Transgenics: A report that does not end the debate

Transgenics: A report that does not end the debate

By Carmelo Ruiz Marrero

In their quest to legitimize transgenic products, their promoters allude to scientific reports that supposedly put an end to doubts about their safety. One of the most recent and significant was published last May by the United States National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The much publicized and commented report, which exceeds 400 pages, was celebrated by individuals and institutions that favor GMOs while critical sectors called it biased and scientifically deficient, and argue that this is far from being the final word in the debate on the transgenic biotechnology.

The document, entitled "Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects," was widely publicized and reviewed by media such as the New York Times and USA Today, National Public Radio, and Science, National Geographic, Forbes, National magazines. Review and Scientific American.

It says in the preamble to the report:

Transgenic crops were first introduced commercially in the 1990s. After two decades of production, some groups and individuals have remained critical of this technology based on their concerns about possible adverse effects on human health, the environment and ethical considerations. . At the same time, others are concerned that technology is not reaching its potential to improve human health and the environment due to strict regulations and scarce public funding to develop products that offer more benefits to society ...

(This report) follows up on previous (NAS) reports published between 1987 and 2010 by conducting a retrospective examination of the alleged positive and negative effects of GM crops and anticipating what emerging genetic engineering technologies may bring. This report indicates where the uncertainties lie about the economic, agronomic, health, safety, and other impacts of transgenic crops and foods, and makes recommendations to fill gaps in safety assessments, increase regulatory clarity, and improve innovations in and access to transgenic technology. (one)

The mainstream news media were quick to announce that the NAS report ended the controversy around GMOs and that opposition activists had been denied. According to a May 18 New York Times article by editor Andrew Pollack: "GM crops appear to be safe and harmless to the environment, according to a comprehensive new analysis by the advisory group National Academy of Sciences." (2)

The influential Scientific American magazine published an article titled "GM crops are safe and possibly good against climate change." According to the report, written by Niina Heikkinen: “In a comprehensive 400-page report, the highest-ranking scientific group in the country alleges that there is no evidence to support claims that genetically modified organisms are dangerous to the environment or health. human. At the same time, the introduction of genetically modified crops has had little apparent influence on the increase in agricultural productivity. " (3)

Biotech industry unions were delighted and released statements in support of the report's findings.

According to the Biotech Now website:

The Committee (which wrote the NAS report) read over 900 research publications, heard more than 80 diverse presenters at three public meetings and 15 webinars, and read more than 700 comments from members of the public to broaden its understanding of the issues. around transgenic crops.

The NAS panel concluded in its multi-year study that GM crops are as safe to eat as their non-GM counterparts, have no adverse environmental impacts, and have reduced pesticide use. In the report, the panel also said there was no evidence linking the consumption of GMO foods to an increase in food allergies.

According to the report, soybeans, cotton and corn with transgenic herbicide or insect resistance traits (or both) gave generally favorable economic results for growers who have adopted these crops, but there is great variation in the results. (4)

Brian Baenig, Executive Vice President of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), stated:

The BIO commends the NAS panel for maintaining a transparent and objective procedure throughout the course of its study and for its commitment to a science-based process.

Through a series of open meetings and webinars, which generated input from proponents as well as opponents of the technology, the Committee lifted its promise of openness.

After carefully examining the potential benefits and risks of GM crops and foods on the commercial market over the past two decades, we are pleased that the study reiterates what scientific authorities around the world have repeatedly concluded over the years: that Agricultural biotechnology has many proven benefits for farmers, consumers, and the environment.

Modern agricultural science, technology and techniques (including transgenic crops) must be tools in the fight against hunger and malnutrition in the world and the challenges of climate change. Innovations in agricultural technology are - and will continue to be - absolutely essential in increasing production and efficiency for farmers, while producing food in a more environmentally sustainable way. (5)

But some observing experts argue that the report is not a blank check for GMOs. According to scientist Charles Benbrook, pesticide expert at The Organic Center:

The report offers dozens of constructive recommendations, many of which have appeared in NAS reports on agricultural biotechnology dating back to 2000. But very few of the recommendations in past NAS reports have been implemented, and there is no reason to expect that that trend changes.

