Though the report was marred by spin and pulled punches, among its take-home messages are that GM crops have led to superweeds and resistant pests

Below are three commentaries on the recent US National Academy of Sciences’ (NAS) report on GM crops.

The first article is from the Daily Mail. The assertion in this article by Joe Perry, former head of the EFSA GMO Panel, that “GM Bt crops are both environmentally friendly and good for growers, resulting in yield increases and pesticide reduction”, is ludicrously out of date.

Perry clearly hasn’t followed the history of GM Bt cotton in India or GM Bt maize in Brazil. The former crop is being thrown out of India due to its falling victim to pest attacks. And pests in Brazil have become resistant to GM Bt maize.

In these cases, pesticide reduction will not be part of the picture. On the contrary, farmers will be escalating the chemical pesticide sprays to try to preserve their crops.

Perry also appears to be ignorant of the many studies showing that GM Bt crops have toxic effects on non-targets – and not just on “butterflies”, as he claims, but also on mammals and other organisms.

Meanwhile another response to the NAS report, authored by Juliet Samuel in the pro-GMO Daily Telegraph, claims that because the report “was funded by a combination of US government and independent charitable cash”, it “can’t be blamed on the evil shills of Monsanto”.

Samuel appears not to have noticed that the NAS and its research arm, the NRC, are heavily funded by Monsanto and other biotech companies, as a report by Food & Water Watch has documented.

The NAS report was especially poor on food safety. We’ll have more to say about that soon.

1. GM farming is creating superweeds and resistant bugs: Controversial technology has created a 'major agricultural problem' – Daily Mail
2. NAS report on GMOs gives spin new life and pulls too many punches – Dr Chuck Benbrook
3. Get smart on GMOs, and why you should care – Carey Gillam

1. GM farming is creating superweeds and resistant bugs: Controversial technology has created a 'major agricultural problem'

By Sean Poulter
Daily Mail, 18 May 2016

* Report by the American National Academies of Science looked at GM crops
* Many promises for the controversial technology have not been fulfilled
* Genes inserted into some crops have transferred to wild plants
* GM food remains generally safe for human consumption, the report found

Superweeds and toxin resistant pests have been created by GM farming, according to a landmark study.

New research from the American National Academies of Science reveals that many promises for the controversial technology have not been fulfilled.

Significantly, the experts concluded that the emergence of mutated weeds and pests created by GM farming is 'a major agricultural problem'.

In some cases, superweeds have taken over vast tracts of previously productive farmland in North America.

Farmers have had to resort to drastic measures, including spraying with highly toxic chemicals such as DDT and even using flamethrowers, to try and destroy them.

There is also evidence that some insect pests have developed a resistance to toxins inserted into GM crops.

As a result, they survive to damage important commercial crops, such as GM cotton, which is grown in India.

GM crops were first developed more than 20 years ago on the back of promises to increase yields, cut the use of chemical sprays and boost farmers' profits.

One group of crops, such as soya and maize or corn, had genes inserted into them to make them immune to chemical weedkillers like Monsanto's Roundup or glyphosate.

Farmers could then douse their crops in these chemicals, killing off the weeds but allowing the GM plants to survive.

However, many weeds, such as Palmers pigweed, which can grow seven feet tall, subsequently developed resistance to glyphosate and are difficult to control as a result.

The study said: 'In many locations some weeds had evolved resistance to glyphosate, the herbicide to which most genetically engineered crops were engineered to be resistant.'

A second group of crops, such as cotton and corn, had a toxin inserted into them – known as Bt – which would kill any pests that fed on the plants.

However, pink bollworms have developed resistance to a toxin inserted into GM cotton.

The US researchers found: '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.'

In light of these concerns, the academics concluded that strict policing regimes are needed to vet new crops and the way they are grown.

Many critics of GM have been concerned about their effects on the environment and human health.

The study offered reassurance on these questions, while admitting there was an absence of evidence.

It said: '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.'

And on human health, it said: '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.'

As a result, they said there was no scientific reason to label food such as breakfast cereals, snacks and ready meals which contain GM ingredients.

There is a legal requirement to label the use of GM ingredients in Britain and Europe, while there is huge controversy in the USA over whether food firms and supermarkets should follow suit.

The study found pest resistant GM crops did see a meaningful increase in yields, however this was not the case with weedkiller resistant varieties.

