GM plants “no riskier than plants developed using traditional methods”

Genetically modified foods are as safe as similar plants created using traditional crossbreeding, a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) report on agricultural biotech products has concluded.

The report, conducted to assess the benefits and risks of GM plants and GM plant-derived foods, concludes that regulations at the USDA and proposed US EPA regulations targeting biotechnology products be changed to focus on the characteristics of a plant, not the process used to develop it.

The report, Seeds of Opportunity goes on to recommend that the US Government should not accept any international agreements that violate scientific principles or that limit the trade in a plant or food product based on the method used to develop it. It also recommends that the Government prevent attempts to label a plant or food product based on the method used to develop it.

The report is the culmination of a series of hearings held on agricultural biotechnology issues by the US House of Representative Committee on Science’s Basic Research Subcommittee last year.

The USDA report addresses many of the issues surrounding agricultural biotechnology, including the Monarch butterfly (see related story), allergens, toxins and antibiotic resistance. It concludes that plants and foods produced using agricultural biotechnology pose risks no greater than those for plants and foods developed using traditional methods.

“Agricultural biotechnology holds tremendous potential to provide consumers safe and nutritious foods, feed a growing world population, protect the environment, aid farmers, and lower costs to consumers,” said the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Basic Research, Nick Smith (R-MI). “Implementing the recommendations in this report would ensure that this potential is fulfilled.”

Environmentalists have criticised the report’s findings. Greenpeace Genetic Engineering Specialist, Charles Margulis, points to dissent within the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on the question of whether it is possible to equate genetic engineering with traditional methods of breeding. “Scientists and doctors disagree with this assumption,” Margulis told edie, “which is based on a preconceived notion that genetic tinkering will work in nature. Even within FDA, Dr. Linda Kahl, the scientist in charge of compiling the opinions of the agency’s specialists wrote, “The processes of genetic engineering and traditional breeding are different, and according to the technical experts in the agency, they lead to different risks.” Biologist Neal Stewart commented on the ecological risks of GMOs, saying “we know very little about the community ecology and virtually nothing about the ecosystem ecology of what these genes will do.””

Margulis adds that there is little new in the idea of changing the focus of USDA regulations and proposed US EPA regulations to focus on the characteristics of a plant, not the process used to develop it. “The few regulations currently in place are based on this false concept, so this is no change. USDA has reviewed over 5,000 applications for biotech crop field trials, without a single denial. The agency continues to act as cheerleader for biotech crops, despite ample evidence that they do not benefit farmers, consumers or the environment.”

Margulis also defends the Precautionary Principle. He says the USDA is worried about agreements that allow action to be taken against GM foods and plants in the absence of certainty of harm, rather than agreements that violate scientific principles. “The precautionary principle uses science as a means for making judgements about proceeding with radical new technologies like genetic engineering, but also recognizes that science can be incomplete and preliminary and that therefore precaution and consideration of other factors is essential,” Margulis argues.

He adds that the US will become increasingly isolated internationally if the Government refuses to accept any international agreements that limit the trade in GM food and plants.

The main conclusions of the report are:

  • the report finds immense promise in agricultural biotechnology. It says that advances in the technology will result in crops with a wide range of desirable traits that will directly benefit farmers, consumers and the environment and increase global food production and quality
  • the report says there is no evidence that transferring genes from unrelated organisms to plants poses unique risks. It says the risks associated with plant varieties developed using agricultural biotechnology are the same as those for similar varieties developed using classical breeding methods. As the new methods are more precise and allow for better characterisation of the changes being made, plant developers and food producers are in a better position to assess safety than when using classical breeding methods, the report claims
  • the report adds that the threat posed by pest-resistant crop varieties developed using agricultural biotechnology to the Monarch butterfly and other non-target species has been vastly overblown and is probably insignificant
  • says there is no scientific justification for labelling foods based on the method by which they are produced. Labelling of agricultural biotechnology products would confuse, not inform, consumers and send a misleading message on safety, the report claims. Therefore, the report argues that federal regulations should focus on the characteristics of the plant, its intended use and the environment into which it will be introduced, not the method used to produce it

The report also contains six recommendations:

  • Congress should ensure adequate levels of funding for basic research in plant genomics
  • existing regulations at USDA and proposed regulations at EPA targeting the products of biotech are not science-based and should be revised
  • FDA should maintain its current science-based policy of regulation based on the characteristics of a food product, and not by the means by which it was created
  • FDA should maintain its current science-based policy on food labelling. There is no scientific justification for special labelling of food products developed using agricultural biotechnology, as a class
  • the US Government should work to ensure that markets for products of agricultural biotechnology are not restricted by scientifically unsound measures. The US should not accept any international agreements that violate the scientific principles and limit trade in, or that order the labelling of, a plant or food product based on the method used to develop it
  • Government, industry, and the scientific community have a responsibility to educate the public on the long record of safe use of agricultural biotechnology products and research

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