Report Release Presentation of “Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects”
(National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine) Distinction Between Genetic Engineering and Conventional Plant Breeding Becoming Less Clear, Says New Report on GE Crops — An extensive study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has found that new technologies in genetic engineering and conventional breeding are blurring the once clear distinctions between these two crop-improvement approaches. In addition, while recognizing the inherent difficulty of detecting subtle or long-term effects on health or the environment, the study committee found no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between current commercially available genetically engineered (GE) crops and conventionally bred crops, nor did it find conclusive cause-and-effect evidence of environmental problems from the GE crops. However, evolved resistance to current GE characteristics in crops is a major agricultural problem.
A tiered process for regulating new crop varieties should focus on a plant’s characteristics rather than the process by which it was developed, the committee recommends in its report. New plant varieties that have intended or unintended novel characteristics that may present potential hazards should undergo safety testing — regardless of whether they were developed using genetic engineering or conventional breeding techniques. New “-omics” technologies, which dramatically increase the ability to detect even small changes in plant characteristics, will be critical to detecting unintended changes in new crop varieties.
The committee used evidence accumulated over the past two decades to assess purported negative effects and purported benefits of current commercial GE crops. Since the 1980s, biologists have used genetic engineering to produce particular characteristics in plants such as longer shelf life for fruit, higher vitamin content, and resistance to diseases. However, the only genetically engineered characteristics that have been put into widespread commercial use are those that allow a crop to withstand the application of a herbicide or to be toxic to insect pests.
The fact that only two characteristics have been widely used is one of the reasons the committee avoided sweeping, generalized statements about the benefits and risks of GE crops. Claims about the effects of existing GE crops often assume that those effects would apply to the genetic engineering process generally, but different characteristics are likely to have different effects. A genetically engineered characteristic that alters the nutritional content of a crop, for example, is unlikely to have the same environmental or economic effects as a characteristic for herbicide resistance.
The committee examined almost 900 research and other publications on the development, use, and effects of genetically engineered characteristics in maize (corn), soybean, and cotton, which account for almost all commercial GE crops to date. “We dug deeply into the literature to take a fresh look at the data on GE and conventionally bred crops,” said committee chair Fred Gould, University Distinguished Professor of Entomology and co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University. In addition, the committee heard from 80 diverse speakers at three public meetings and 15 public webinars, and read more than 700 comments from members of the public to broaden its understanding of issues surrounding GE crops.
In releasing its report, the committee established a website that enables users to look up the places in the report that address comments received by the committee from the public, and also find the reasoning behind the report’s main findings and recommendations. “The committee focused on listening carefully and responding thoughtfully to members of the public who have concerns about GE crops and foods, as well as those who feel that there are great benefits to be had from GE crops,” said Gould.
Effects on human health. The committee carefully searched all available research studies for persuasive evidence of adverse health effects directly attributable to consumption of foods derived from GE crops but found none. Studies with animals and research on the chemical composition of GE foods currently on the market reveal no differences that would implicate a higher risk to human health and safety than from eating their non-GE counterparts. Though long-term epidemiological studies have not directly addressed GE food consumption, available epidemiological data do not show associations between any disease or chronic conditions and the consumption of GE foods.
There is some evidence that GE insect-resistant crops have had benefits to human health by reducing insecticide poisonings. In addition, several GE crops are in development that are designed to benefit human health, such as rice with increased beta-carotene content to help prevent blindness and death caused by vitamin A deficiencies in some developing nations.
Effects on the environment. The use of insect-resistant or herbicide-resistant crops did not reduce the overall diversity of plant and insect life on farms, and sometimes insect-resistant crops resulted in increased insect diversity, the report says. While gene flow – the transfer of genes from a GE crop to a wild relative species – has occurred, no examples have demonstrated an adverse environmental effect from this transfer. Overall, the committee found no conclusive evidence of cause-and-effect relationships between GE crops and environmental problems. However, the complex nature of assessing long-term environmental changes often made it difficult to reach definitive conclusions.
Effects on agriculture. The available evidence indicates that GE soybean, cotton, and maize have generally had favorable economic outcomes for producers who have adopted these crops, but outcomes have varied depending on pest abundance, farming practices, and agricultural infrastructure. Although GE crops have provided economic benefits to many small-scale farmers in the early years of adoption, enduring and widespread gains will depend on such farmers receiving institutional support, such as access to credit, affordable inputs such as fertilizer, extension services, and access to profitable local and global markets for the crops.
