of biotech sugar beets on leased land.
The Josephine County Commission is reviewing appeal options. Both Jackson and Josephine counties are located in southwest Oregon and both are more known for their timber production than farming of any kind.
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