NAS GM crops report will 'provide fodder for friends and foes of GE,' says plant scientist

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

NAS GM crops report explores pros and cons of GMOs

Related tags Ge crops Pesticide Genetic engineering

There is no evidence that foods from genetically engineered (GE) crops are less safe to eat than their 'conventional' counterparts, according to a new report from The National Academies of Sciences, which will "provide fodder for friends and foes of GE," according to one plant scientist.

The 388-page report, which you can read HERE,​ found that:

  • GM crops decreased crop losses and insecticide use and led to greater insect biodiversity for insect-resistant Bt ​crops, although there are also instances of insects evolving resistance.
  • The issue of weeds developing resistance to glyphosate (RoundUp) - a herbicide used with some GM crops - needs addressing through integrated weed management approaches.
  • There is no evidence from USDA that GE maize, cotton and soybean have substantially increased the rate at which US agriculture is increasing yields. 
  • Studies have not shown that suppression of milkweed by glyphosate is the cause of the decline in monarch butterfly populations.
  • There is no evidence that foods from GE crops are less safe to eat than conventional food.
  • New technologies are blurring the line between conventional and GE crops, and the U.S. regulatory system needs to assess crop varieties based on their individual characteristics, not the way they are produced: "It is the product, not the process, that should be regulated."
  • A "tiered approach to regulation should be developed that uses trait novelty, potential hazard, and exposure, as criteria."
  • "Sweeping, generalized statements about the benefits or adverse effects of GE crops are not helpful to the policy debate," ​as every GE crop is different.
  • Genetic engineering can enhance the nutritional quality and decrease antinutrients of some plants.

Dr. David Stern, Professor and President of the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, said the report would be seized upon by supporters and opponents on GM technology, who would cherry-pick sections that supported their arguments.

He added: "The report will provide fodder for friends and foes of GE, because each conclusion is accompanied by caveats. For example, insect resistance traits may lead to greater insect biodiversity than where synthetic pesticides are used, but poor management strategies with the same traits can lead to unwanted proliferation of resistant insects."


"There is a strong expectation that new GE traits will be able to reduce losses from insects and pathogens while decreasing the use of synthetic pesticides as long as care is taken to decrease problems related to pest evolution of resistance to new crop traits.

"Many new GE traits will not increase yield potential, but will decrease yield variation, especially by avoiding crop failures due to outbreaks of insect pests and pathogens." NAS report, Genetically Engineered Crops: Experience and Prospects, May 17, 2016

Crop scientist: GE crops are pretty much just crops

Dr. Wayne Parrott, Professor, Department of Crop & Soil Sciences, University of Georgia, added: "The inescapable conclusion, after reading the report, is the GE crops are pretty much just crops. They are not the panacea that some proponents claim, nor the dreaded monsters that others claim."

But he added: "At least one recommendation makes little sense, and should be challenged: Why should environmental monitoring be required for a GE crop, when none is required if the same trait was deployed conventionally?  Either both should merit monitoring, or neither should, in order to be consistent with the report’s recognition that risk comes from the final product, and not the way in which it was developed."

He also noted that farmers are constantly having to adapt the tools they deploy to keep pests, weeds and other threats to plants at bay, whether their crops are genetically engineered or not, and that herbicide resistance is not limited to GM crops.

GE crops must be judged on a case by case basis

The focus on high-profile GM crops like corn and soy has also diverted attention from applications of GE in plants such as papaya, squash and eggplants, where the benefits are unequivocal, said Dr. Anthony Shelton, International Professor, Department of Entomology, at Cornell University.

"Use of virus-resistant [GE] papaya saved the Hawaiian papaya industry from collapse and virus-resistant [GE]  squash is common in the marketplace in the US. In a recent trip to Bangladesh I met a resource-poor farmer who had only sprayed twice rather than the 100+ times he usually sprayed a cocktail of insecticides before Bt eggplant became available to him."

CSPI: EPA and USDA must help farmers use integrated weed management with herbicide-tolerant seeds

Greg Jaffe: Integrated weed management is key

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) welcomed the "thorough and comprehensive, evidence-based report,​" and said that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) should "implement its recommendation to use integrated weed management with herbicide-tolerant seeds and to incentivize both developers and farmers to use Bt crops in a way that preserves their effectiveness for future generations."

But CSPI biotech director Gregory Jaffee added: "It is disappointing that the report does not recommend that FDA’s oversight change from a voluntary to a mandatory process.  That would have been consistent with the report’s acknowledgement that federal oversight is important to ensure both safety and public confidence."

*The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine is authorized by Congress to provide scientific guidance to the government. It analyzed two decades of research, sought input from 80 speakers at three public meetings and 15 public webinars and read hundreds of comments from the public.

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