Evidence shows that in locations where insect-resistant crops were planted but resistance-management strategies were not followed, damaging levels of resistance evolved in some target insects. If GE crops are to be used sustainably, regulations and incentives are needed so that more integrated and sustainable pest-management approaches become economically feasible. The committee also found that in many locations some weeds had evolved resistance to glyphosate, the herbicide to which most GE crops were engineered to be resistant. Resistance evolution in weeds could be delayed by the use of integrated weed-management approaches, says the report, which also recommends further research to determine better approaches for weed resistance management.
Insect-resistant GE crops have decreased crop loss due to plant pests. However, the committee examined data on overall rates of increase in yields of soybean, cotton, and maize in the U.S. for the decades preceding introduction of GE crops and after their introduction, and there was no evidence that GE crops had changed the rate of increase in yields. It is feasible that emerging genetic-engineering technologies will speed the rate of increase in yield, but this is not certain, so the committee recommended funding of diverse approaches for increasing and stabilizing crop yield.
Regulation Should Focus on Novel Characteristics and Hazards
All technologies for improving plant genetics – whether GE or conventional — can change foods in ways that could raise safety issues, the committee’s report notes. It is the product and not the process that should be regulated, the new report says, a point that has also been made in previous Academies reports.
In determining whether a new plant variety should be subject to safety testing, regulators should focus on the extent to which the novel characteristics of the plant variety (both intended and unintended) are likely to pose a risk to human health or the environment, the extent of uncertainty about the severity of potential harm, and the potential for human exposure – regardless of whether the plant was developed using genetic-engineering or conventional-breeding processes. ” –omics” technologies will be critical in enabling these regulatory approaches.
The United States’ current policy on new plant varieties is in theory a “product” based policy, but USDA and EPA determine which plants to regulate at least partially based on the process by which they are developed. But a process-based approach is becoming less and less technically defensible as the old approaches to genetic engineering become less novel and as emerging processes — such as genome editing and synthetic biology — fail to fit current regulatory categories of genetic engineering, the report says.
The distinction between conventional breeding and genetic engineering is becoming less obvious, says the report, which also reviews emerging technologies. For example, genome editing technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9 can now be used to make a genetic change by substituting a single nucleotide in a specific gene; the same change can be made by a method that uses radiation or chemicals to induce mutations and then uses genomic screening to identify plants with the desired mutation – an approach that is considered to be conventional breeding by most national regulatory systems. Some emerging genetic engineering technologies have the potential to create novel plant varieties that are hard to distinguish genetically from plants produced through conventional breeding or processes that occur in nature. A plant variety that is conventionally bred to be resistant to a herbicide and one that is genetically engineered to be resistant to the same herbicide can be expected to have similar associated benefits and risks.
Regulating authorities should be proactive in communicating information to the public about how emerging genetic-engineering technologies or their products might be regulated and how new regulatory methods may be used. They should also proactively seek input from the public on these issues. Not all issues can be answered by science alone, the report says. Policy regarding GE crops has scientific, legal, and social dimensions.
For example, on the basis of its review of the evidence on health effects, the committee does not believe that mandatory labeling of foods with GE content is justified to protect public health, but it noted that the issue involves social and economic choices that go beyond technical assessments of health or environmental safety; ultimately, it involves value choices that technical assessments alone cannot answer.
The study was sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the New Venture Fund, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with additional support from the National Academy of Sciences. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. For more information, visit http://national-academies.org. A roster follows.
Watch the webcast
This consensus report examines a range of questions and opinions about the economic, agronomic, health, safety, or other effects of genetically engineered (GE) crops and food. Claims and research that extol both the benefits and risks of GE crops have created a confusing landscape for the public and for policy makers. This report is intended to provide an independent, objective examination of what has been learned since the introduction of GE crops, based on current evidence. READ MORE WATCH VIDEO
European Bioethanol Offers 15% CO2 Reductions in Transport – Blocking It Is a Form of Climate Crime
by James Cogan (Biofuels Digest/Ethanol Europe Renewables Ltd.) … The European Commission in Brussels is right now putting the finishing touches to a Communication on Transport Decarbonisation, due out this summer. … There is a risk the Communication may support fossil friendly caps on sustainable European made bioethanol.