Successive British governments, both Labour and Conservative, have championed GM farming and pushed the EU to support and approve the crops.

However, other European nations have been far more sceptical and adopted blocking tactics.

Supporters of GM said the study by the National Academy of Sciences should be the trigger for allowing the crops to be grown here.

Dr Joe Perry, former chairman of the European Food Safety Authority GM Panel, said: 'Put simply, this very extensive NAS report draws conclusions that should be no surprise to those who have followed GM plant cropping in north America.

'Firstly, GM Bt crops are both environmentally friendly and good for growers, resulting in yield increases and pesticide reduction.

'Second, the picture is not nearly so rosy for herbicide tolerant (HT) crops, which, because of the profligate and lightly regulated way they are used in the USA, don't increase yields and can lead to problems with weed resistance.'

Dr Perry said the findings should clear the way for the growing of insect resistant crops in Britain and the rest of the EU, including Bt maize.

Although, he said there would need to controls around some varieties which are more toxic to butterflies.

He said the authorities should also allow the growing of some varieties of GM maize that are resistant to weedkillers, but with conditions that limit the risk of the creation of superweeds.

2. NAS report on GMOs gives spin new life and pulls too many punches

By Chuck Benbrook, 19 May 2016

As I worked through Tuesday’s report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) titled “Genetically Engineered Crops: Experience and Prospects,” I was at times pleasantly surprised by what I read and what the Committee recommends. But I was more often disappointed that the Committee passed up opportunities to drive home how serious many GE-crop triggered problems have become.

To its credit, the report does a good job describing the problems and challenges that have arisen over the last 20 years in the wake of widespread adoption of GE crops. These include the emergence and spread of resistant weeds and insects, inadequate pre-approval safety testing, the U.S. government’s disjointed regulatory framework, loss of trust and confidence in the quality of U.S. food and rigor of U.S. regulation, rising costs on the farm for GE seed and associated pesticides, and the public health and environmental consequences of the intensification of herbicide use.

But it fails to inform the reader that essentially all these problems are bound to get worse, and in some cases quickly, under current policy and market dynamics. The report offers dozens of constructive recommendations, many of which have appeared in NAS reports on agricultural biotechnology dating back to 2000. But very few of the recommendations in past NAS reports have been acted upon, and there is no reason to expect this trend to change.

I agree with the Committee that with advances in the techniques of genetic engineering, coupled with implementation of all the report’s recommendations, many of today’s problems and gaps in knowledge would become more manageable and less consequential. But the majority of the recommendations stand little chance of ever happening. Too bad the Committee did not explain more clearly what is likely to transpire in the absence of the sort of major changes called for in the report’s several dozen recommendations.

The lack of even a cursory policy-change reality check is a major shortcoming in the report, given that major changes in the policy arena have been called for before, but never come to fruition. Despite trying for nearly a year and overwhelming public support, the Congress cannot even agree on a way to label food containing GE ingredients.

Today’s GE technology, and the business model it has given rise to, remain highly profitable for the six major players in the global GE seed-pesticide industry. Their response to the spread of weeds resistant to glyphosate, the main herbicide used in conjunction with GE crops, is to engineer crops resistant to additional herbicides, in the hope farmers can spray their way off of a herbicide treadmill created in the first place by excessive reliance on herbicides.

A Fresh Start for the NAS on GE Crops?

The actual content of the report, beyond the summary, deviates considerably from past NAS reports on the topic. It gives credence to many issues and problems largely dismissed or ignored in past NAS GE-related reports. It dispassionately explains why GE technology has, in general, not increased yields, and why GE crops are not “game changers” in the pursuit of global food security. And on some issues like trust in science and avoiding introduction of novel allergens in the food supply, the report is surprisingly forceful and its recommendations are right on target. Too bad they likely won’t happen.

The report consistently downplays the severity of the issues and the costs of dealing with the collateral damage left in the wake of market disruptions and public controversy over GE technology. I think the Committee owes the public a more sober appraisal.

Agricultural applications of genetic engineering have become a complex, convoluted area of science, technology, policy and market dynamics. It is challenging to keep abreast of important developments, even for people in the trenches for 20+ years. Plus, there is far too much out-of-control spin from both sides, “noise” that obscures what we actually do know, and could do to reduce risks and enhance benefits.

