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Three Take-Aways from the NAS Study on GMOs

May 19, 2016 | Katherine Paul and Ronnie Cummins

Organic Consumers Association

A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) on GE crops and technology was met with cheers from the biotech industry, but little meaningful scrutiny by the mainstream media.

Initial media reports boiled the message down to “GMOs Are Safe” and even “healthy.” Some even claimed the study “proves” the safety of genetically modified crops.

Aside from the obvious—that the headlines over-simplify the NAS findings in a way that spins favorable for the biotech industry—the media also overlooked the influence, as reported by Food & Water Watch, of the biotech industry on The National Research Council (NRC), the research arm of the NAS.

According to F&WW, the NRC takes millions of dollars in funding from biotechnology companies; invites sponsors like Monsanto to sit on high-level boards overseeing the NRC’s work; invites industry-aligned, pro-GMO scientists to author NRC reports; draws scientific conclusions based on industry science; and operates at times as a private contractor for corporate research.

An NAS spokesman defended the report, telling the Washington Post that the NAS didn’t appoint anyone from the biotech industry to the committee, didn’t use any money from the industry to fund the study, and that all committee members were required to disclose any potential conflicts of interest.

Biased or not, and despite the positive spin by most media outlets, the report’s “conclusions” left plenty of room for doubt on a range of issues, from safety, to improved yields, to damage to the environment. On many issues the committee, made up of 20 scientists and policy experts, couldn’t—or wouldn’t—commit.

Instead the experts produced a 400-page report full of equivocations, and of recommendations the committee knows will be ignored, but little in the way of clarity.

Here are three take-aways from the NAS report.

GMOs are safe, but . . . Media spin aside, here’s how the Washington Post summed up the NAS findings on whether or not GMOs are safe:

No “substantiated” evidence exists that genetically engineered crops have caused health problems in humans or damaged the environment, but it’s too soon to be making broad statements, positive or negative, about laboratory-based manipulations of crop genomes, an elite panel of scientists concluded in a report Tuesday.

Saying there’s no evidence that GMOs harm human health or the environment isn’t the same thing as saying GMOs are safe, a fact the committee chair admitted at a press briefing, according to a UPI report:

“Absence of evidence is not absence of effect,” Dr. Fred Gould, a professor at North Carolina State University and chair of the Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops, told UPI. “We’re very clear to point out that with very subtle long-term health effects, it’s really difficult to point out such a thing.”

What the report actually says is that it’s too soon to make that determination. Maybe that wouldn’t be the case, if GMOs had been required to undergo pre-market safety testing 20 years ago. Instead, they were unleashed, untested, into the environment, and into the food stream, on the basis of proprietary industry-funded testing that U.S. regulatory agencies accepted at face value.

The NAS also overlooks the fact that there is massive published evidence in the public domain that GMOs and the toxic chemicals that always accompany them are dangerous—to human health, to animals, the environment and climate stability.

The report also warns against making “sweeping generalizations.” Again this summary from the Washington Post, which sounds more equivocal than the media headlines would lead you to believe:

Every newly introduced plant should undergo safety testing regardless of how it was created, the report states. But, it also says, the fact that previous GE crops have not caused health or environmental problems does not mean that all prospective GE plants should be presumed to be benign.

We don’t need labels, but . . . The committee said mandatory labeling isn’t “justified” on the basis of the need to protect the public health. But on the other hand . . . labeling GMO products serves other purposes, beyond those of food safety:

There clearly are strong non-safety arguments and considerable public support for mandatory labeling of products containing GE material. . . . U.S. policy-makers and the private sector have the ability to address the broader social and economic issues to balance the competing interests involved.”

Charles Benbrook, who directed the NAS Board on Agriculture from 1984-1990, takes exception to the committee’s argument that labeling is a purely political, not scientific issue. Benbrook cited the example of labels on GE sweet corn, which would give both mothers and pediatricians a reason to add Bt proteins to the list of possible cause when treating kids for new food allergies.

Labeling GE food is no panacea, but it will increase the odds that problems will be detected sooner rather than later. The decision to not label GE foods has the effect of keeping the entire medical community on the sidelines, neither aware of possible GE food-allergen problems, nor capable of doing anything about them.

The labeling movement has long argued that without labels, it’s almost impossible to link GMOs directly to food allergies. The NAS addresses the allergy issue this way, as reported by U.S. Right to Know’s Carey Gillam in Huffington Post:

Regarding specific concerns about GMOs and concerns about ties to allergies, the committee said that “testing for allergenicity before commercialization could miss allergens to which the population had not previously been exposed,” and “post-commercialization allergen testing would be useful in ensuring that consumers are not exposed to allergens,” though the committee said it realized such testing would be difficult to conduct.

GMOs don’t harm the environment, but . . . Here, the experts went from “GMOs are safe for the environment” to “the complex nature of assessing long-term environmental changes often made it difficult to reach definitive conclusions.”

Despite finding no “conclusive cause-and-effect evidence of environmental problems from GE crops,” Gilliam wrote, the committee concluded that “evolved resistance to current GE characteristics in crops is a major agricultural problem.”

In other words, a problem for farmers, but no problem for the environment.

As for the chemicals—herbicides and pesticides—used to grow GE crops, according to Benbrook, committee chair Fred Gould told the press:

“More pounds [of herbicide] per acre doesn’t automatically translate to more harm to human health or the environment.”

Does that mean that small amounts of herbicide cause harm, but larger amounts don’t cause any additional harm? Or does it mean herbicides are harmless? If so, there’s a mountain of studies that say otherwise, including this recent one, from the Pesticide Action Network which outlines the dangers faced by kids who live near heavily sprayed farm fields.

As for glyphosate, the most heavily used herbicide in the world—and the most controversial—the NAS committee “dropped the ball,” said Benbrook. Despite the fact that the World Health Organization last year classified glyphosate as a “probable human carcinogen,” the committee sounded no alarms about the chemical, the key active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup.

Did the committee make any definitive, declarative statements? Perhaps this one: Contrary to the biotech industry propaganda, GMO crops are doing nothing to improve farmers’ yields or feed the world.

The committee examined data on overall rates of increase in yields of soybean, cotton, and maize in the U.S. for the decades preceding introduction of GE crops and after their introduction, and there was no evidence that GE crops had changed the rate of increase in yields.

But we already knew that.

We urge U.S. consumers and farmers to follow the example of most people in the world, and their own common sense—boycott GMOs and the toxic chemicals that are the cornerstone of industrial agriculture and factory farms. Avoid foods and food production systems that are unhealthy, inhumane, chemical-intensive, and climate destabilizing. Eat fresh organic and grass-fed foods, especially those produced locally and regionally, today and every day.

Katherine Paul is associate director of the Organic Consumers Association.

Ronnie Cummins is international director of the Organic Consumers Association.