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Special Interests Crying Wolf Over Genetically Engineered Crops

crop

There have been calls recently from predictable sources demanding “tougher regulations for genetically engineered (GE) crops under the federal Plant Protection Act.” They further “demanded [the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)] regulate GE crops based on the process, not product….” While these demands may make headlines, we should be asking: Do they make any sense? Has something happened lately to increase the need for such regulation? What level of scrutiny is focused today on foods and crops that have been improved through biotechnology? How does this compare with the scrutiny leveled at other types of foods and crops?

Even the briefest glance suggests these alarums are unwarranted. Crops and foods improved through biotechnology are already subjected to more scrutiny, in advance, in depth and detail, than any other crops or foods in the history of humanity. This is not a matter of opinion. The USDA has been regulating these products since 1987. In the 28 years since, there has not been a single case of a negative health consequence to humans, livestock, companion animals, or the environment. Die-hard opponents of crop biotechnology have put forward one claim after another of untoward results, and each has been shown to be unsupported by the facts. In addition to the considerable amount of regulatory oversight applied by USDA (far in excess of what can be justified by the actual degree of hazard involved), both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) apply their own authorities to ensure that pest control methods are safely deployed and that the resulting foods are safe for consumption. And “by their fruits ye shall know them”: crops improved through biotechnology have been adopted by farmers around the world more rapidly than any other innovation in the history of agriculture, being grown last year by 18 million farmers in 28 countries on more than 450 million acres worldwide. The benefits have been enormous to farmers’ incomes (up by 68 percent), the environment (greenhouse emissions down dramatically and pesticide use dropping on average by 37 percent), and crop yields (up 22 percent).

impacts of biotech

(Source: International Food Information Council Foundation)

To summarize: substantial and significant benefits that are widely shared and no significant negative consequences. This is not a record that could be used to justify increased regulatory burdens.

But the clamoring voices demand more than just increased regulation for safe and beneficial products. They also demand that USDA change the basis on which it regulates such products, away from one rooted in identified hazards and assessed risks and toward a regulatory regime that discriminates against the products of the newest, most precise, and predictable means of improving plant seeds. Is this reasonable?

Plant breeders and credible scientists around the world agree that the techniques used to produce transgenic plants, derived directly from natural phenomena, are but an extension of traditional plant breeding, and that the potential hazards are the same. (For more on this, see, “Plants, Genes, And Crop Biotechnology” by Maarten J. Chrispeels and David E. Sadava, and “Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist’s View of Genetically Modified Food” by Nina Fedoroff and Nancy Marie Brown.) The U.S. National Academy of Sciences explicitly rejected the argument for process-based regulation in its very first publication in this area, “Introduction of Recombinant DNA-Engineered Organisms into the Environment – Key Issues,” and has upheld this view in every subsequent study. The Government of Canada in its regulatory structure has specifically repudiated the assertion that plants improved through recombinant techniques are necessarily and intrinsically different than those produced through conventional breeding. The Government of Australia has done likewise, and the vast majority of scientists around the world concur in this assessment.

We see, then, that rather than deserving increased scrutiny, the time is long past when regulatory strictures on crops and plants improved through biotechnology should have been rolled back. A regulatory approach that becomes more restrictive in response to increased experience and a lengthier safety record is seriously off the tracks and in need of an update. And we see that calls for “process-based” regulation have been known for nearly three decades to be inappropriate. Even countries like those in the EU who followed this path originally are now trying to figure out how to get out of the mess they have created.

It would probably be too much to expect that a cadre of hardened campaigners open their eyes to the data and correct their course, though there are precedents. But the rest of us need pay no heed to their endless warnings of non-existent wolves.

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About the author

L. Val Giddings is a senior fellow at ITIF with three decades of experience in science and regulatory policy relating to biotechnology innovations in agriculture and biomedicine. He is also president and CEO of PrometheusAB, Inc., providing consulting services on biotechnology issues to governments, multilateral organizations, and industry clients. Before founding PrometheusAB, he served eight years as vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization and a decade as a regulatory official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Giddings received his Ph.D. in genetics and evolutionary biology from the University of Hawaii in 1980.
  • RobertWager

    Hear hear.

  • mem_somerville

    Yes, but if they keep going after the process, every time there’s a new technique they can raise funds fearmongering on it.

    If it’s just based on the traits, well, it’s hard to scare everyone.

  • Ken Gallaher

    Industry AstroTurf site….. Big GMO owns many.
    Dr Luther Val Giddings is the Vice President for Food & Agriculture of the Washington DC based Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) – the industry’s major trade lobby which represents such corporate giants as Aventis, Bayer, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta. Giddings’ specific responsibility at BIO is to promote GM crops.

  • John Zohn

    Isn’t that nice, more propaganda from foodinsightdotorg the website of International Food Information Council. It’s the Public Relations branch of the food, beverage and agricultural industries. in other words it’s an industry front group. I wonder why they have to make it appear like that information is coming from a 3rd party instead of coming from the actual industries that produce the products?

  • Sally Blackmore

    Hear hear? Drinking too much of the glyphosate koolaid?

  • Rob Bright

    What a load of misinformation this article is! (Nailed all the pro-industry talking points, though.) Despicable, pro-corporate piece with no accuracy or validity.

  • Rob Bright

    Not surprising, eh? Tobacco science at its sleaziest…

  • Sally Blackmore

    Yep — that’s why we do what we do, so we can raise money. Are you kidding me? This is a dangerous, unproven technology and this article is totally based on misinformation and lies. And our usual trolls are here that are actually making money by trying to spread these lies. Be careful, AstroTurf can really hurt if you aren’t careful.

  • Ken Gallaher

    And up-voted by the usual Big-GMO “spokesmen.”

  • JoeFarmer

    As usual, you’ve got no facts, so you go straight for the insult. Not very impressive, but that’s your M.O.

  • JoeFarmer

    ” This is a dangerous, unproven technology…”

    Spoken like a true agricultural creationist!

  • John Zohn

    That’s hilarious coming from you BitterJoe! thank you for making me laugh.

  • JoeFarmer

    Sally is unsophisticated. I led you around by the nose for weeks.

  • John Zohn

    Is that what you’re calling it now? Led me around by the nose? So when you mentioned my luscious lips and the lube I use you really were wanting me to follow you? Gosh BitterJoe, I didn’t know you cared!