GMO crops not harming human health, but not boosting yields – report

© Vincent Kessler
Consumption of genetically modified food has not harmed human health, according to a new report by a US agency criticized for its ties to industry. GMO crops are not increasing yields, the report said, but also show no major proof of environmental ruin.

While the rise of genetically engineered (GE) crops since the 1990s has come with fierce debate over their effect on human health, environmental matters, food security, and corporate power, “the committee concluded that no differences have been found that implicate a higher risk to human health safety from these GE foods than from their non-GE counterparts.”

Released by the National Research Council, the research arm of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, the report included a review of nearly 1,000 studies from the past two decades and input from more than 50 scientists, researchers, and experts.

Researchers compared disease reports in the US and Canada, where GE crops have been consumed for two decades, to reports in the United Kingdom and western Europe, where they have not been as common. There was no long-term uptick in specific health problems after GE foods were introduced in North America, the report said – and ultimately, no differences between GE foods and conventional crops concerning risk to human health.

Furthermore, the researchers found no correlation between GE food consumption and obesity or Type II diabetes. Increases in autism spectrum disorder in children were similar in both North America and the UK, the report said.

The 408-page report found that while GE crops have helped lower pest populations, therefore saving farmers money, there are concerns about pesticide resistance in insects as well as herbicide-resistant weeds. Pesticide and herbicide resistance are the most common traits artificially added to genetically modified crops, allowing farmers, especially on massive agricultural operations, to vigorously spray the likes of glyphosate-based Roundup on crops without harming them. GE crops have contributed to a dramatic boost in use of herbicides like glyphosate, giving rise to herbicide-tolerant superweeds and an increased threat to wildlife and groundwater sources.

For all the "feed the world" bluster about increased crop yields thanks to GE technology, the NAS report found that this is not the case. When farmers switched from conventional to GE crops, there was no major change in yield, NAS said, citing US Department of Agriculture data.

The report said that GE crops have not affected the dwindling populations of monarch butterflies. As of March 2016, there was no proof that damage to sources of milkweed — a monarch caterpillar's only source of food — from use of herbicides has caused monarch numbers to fall, though the report urged further study of monarch populations.

Groups opposed to the rapid proliferation of GE crops called into question the NAS report's integrity based on the collection of power players involved.

The National Research Council's "far-reaching ties to biotechnology companies and other agricultural corporations have created conflicts of interest at every level of the organization, which greatly diminish the independence and integrity of the NRC's scientific work," said Food & Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group.

In a new report of its own — 'Under the Influence: The National Research Council and GMOs' — Food & Water Watch said the NRC accepted millions of dollars in funding from biotech companies, allowed a revolving door of staff to go in and out of major corporate and industry groups, and stocked panels formed to author GMO studies with pro-GMO scientists, and has operated “at times as a private contractor for corporate research.”

“Critics have long been marginalized,” Wenonah Hauter, Food & Water Watch's executive director, told USA Today.

GE crops and ingredients have been consumed in the US for more than two decades. More than 90 percent of feed corn, soybeans, and cotton produced in the US are genetically engineered. As much as 75 percent of processed food made in the US contains GMO ingredients. The NAS report said about 12 percent of all cropland in the world contains GE plants.

Supporters of GE crops include major biotechnology and agribusiness firms with a dominant share in the food market. Their major argument is that GE foods, especially corn and soy, have been consumed by Americans for around 20 years and have not been shown to have a negative impact on human health in that time.

Many opponents of GE foods concede that human health may not be affected by the direct consumption of GMOs, but raise other concerns stemming from the practice. Companies like Monsanto and Dow Chemical market their own patented seeds that, given their genetic modification, can be doused with biocides to kill pests and weeds, and which can jeopardize long-term health of the soil and the necessary biodiversity of a local environment that allows for natural pollination and food security.

The Union of Concerned Scientists says that "while the risks of genetic engineering are often exaggerated or misrepresented, GE crops do have the potential to cause a variety of health problems and environmental impacts."

In July 2015, the Pew Research Center found that 37 percent of American adults surveyed thought that eating genetically modified food was “generally safe,” while 57 percent said it was “generally unsafe.” About two-thirds of surveyed adults said scientists do not yet know the full health effects of GE crops.