When it is possible to speak of genetically engineered crops as a broad category, it’s of about as much use as reporting that cars are safe, or that pets are safe. Both of those things are generally true, but the statements are so expansive as to be meaningless. (And there are enormous caveats.)
The academy did report that it found no cohesive evidence that genetically engineered crops have contributed to obesity, diabetes, kidney disease, autism, celiac disease, or food allergies in the United States. This is an important finding, especially for people who previously suspected that the case might be otherwise. But it is not the thrust of the report. As the chair of the academy committee Fred Gould wrote in the preface, “We received impassioned requests to give the public a simple, general, authoritative answer about G.E. crops. Given the complexity of G.E. issues, we did not see that as appropriate.”
Rather, the idea that GMOs are safe is predicated on the premise that the academy sought today to abandon. The emphasis of the report is that it is impossible to lump all genetically engineered crops together. Each novel plant—produced by conventional breeding or newer techniques—warrants careful consideration and safety testing. For example, when the committee was writing this report, genetically engineered soybeans being used in the U.S. had resistance to a herbicide, but no resistance to insects. In India, genetically engineered cotton had some resistance to insects, but not to herbicide. “The agronomic, environmental, and health effects of those two traits are different” the academy notes, “but the distinction is lost if the two are treated as one entity.”
Emerging technologies stand to only further challenge existing definitions and regulation by blurring the distinction between genetic engineering and conventional plant breeding, the scientists argue, while enabling ever more profound alterations of plant metabolism, composition, and ecology.
For instance, genome editing techniques like CRISPR will bring about many new plants that will render obsolete the current distinctions between the genetically engineered and the non-genetically engineered. Parsing the subtleties will become only more untenable as the potential outcomes span the conceivable. And the extent of any particular genetic change—by any type of engineering or conventional breeding—has little bearing on the outcome that is seen in the plant. Changes in the characteristics of plants, whether intentional or not, warrant assessments for risks to health and ecosystems. The academy supports the perspective of the National Research Council in arguing that “it is the product, not the process, that should be regulated.”
Further epitomizing nuance, the report explains that “sweeping statements are problematic because the formation of policies for genetically engineered crops involves not just technical risk assessment, but legal issues, economic incentives, social institutions and structures, and diverse cultural and personal values.”