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Here are 6 Things to Know About the Latest GMO Science

May 19, 2016

Genetically-engineered crops are generally safe to eat, but in the 20 years since the first commercial GMO crops hit the market, they haven't delivered on all their promises, according to a new analysis from a National Academy of Sciences panel released Tuesday.

For more than two decades genetically-engineered crops -- plants in which scientists have transferred genes among species to achieve new traits like herbicide tolerance or insecticide -- have been lightning rods in food discussions.

Perhaps the report’s greatest charge to its readers: avoid sweeping generalizations about GMOs, which can paint a broad swath of plant varieties considered to be “GMO” as either good or evil, panacea or scourge, savior or destructor.

“The technologies, traits, and contexts of deployment of specific GE crop varieties are so diverse that generalizations about GE crops as a single defined entity are not possible,” the report reads.

“Policy regarding GE crops has scientific, legal, and social dimensions, and not all issues can be answered by science alone. Indeed, conclusions about GE crops often depend on how stakeholders and decision-makers set priorities among and weigh different considerations and values.”

In that same spirit, here are some of the more interesting generalizations in the report’s findings:

1. The current crops on the market are safe to eat, and there’s no evidence they’re harming the people and animals who eat them.

2. GMO crops don’t do a whole lot to raise the rate of yield increase, meaning since the plants have come onto the market in the late 1990s, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show farmers haven’t seen their yields jump dramatically, as is often touted by agricultural companies.

3. The introduction of crops bred to include Bt, an insecticide, and herbicide-tolerance, like Roundup Ready corn, has cut down on the use of certain pesticides, but some varieties are beginning to lose efficacy due to resistance.

4. Herbicide-resistant crops and their combined chemicals haven’t wreaked havoc on wild plant varieties by inter-breeding.

5. Some farmers have seen significant economic benefits from deploying GMO crops due to decreased input costs and diminished crop losses. But the seeds are expensive, so farmers have to take that into account.

6. Regulation currently on the books isn’t really cutting it. Changes to regulatory frameworks are needed to change both the scope of what we’re looking at and include novel new gene-editing techniques.

Agricultural scientists praised the 388-page tome for its comprehensive look at one of the most controversial topics in their field. At the same time, some prominent advocacy groups, like Food and Water Watch and the Environmental Working Group, questioned the scientific panel’s coziness with industry, and challenged the NAS to be more transparent in its declarations of conflicts of interest.

North Carolina State University entomologist Fred Gould, who chaired the panel that wrote the report, says he wants the report to break through the vitriol in the debate over GMOs.

“There are a lot of talking points, that go around, all the way around, from both sides and we’re pretty tired of that. We want to see real conversations.”

The majority of corn, soybean, cotton, canola, and sugar beet crops in the U.S. are genetically-engineered. As are some varieties of alfalfa, zucchini, squash, papaya, apple and potato.

Interested in the debate about labeling GMO food? Watch our video explainer.