Source: Marc Kaufman, The Washington Post, Wednesday, April 5, 2000
Genetically engineered crops appear to be safe but the government should better coordinate how it regulates them to make sure they don’t pose a danger to the environment or human health, a National Academy of Sciences report concluded today.
The Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture should work more closely to make sure engineered crops are adequately tested and monitored, a panel appointed by the academy’s National Research Council concluded.
The long-awaited, 260-page report, which focused on crops engineered to protect themselves from pests, was immediately seized upon by both advocates and opponents of engineered crops to support their position that either the crops are safe and benefit the environment or that they are potentially unsafe and may pose a hazard.
Scientists have begun splicing a variety of genes into crops, including genes that enable crops to produce their own pesticides. The engineered crops have become increasingly popular among U.S. farmers because they allow them to use less chemicals.
But the crops have also become increasingly controversial, especially in Europe. Opponents fear crops that produce their own pesticides might cause insects to become more resistant, causing the need for more or stronger chemicals in the future. One recent study also suggested such crops could kill Monarch butterflies.
While the panel concluded that there currently is no evidence that the crops do pose a danger, there is enough concern and unanswered questions to warrant close scrutiny.
“Concern surrounds the possibility that genes for resisting pests might be passed from cultivated crops to their weedy relatives, potentially making the weed problem worse. This could pose a high cost for farmers and threaten the ecosystem,” said Perry Adkisson, chancellor emeritus of Texas AM University in College Station, Texas, who chaired the panel.
The 12-member panel was comprised of researchers from outside the government. But the panel itself became embroiled in controversy when the staff director took a job with the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
About three dozen protesters gathered outside the National Academy of Sciences headquarters to condemn the report. They carried signs including one that read “The Best Science Money Can Buy.” Most were wearing white lab coats.
“Regretfully I would have to say this report is tainted by the conflicts of interest of members,” said Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio), who introduced legislation that require labeling of products containing genetically engineered crops.
“A panel that leans overwhelmingly toward a pro-biotech position, including members on the payroll of the biotech industry, cannot be expected to be produce an independent report with an objective conclusion,” he said.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization released a statement praising the report. “We’re pleased this timely report reassures consumers that foods derived from plant biotechnology are thoroughly tested and safe. And we’re equally pleased the report points out that biotech crops offer significant improvement over traditional agricultural practices and could promote biodiversity in the environment.”