The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NAS) report, called Genetically Engineered [GE] Crops: Experiences and Prospects was released on Tuesday. The report is “intended to provide an independent, objective examination of what has been learned since the introduction of GE crops, based on current evidence.”
My first response to this report is to commend the Chairperson of the 20-person committee that compiled it, Dr. Fred Gould, professor of entomology at North Carolina State University, for making this statement in its preface: “We received impassioned requests to give the public a simple, general, authoritative answer about GE crops. Given the complexity of GE issues, we did not see that as appropriate.”
I agree. Simple, general answers about GE crops, even (especially?) when given by persons considered authoritative on the complex subject of genetic engineering, have certainly contributed to the polarization of the public debate over this technology. That’s because, as with any complex issue, the devil is in the details and generalizations without the devilish details–particularly when they support only one end of a polarized spectrum like the one encompassing this debate–can seem more like propaganda than like anything the public would want to hear from a group of scientific experts.
What we want to hear from an NAS committee like Dr. Gould’s is conclusions based on well-designed studies, well-executed by researchers who have no conflicts of interest that might affect the interpretation of their results.
And yet, despite Dr. Gould’s statement, this NAS report contains statements about GE crops like this one: “Although the design and analysis of many animal-feeding studies were not optimal, the committee’s examination of the large group of experimental studies available provided sufficient evidence that animals were not harmed by eating food derived from GE crops.” (pg 9, pre-publication copy)
That doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement of the safety of GE crops for animals to me. In fact, it sounds like a simple, general, authoritative answer…and one which appears to be based (at least in part) on many sub-optimally designed and analyzed studies to boot!
And the reason animal-feeding studies are carried out with GE crops in the first place is to look for unintended, unexpected changes that can occur as a result of the process of genetic engineering. That is why the products of genetic engineering should be assessed on a case-by-case basis…and another reason to question the usefulness of general statements about the safety of GE crops generally.
And in spite of its simple, general, authoritative statement about animal-feeding studies, the committee was obviously concerned with “equivocal results” as evidenced by the following Recommendations on Human Health Effects included in the report’s Summary:
“In cases in which early published studies produce equivocal results regarding health effects of a GE crop, follow-up experimentation using trusted research protocols, personnel, and publication outlets should be used to decrease uncertainty and increase the legitimacy of regulatory decisions.
Public funding in the United States should be provided for independent follow-up studies when equivocal results are found in reasonably designed initial or preliminary experimental tests.” (pg 11, pre-publication copy)
Now I obviously cannot speak for the NAS committee…but the “equivocal results” that immediately came to my mind as I read the committee’s recommendations are those associated with a paper published by Dr. Gilles Eric Séralini and colleagues and originally published in Food and Chemical Toxicology, a respected, peer-reviewed international journal; those results suggested that rats fed Monsanto’s NK603 GE corn “long-term” (over the course of their lives) had experienced various negative effects.
More than a year after that paper had been in print, Séralini’s manuscript and raw data were scrutinized by the Editor-in-Chief of Food and Chemical Toxicology who “unequivocally…found no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of the data.” The journal deemed Séralini’s results “not incorrect” but “inconclusive” because “the number of animals in each study group and the particular strain” of rat used posed “cause for concern;” the paper was subsequently (and very controversially) retracted.
I believe that this study by Séralini of NK603 GE corn warrants “follow-up experimentation using trusted research protocols, personnel, and publication outlets.”
Perhaps the NAS committee (in consensus) thinks so too?