Fund a Fellow

Aligned with the National Academy of Sciences GE Crop Study

By Joan Conrow

Revamp the regulatory process.

Give farmers a bigger voice.

Assess each genetically engineered trait individually, rather than clumping them all together as “GMOs.”

These are a few key takeaways from “Genetically Engineered Crops,” a highly anticipated report newly published by the National Academies Press.

They mirror what the Cornell Alliance for Science has been saying since our start-up, two years ago. Indeed, our very first production was the still-relevant animated video “Unbundle GMOs.” 

Of course, the dense report offers more than reassurance that we're on the right path. It delves into all the contentious questions swirling around GMOs — questions that anyone engaged in biotech encounters every day.

Are GMOs safe — for humans and the environment? Have they boosted agricultural production, improved people's lives? Are they harming plant diversity? Have they reduced pesticide use? Given rise to “super weeds”? What traits have been developed, and where are they being grown? What does the future hold?

While some of these questions are more easily, and thoroughly, answered than others, it's useful to have a credible group of scientists address them all in one place. And that makes the NAS report extremely helpful to anyone intent on ferreting fact from fiction.

Still, as Dr. David Stern, Professor and President of the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research and longtime science ally, noted, “The report will provide fodder for friends and foes of GE, because each conclusion is accompanied by caveats.”

Though the report isn't likely to budge anyone from a staked-out position, it provides a scientific foundation that we all can work from in discussing agricultural biotechnology. As such, it should help the many in the middle better understand this compelling and contentious plant breeding tool.

For the Alliance, the report serves to underscore the urgency of our global communications and outreach work.  As our director, Dr. Sarah Evanega, observed: “With 2016 predicted to be the hottest year on record, business as usual is not an option.”

Agriculture and its associated land use account for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. We cannot effectively address climate change without achieving major improvements in our efficient use of water, land and other inputs. We need all our scientific and innovative capacity — including genetic engineering — to achieve that goal.

Scientists around the globe are developing crops that can withstand drought, soil salinity and extreme temperatures. We must accelerate efforts to get these “climate smart” seeds through the regulatory process and into the hands of farmers, especially small shareholders in developing nations.

The report indicates they’re eager for this technology. Developing nations account for 20 of the 28 countries currently growing GE crops, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). And for the fourth year in a row, developing countries planted the majority of biotech crops — 54 percent of the global hectares. ISAAA expects this number to keep rising.

The report also found that agricultural biotechnology is currently centered around two traits — insect-resistance and herbicide-tolerance —bred into commodity crops like maize, cotton, canola and soy.

More support is needed to advance public sector, pro-poor “orphan crops” that hold promise for smallholder farmers, but lack the economic return desired by corporate investors. African nations field-tested eight “orphan crops” in 2015, and many others are being developed in research labs across the globe. Evidence-based reports like the NAS study can help inform a policy environment conducive to moving these innovations toward approval.

The report confirms what the agricultural community already knows: Biotechnology is not a silver bullet. It’s simply a plant-breeding tool — one with a lot of potential, and apparently minimal risks. The report found that people who eat GE crops have no higher incidence of cancer and other chronic diseases than those who don’t.

Despite opposition, ag biotech is not going away. In fact, it will become increasingly difficult to distinguish genetically engineered plants from those bred by conventional methods, according to the report.

Though the hefty NAS report may seem daunting, it makes for informative — even inspiring — reading. As it clears away some of the myths and misperceptions that have long clouded biotech, it offers good vantage.

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