The committee itself gives into the spin when it says that labeling is a political issue, not a scientific one. It is obviously both.

Labels on GE sweet corn, for example, will give both mothers and pediatricians a reason to add Bt proteins to the list of possible causes when treating a child with a new food allergy. Acknowledging the presence of GE ingredients on a food label does not tarnish the reputation of food, and indeed it can serve to protect it, if and as appropriate sensitivity tests and post-market surveillance show no connection to new allergy cases.

Labeling GE food is no panacea, but it will increase the odds that problems will be detected sooner rather than later. The decision to not label GE foods has the effect of keeping the entire medical community on the sidelines, neither aware of possible GE food-allergen problems, nor capable of doing anything about them. Plus, labeling is essential to turning around public discourse, worldwide, on GE crops, and sustaining access for U.S. food companies to high-value, overseas markets.

Dealing with Roundup

The NAS Committee also dropped the ball when it comes to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto Co.’s branded Roundup and other herbicides. Glyphosate is the most heavily applied pesticide in history, by far, and is in enormous regulatory trouble worldwide. Regulators and the biotech industry will soon be forced by events to start imposing meaningful use and risk-reduction measures, while scientists work overtime to fill gaps in knowledge (assuming governments start to fund independent research).

Hopefully, the U.S. and EU will soon agree to three steps — banning all pre-harvest uses of glyphosate on small grains, edible beans, and other human food crops (all non-GE); second, reducing the ridiculously high tolerances on GE crops that Monsanto and other companies were able to get onto the books over the last decade in the U.S., and internationally via Codex; and three, banning use of high-risk surfactants and other so-called “inert” ingredients in formulated, ready-to-use herbicide products.

Just these three common-sense strategies could considerably reduce human dietary exposures, perhaps by 50% or more, and at very little cost.

Looking Ahead

I agree with the NAS that gene editing technology poses a smaller set of risk concerns than transgenics. However, it remains to be seen what other impacts CRIPSR et al will have on other aspects of gene regulation, and plant-environment interactions.

If the government does not get serious about answering legitimate questions about gene editing technology, the public backlash against “another untested, unproven GE technology” will spoil the new-technology gene pool. This will serve no ones interest, and could delay or derail valuable agricultural and medical applications of gene editing technology.

If the U.S. had put a more robust, science-driven and transparent regulatory system in place 20 years ago as we started down the GE crop path, today’s new technology might face a very different, and far smoother path to the marketplace.

But that path was not taken. Until the GE crop testing and regulatory shortcomings documented in this 2016 NAS Committee are rectified, today’s problems will almost certainly worsen and current controversies will morph and spread, and become more costly in a diversity of ways.

I am among a small number of people who fear GE-technology related costs already exceed the technology’s benefits. But I also believe that thoughtful action can reduce the costs, and increase the value of GE applications that make it through the process. Such a process, however, remains largely hidden and this new NAS report offers little help in forging a way forward.

Charles M. “Chuck” Benbrook directed the National Academy of Sciences’ Board on Agriculture from 1984 to 1990 and is well known for his work on GMO and glyphosate issues. He is an agricultural economist and former research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University. He currently serves on the USDA’s AC 21 Agricultural Biotechnology Advisory Committee. Benbrook holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard University (1971), as well as an M.A. (1979) and a PhD (1980) in agricultural economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

3. Get smart on GMOs, and why you should care

Carey Gillam
Ingredient1, 18 May 2016

Yesterday, the National Academy of Sciences released a study that found GMOs to be 'safe', but not everyone’s convinced. Are they ok for human consumption, and what’s their impact on the environment?  Carey Gillam, former senior correspondent for Reuters and current Director of Research at U.S Right to Know dives in to explain why GMOs matter, why the issue isn’t dead yet, and why you should care.

Why do GMOs matter?

Genetically modified crops now make up the bulk of corn and soybeans grown in the United States and both crops are key ingredients in food for people and animals. The poultry, beef and pork we consume largely have been raised on a diet of genetically engineered grains, and of course corn and soy products are key ingredients in thousands of products on grocery shelves, everything from ketchups and salad dressings to cookies and chips. As well, production of GMO crops has been found to raised levels of the use of the herbicide known as glyphosate, which the World Health Organization’s cancer research experts classify as a probable human carcinogen.