Bioethanol made by Europe’s bioeconomy, when blended to a fifth the volume of normal petrol, reduces greenhouse gas emissions by at least 15% in the petrol sector. That’s a giant step towards the 40% target. It’s already being done in parts of Europe at ethanol blend rates between 1% and 85%, averaging out overall at about 4%. We need to get that average up to 20% during the 13 years to 2030. Farms, filling stations, biorefineries and cars are ready and able to do it. With the right policy will, it can be delivered.
And the other 25% emissions reductions in petrol?
10% or maybe 15% will be got if we incentivise a third or more of new car purchases to be hybrid electric or electric – up from about 1% now – so that by 2030 around 20% of cars on the road would be all or partially electric (remember, it takes 20 years for 1% of new car sales of a certain car type to become 1% of the total fleet on the road). This assumes that most of the electricity they’ll use will come from wind and sun, etc. Our electricity companies are already stretched in the effort to convert existing power demand to renewables, so adding a big chunk of cars and trucks to their to-do list for 2030 is a big ask.
The last 15% will come from a combination of less traffic, smarter traffic (things like group Uber), gas powered cars and a transition from dirty diesel to cleaner, smaller, more efficient petrol engines. This last point is a real opportunity because ethanol blend petrol is high in octane, so leaner.
Clearly in the dozen years to 2030 the hardest 15% to achieve of the three approaches above will be the electric vehicles, so the first and third options will be making up the shortfalls. Then by 2040-2050 the electrics should be largely taking over. Unfortunately we can’t put our carbon reductions efforts on hold until electric vehicles with green electricity are fully viable because the climate won’t wait.
This protein-bioethanol mix is an wonderful example of bioeconomy symbiosis. We won’t need so much South American soya if we make more ethanol, nor the forest clearance and awful labour conditions brought about by soya demand. For every patch of land used to make food protein and ethanol in Europe an equivalent patch of forest somewhere in a developing country is not needed for soya meal, while coachloads of fossil carbon stay in the ground where they’ve been for millions of years and where they belong forever.
The roughly 20% of European ethanol not made from wheat and corn comes from sugar beet which is a soil enhancing rotation crop, i.e. grown in between the growing cycles of other crops on the same land, and from residues of field and forest agriculture, known as advanced cellulosic ethanol. The emergence of advanced bioethanol is the equivalent of having discovered vast new reserves of clean oil in our own home state. It’s all good.
A bridge solution
Bear in mind too, that as petrol consumption drops due to electric vehicle take-up and smarter traffic, so too drops the demand for ethanol. Relatively soon the higher ethanol volumes in the petrol blend will be offset by dropping demand for petrol overall and in the longer term – as electric vehicles take over – ethanol fuel will go the way of fossil fuel, becoming virtually extinct (and by which time those biorefineries will be churning out high value biomaterials for non-energy uses).
Those of us dedicated to fighting for the climate and the environment – and that includes the EC, WWF, T&E and Birdlife Europe – should direct our fire squarely at the real villains. Stop palm oil, all of it, until deforestation is put under control. Two thousand five hundred football pitches of forest land are cleared every single day to make room for palm oil and the insatiable demand for it in processed food, cosmetics, soaps, chemicals and, for 5% of it, unacceptable palm oil diesel. Fight fossil oil. Break the link between oil companies and car companies and fight the dirty diesel that ruins the air of Europe’s cities, killing hundreds of thousands of us in the process.
To those who say renewable energy should stand on its own two feet in price competition with fossil energy the answer is no, it should not, so long as the fossil people are not made to collect and safely dispose of that coachload of fossil CO2 that gets dumped into the sky by each of us every week. The ‘level playing field’ with fossil energy is irresponsible nonsense. It’s a dangerous form of climate change denial.
State aids for bioethanol should be allowed, as it is for fossil energy in many states. Governments should prioritise bioethanol in their public procurement for captive vehicle fleets. Car and fuel makers should specify high octane fuel which will foster ethanol use and more fuel efficient engines. Infrastructure for high blend fuels should be incentivised.
Failing to give adquate policy support to European bioethanol will only strengthen fossil oil, amounting to a form of crime against the climate.