The actual content of the report, beyond the summary, deviates considerably from previous NAS reports on the subject. It lends credence to many issues and problems that have been largely addressed or ignored in past NAS reports related to GMOs. He dispassionately explains why GM technology in general has not increased yields, and why GM crops are not a game changer in the effort to achieve global food security. (6)

Nutritionist and author Marion Nestle, a New York University (NYU) professor who participated in the report's peer review process, commented:

I give the report a high note for its neutral tone and cautious interpretations. The report clearly reveals how little is known about the effects of GMO foods, how much (GMOs) are fed to animals and how little they are fed to people (except indirectly), and how minimally the promises of biotechnology of food have been realized, except in its benefits to large agricultural producers.

In trying to be fair, the committee (that wrote the report) is not going to please anyone. Proponents will be distressed that the benefits are not more strongly celebrated. Critics will be upset that the report treats many of their concerns in a pejorative way. Both sides will find much in the report to strengthen their views. The general conclusion, ‘more research is needed’, makes sense but does not help to bring the two sides closer together. (7)

The Center for Food Safety did a more critical analysis of the NAS report. We believe that it is convenient to quote it extensively:

? (The report) provides some useful insights into the contentious debate around GM crops, and is particularly notable for challenging the frequent claim that GM crops are key to 'feeding the world'. But in other respects it is superficial and disappointing due to the lack of holistic analysis and frequent bias in favor of GM crops and herbicides.

? It is significant that the report did not find clear benefits of GM crops in developing countries for small and impoverished farms. This finding is consistent with the observation that 1 billion people remain food insecure despite the massive adoption of GM crops globally on more than 400 million acres.

? … The committee went out of its way to emphasize the vital importance of agroecological production (agriculture based on the science of ecology that uses natural processes and biological and cultural diversity) and conventional farming systems to alleviate hunger.

? The NAS committee's evaluation of GM herbicide resistant crops provides some relevant analysis, for example that these crops have increased total herbicide use… Other than that the treatment of GM herbicide resistant crops is superficial and poor.

? The NAS's assessment of the effects on human health and the environment of the herbicide glyphosate is rife with errors and biases.

? In general, the NAS committee has provided some relevant analyzes of GM crops. The report makes clear that alleviating hunger and malnutrition requires a strengthening of public sector agricultural research and a greater use of conventional breeding and agroecological techniques guided by the needs of the poor and not by the profit motives of farming companies. biotechnology. But in many other respects the report suffers from a disappointing failure to give a holistic analysis of the real-world impacts of most current GM crops. (8)

On June 29, the president of the NAS received an open letter signed by dozens of academics, activists, and public policy organizations in which they cast doubt on the reliability of the institution's procedures. The letter points to the National Research Council (NRC), the research arm of the NAS, especially its committee on biotechnology, whose full name is “Committee on Future Biotechnology Products and Opportunities to Enhance Capabilities of the Biotechnology Regulatory System”.

We quote from the document below:

The current committee does not include the diversity of expert perspectives that exist in the prevailing scientific discourse, in which there is great disagreement about how to regulate and deploy the products of biotechnology. The report lacks the views of scientists advocating the precautionary principle and representatives of civil society who can speak to the social dimensions of biotechnology regulations… no farmer or farmer organization was invited to participate in the committee. Many experts (on agriculture) were nominated, but the NRC did not select any for committee members.

In contrast, the NRC invited many scientists and experts working in the development of biotechnology applications to serve on the committee. The NRC noted that two members have financial conflicts of interest, but many others have conflicts, ties to industry and professional histories of promoting biotechnology development, which have not been openly disclosed. The disproportionate presence of such perspectives conflicts with the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), which requires the NRC to form “fairly balanced” committees of scientists where conflicts of interest are avoided or disclosed if deemed Absolutely necessary. (9)

Signatories to the letter include Organic Consumers Association, GM Watch, Food and Water Watch, National Family Farm Coalition, Center for Food Safety, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Bioscience Resource Project, ETC Group, Pesticide Action Network North America, Friends of the Earth, activist scientist Vandana Shiva, and professors from Cambridge, the University of California- Berkeley and Santa Cruz campuses, San Francisco State University, University of Sussex, City University London, and the University of Lancaster.