What is the biggest misconception regarding GMOs?

There are many, but one that persists is that GMOs are necessary to “feed the world.” This is a favorite talking point for the companies that develop, license and sell genetically engineered seeds. They say that the crops yield more than non GMO crops and that without wide use of GMO crops the globe’s growing population will run out of food. The data on yields for corn, soybeans and cotton – the three key genetically engineered crops in America – shows there is no yield gain that can be linked to genetic engineering. Those crops, also called GE crops, and others, are seeing better yields now than they were in the past, but research shows that is due to conventional breeding, improved germplasm, not genetic engineering.

A new study released May 17 by the National Academies of Sciences and partly funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture said this: “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.”

What does the research say about how GMO consumption affects humans?

Scientific results vary. There is a body of research that indicates no health problems tied to GMO consumption, and then there are some studies that indicate there may be connections to a range of illnesses and disease. The Food and Drug Administration does not require any independent safety testing for GMOs before they are commercialized. Developers, such as Monsanto Co., are encouraged to present their safety findings to the FDA, but FDA maintains that the responsibility for safety lies with the developer, not the agency.

And of course, there have never been any long-term studies of GMO consumption in humans.

In the new report released May 18, the committee said that it reviewed a wealth of data and determined that worries about health problems tied to GMOs are unfounded, though it offered a caveat. It said: “No differences have been found that implicate a higher risk to human health safety from these GE foods than from their non-GE counterparts. The committee states this finding very carefully, acknowledging that any new food—GE or non-GE—may have some subtle favorable or adverse health effects that are not detected even with careful scrutiny and that health effects can develop over time.”

How do agriculture processes differ for GMO crops vs. GMO Free crops?

Most of the crops in the world today are non-GMO and agricultural practices vary depending on the crop, the climate, the market the grower is aiming for, etc.  The primary GMO, the main genetically engineered trait, is glyphosate-tolerance, and crops engineered with that trait are designed so they can be sprayed directly with the weed-killer and not die. Glyphosate is the chief ingredient in Monsanto Co.’s branded Roundup herbicide as well as hundreds of other products around the world. Farmers who are growing glyphosate-tolerant GMOs – a class that includes sugar beets, canola, and alfalfa along with cotton, corn and soybeans – often can reduce their soil tillage. The second most popular type of GMO, an insect-resistant trait referred to often as Bt (these are engineered with genes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt). Farmers who grow Bt crops often can cut their use of synthetic insecticides because the plants in essence make their own insecticide.

How do the herbicides used for GMO crops affect the environment?

Use of herbicide-tolerant crops has made killing weeds easier for farmers – or it did. Millions of acres in many key farm states have become plagued by weeds that have developed resistance to glyphosate. This has led farmers to have to use more herbicide or other methods to try to knock them out. I’ve walked field with farmers who were trying to figure out how to combat what they called “super weeds,” and you can see how devastating such weeds are. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle. As farmers use more of the herbicide, weed resistance grows, leading farmers to use more herbicide. Indeed, research has shown sharply increased use of glyphosate over the last 20 years since these GMO crops were introduced. Glyphosate use is so pervasive that government, academic and private researchers have documented glyphosate in water and air samples as well as in human urine, flour and other foods.

Are there any environmentally responsible companies creating GMOs?  

Well I would guess that Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, Syngenta and the other big seed and agrichemical companies all see themselves as “environmentally responsible.” That’s a bit of a subjective term. There are efforts by different developers, large and small, to create crops that are more drought-tolerant, nutritionally enhanced, etc…  but to date when you talk about GMOs, you’re talking crops that tolerate herbicide sprays and crops that are toxic to certain  pests.

Are there any use cases where GMO crops are better for human consumption, and the environment?

Well the companies that make them will tell you that all the GMOS on the market now are better for the environment, and they say they are equivalent nutritionally to non-GMO crops. There is a body of research that indicates the reverse is true.  A new study published in the British Journal of Nutrition in February found evidence that organic production can boost key nutrients in foods. Another large meta-analysis published in 2014, also in the British Journal of Nutrition, found that organic crops have higher concentrations of antioxidants and other potentially beneficial compounds.  Part of the problem in this area of research is that there is conflicting research, and research is often funded by parties that have skin in the game. It’s very hard for consumers – for all of us - to find the truth about our food.