GMOs Ruled Safe To Eat, But They Aren't Solving World Hunger

New report offers a mixed plate of findings.

Genetically modified crops are as safe to eat as their conventional counterparts and have not been proven to negatively impact the environment, according to a highly anticipated report.

However, the study finds the controversial technology has not, as proponents have claimed, increased the rate of crop yields and has resulted in insect and weed resistance that has become a "major agricultural problem."

So if you're looking for something that might settle the debate over genetically engineered crops once and for all, keep looking.

"A major sort of message from our report is that it's not possible to make sweeping generalizations about the benefits and the risks of all GE crops," said North Carolina State University entomology professor Fred Gould, chair of the 20-person committee behind the study, during a presentation Tuesday.

The report offers "a little something for everyone" -- from the most avid supporters to the harshest critics, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Unsurprisingly, each side was quick to cherrypick the findings.

A tractor applies pesticides to a soybean field.
A tractor applies pesticides to a soybean field.
fotokostic via Getty Images

The roughly 400-page report that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released Tuesday is the result of a two-year study. Gould said it was motivated by "claims and research that extol either the benefits or the risks posed by currently genetically engineered crops," which has created a "confusing landscape for the public and policy makers."

"There are people who are saying that without genetically engineered crops, we're never going to be able to feed the world in 2050 and there are people who say that eating a genetically engineered crop will cause sterility or will cause cancer," he said. "We hope that at least our study will open up a conversation about the information that's there and what the evidence is."

After combing through some 900 publications on technology for genetically modified organisms and reviewing 700 public comments, the committee concluded that the evidence suggests GMOs pose no substantial risk to human or environmental health. However, the committee acknowledged the "inherent difficulty of detecting subtle or long-term effects on health or the environment," they wrote in an accompanying statement.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a statement to the Chicago Tribune that the report "adds to the long list of research that shows genetically engineered foods are safe." He also expressed U.S. Department of Agriculture's willingness to work with Congress to "prevent further confusion" and develop a nationwide system for informing the public about what's in their food products, without increasing costs or giving a false impression about safety.

The debate over whether genetically engineered foods should be appropriately labeled remains a hot-button issue. Several major food producers have begun labeling products on a national scale in response to a Vermont law, passed in 2014, which requires all genetically engineered food sold in the state to be labeled by July 1.

The U.S. Senate blocked an industry-backed bill in March that would have preempted state laws, specifically Vermont’s, by establishing voluntary standards for labeling genetically modified foods.

The committee opted not to take a firm stance on labeling. Instead, it said that while it "does not believe that mandatory labeling of foods with GE content is justified to protect public health," the matter "involves social and economic choices that go beyond technical assessments of health or environmental safety."


Among the more surprising findings, which Gould said left him and other committee members scratching their heads, was that no USDA data offers evidence that genetic engineering is improving the rate at which farmers' yields are increasing.

"We hear quite a few claims that we need genetically engineered crops to feed the world," Gould said. However, the data seems to tell a different story, according to the report.

The report concludes that while GE crops have "generally had favorable economic outcomes for producers," they've also resulted in weeds evolving a resistance to herbicides, including glyphosate, a commonly used herbicide which the World Health Organization found likely causes cancer in humans.

When it comes to regulating new crop varieties, the report urges government agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency, to focus not on the process by which it was developed, but the plant's characteristics.

The report quickly drew criticism from anti-GMO groups, including Food & Water Watch, which USA Today reports accused the committee of "arriving at watered-down scientific conclusions due to agricultural industry influence." Jim Thomas, a spokesman for ETC Group, told The Washington Post that the report is "inconsistent on the crucially important question of whether or not to regulate the new techniques such as genome editing and synthetic biology."

To review the report in its entirety, click here.

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