On the issue of conflicts of interest, the non-governmental organization Food and Water Watch stated that the NRC:

… Has accepted millions of dollars from companies like Monsanto and DuPont and allowed corporate representatives from these and other companies to serve on high-level boards that oversee NRC projects. The group maintains a revolving-door relationship with key officials from industry groups, and demonstrates a clear preference for inviting industry-aligned researchers to produce their reports - while rarely heeding critics in any meaningful way. Sometimes NRC projects on agricultural issues are even funded by corporate donors who have a financial stake in their outcome. (10)

For her part, Claire Robinson, from the British organization GM Watch, was right to the jugular, pointing out the shortcomings of the NAS report:

The part of the report that deals with animal feeding studies with GM crops is a subtly treacherous mix. Scattered among some sensible statements and helpful recommendations are a host of strategic omissions, staggeringly anti-scientific claims, wishful thinking, and plain lies. (eleven)

To defend its position, the NAS report basically ignores feeding studies that found health problems in laboratory animals that consumed GMOs and relies on two frequently cited reports by the biotech industry: Van Eenennaam and Young, and that of Snell and colleagues. Both are "reviews", that is, summaries of the scientific literature published on a particular topic, in this case the safety of transgenics. Robinson systematically unseats both. Regarding the first report, she cites data from veterinary doctor Ena Valikov:

Dr. Valikov notes that nearly 95% of Van Eenennaam's data comes from chickens 47-49 days old. Chickens are an irrelevant model for assessing health risks in humans, or even mammals in general. And since the natural lifespan of a chicken is typically five to seven years, a 49-day-old chicken doesn't tell us much about the long-term health effects in an animal, not even chickens. As Dr. Valikov says, 'Even if the study reported compelling health data, it would still be a very short-term study. In other words, that's 19 years of data on 49-day-old chickens, which is very different from 19 years of chicken studies over their entire lives. ' (12)

The report by Van Eenennaam and Young argues that transgenic feed is not harmful to livestock as their productivity is not affected. But Valikov explains that "livestock performance is not an indicator of health since the goal of livestock production is to minimize inputs and maximize the production of meat, eggs or milk, regardless of the costs to the health and longevity of the animal" .

The pro-GMO sectors use the Van Eenennaam and Young report to say that "100 billion" animals have eaten GMOs without suffering any harm. But with the data they present, there is no way to know which of these farm animals were eating transgenic, in what proportion of their diet, or for how long.

Regarding the Snell report, Robinson says:

Snell and his colleagues examined studies that found toxic effects in GMO-fed animals but dispatched the findings with a magic trick. Toxic effects included enlarged lymph nodes in mice fed a resistant transgenic (herbicide) glufosinate for five generations and more acute signs of aging in the livers of mice fed transgenic soy for two years.

Snell and his colleagues dispatch these effects based on certain methodological weaknesses in the studies, including the fact that they did not use the isogenic non-transgenic line (i.e., the non-transgenic parent of the transgenic crop), grown under the same conditions, as a comparator for the transgenic crop. The NAS also rightly draws attention to this issue as a general problem in transgenic feeding studies. (13)

Citing from the own data compiled by Snell and his colleagues, studies that find no problems with GM diets also suffer from the same limitation. "In an example of an anti-scientific double bar, Snell and his colleagues accept, without question, studies that demonstrate safety, while rejecting as unreliable studies that find risk and harm, even when both suffer from the same weaknesses," says Robinson.

This is why the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) declared in 2013 that the conclusions of the Snell report are incorrect. (14)

Ultimately, the NAS report does not end the scientific controversy over whether GMOs are safe for consumption and the environment. But the biotech industry and its allies will continue to say otherwise, and the uncritical business press will repeat what they say, as it has done previously with previous "prestigious" reports that had also sought to end the debate. .

Ruiz Marrero is a Puerto Rican author and journalist. Since 2004, he has directed the Biosafety Blog and is also a visiting professor at the Institute of Social Ecology in the United States. His most recent book The Great Botanical Chess Game: Writings on Biotechnology and Agroecology is available from Amazon. Her Twitter account is @carmeloruiz.
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Biodiversity in Latin America and the Caribbean

Video: TRNN Debate: Are GMOs Safe? (June 2021).