A Contrary Perspective on the AAAS Board Statement Against Labeling of Engineered Foods

, former senior scientist, Food and Environment | November 2, 2012, 5:27 pm EDT
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As a long-time member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and as a scientist, I was disappointed at the inaccurate information in the statement by the Board against labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods.

Apparently, so are other scientists. A group of 21 scientists from academia have strenuously objected to the AAAS Board Statement, making important points about why people may want to know whether they are eating GE foods, including broad issues about the lack of sustainability of GE crops, harm from resistant weeds, and herbicide use.

I will leave to others speculation on the Board’s reasons for commenting on this labeling initiative, and stick to some of the science-related points that the Board addresses.

For example, in the first paragraph, the Board’s statement declares:

“Indeed, the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.”

This pronouncement ignores the the findings of major science organizations over the past 10 or 15 years, that some GE crops could be harmful to eat or harmful to the environment. Given these findings, a blanket statement that GE crops are “safe” is misleading.

Scientists that have carefully considered the safety of GE foods recognize that it depends, in large part, on the particular genes involved. There is no doubt that some genes code for harmful or potentially harmful substances, while some do not. We already have one clear example of a harmful engineered gene (though not commercialized). Because the safety of an engineered food depends on the properties of the particular gene, it is misleading to suggest that we can generalize about the safety of all GE foods from the GE foods currently available.

Likewise, studies of particular GE crops, even many of them, say little or nothing about the safety of other crops with other genes that can have very different properties. So the cited European research, while useful, does not settle this question.

For example. the National Academy of Sciences through its National Research Council (NRC) wrote in its 2000 report, Genetically Modified Pest-Protected Plants, that transgenic crops, like classically bred crops, could pose “…high or low risks…” (p. 6). The report went on to support regulation of GE crops, writing: “There is an urgency to complete the regulatory framework for transgenic pest-protected plant products because of the potential diversity of novel traits that could be introduced by transgenic methods…” (p.12).

Similarly, a 2002 NRC report, Environmental Effects of Transgenic Plants: The Scope and Adequacy of Regulation, notes that both conventional methods of crop improvement and GE can introduce traits that “…can pose unique risks.” (p. 5).

And Genetically Modified Pest-Protected Plants says on page 14 that: “FDA should put a high priority on finalizing and releasing preliminary guidance on the assessment of potential food allergens, while cautioning that further research is needed in this area.”

Perhaps in response, FDA set up an advisory committee in 2002 whose first assigned task was to evaluate FDA’s allergy testing guidelines for GE foods. I was one of the ten or so scientists on that committee. We made recommendations to FDA to improve its process. These recommendations were ignored, despite assurances to us that our concerns would be addressed.

Relatively little further research, needed to develop more reliable allergenicity tests, has been conducted, and the tests that are often used have the same limitations as when the NRC report was written.

Another statement by the AAAS Board, that “In order to receive regulatory approval in the United States, each new GM crop must be subjected to rigorous analysis and testing,” and that the food must be shown to be non-allergenic and non-toxic, is simply false.

As I noted in a previous post, and as the 21 scientists above point out, the FDA review process for GE foods is voluntary, and provides no detailed guidance on how to test GE foods to ensure their safety. No “must” involved! At the end of its cursory review, the agency does not approve the safety of these foods, but reminds the company that FDA is relying on the company’s assessment of safety.

And there is also the question of whether the approval process for pesticidal GE crops at EPA can legitimately be called rigorous. Compared to the testing required for chemical pesticides, the answer is unequivocally “no.” There are extensive testing guidelines for chemical pesticides required by U.S. EPA, for example, that include long-term animal testing, mutation testing, carcinogenicity testing and so on. Even these tests are imperfect. For GE foods, EPA requires only short term animal testing, for about a month, with a single high dose of the engineered substance, and some allergenicity testing. There are no long-term tests required, no mutation testing, and so on. Some would question whether these more thorough tests are needed, but trying to pass off testing of GE in the U.S. as rigorous is dubious.

Finally, the Board tries to dispel what has become perhaps the most persistent criticism of GE food safety testing: That no long-term testing in animals is required, which is usually needed to have any confidence that slowly-developing maladies will not be caused.

They cite a recent review of several long-term studies that concludes that the GE and non-GE counterparts are nutritionally equivalent. This study has been widely cited to argue that long-term testing of GE has been conducted, shows that GE is safe, and that short-term or 90 day animal safety tests are sufficient.

Close examination of that research, however, reveals several serious flaws that invalidate these conclusions. I will look at this paper in detail in my next post.

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  • As a member of the AAAS I was repelled by the arrogance implicit in the statement on GMO’s by the Board.

    By the latter part of his comment reply, Doug does return to the core issue of consumer choice, comparing it to the choice of clothing, but for much of his discussion he succumbs to the device that the Board employs to change the discussion from consumer information to their own estimate of safety. The Board has no right to shift the discussion in this way and by so doing they reveal an arrogance that does a terrible disservice to the reputation of Science and scientists. I regret this stain on my favorite activity. I also regret that this arrogance plays right into the anti-science bias so prevalent in the United States. It is important, as Doug points out, that we not try to substitute health issues for an information issue.

    After reading dozens of intricately framed, convoluted discussions of bioethics in the pages of Science, I am horrified to see that informed consent is so easily dismissed by the Board. The American consumer is the experimental subject, whether the Board wants to express its opinion of safety or not. Informed consent starts with information and then leads to consent. Information in this case comes on a label. It is not up to the experimenter to decide for his sentient subject that consent is already decided. The details of the label may change with time, but for the moment, all that is asked is whether or not GMO foods are present. Without the desired information, there is no consent. The Board should be at the forefront of demanding informed consent, instead of substituting its own version of what will serve the profits of major corporate members of the scientific community.

  • Julie MacCartee

    Hi Doug! Thanks for another thoughtful post. I have been struggling with this issue because I feel that GE crops are taking the blame for broader issues that are not specific to GE. As you state above, “both conventional methods of crop improvement and GE can introduce traits that ‘…can pose unique risks.'” Chemical mutagenesis and other conventional techniques can alter plant genomes in myriad ways that could introduce new allergens/toxins or pose unexpected risks, but we do not talk about labeling foods produced with these techniques.

    When it comes to the environmental argument, clearly herbicide-resistant GE crops are often mismanaged, leading to to herbicide-resistant weeds. And as you describe, there is evidence that Roundup causes environmental harm. But if a particular GE crop were engineered for drought tolerance (and nothing else), why should it be labeled over, say, strawberries that are doused in methyl bromide? It seems that the process of genetic engineering itself is taking the blame for a whole host of industrial agriculture problems. Labeling GE makes it seem like we are letting all non-GE crops off the hook, regardless of whether their production is actually worse for the environment in some cases.

    I generally agree that consumers have a right to know as many details as possible about what they are consuming. But the things that I want to know about my food are simply not encompassed in the black-and-white concept of whether or not that food is genetically engineered. In the present, a GE label would tell me that the food is most likely herbicide resistant or a Bt crop. But in the future, as greater variety of less-harmful traits are inserted into crop genomes, it won’t tell me much. (Or am I naive that GE will ever be a successful method for enhancing nutrient concentrations, salt-tolerance, or drought-tolerance without pesticide-related traits as well?)

    I dream of a world in which each new commercial crop is thoroughly tested, based on some sort of risk likelihood, regardless of it’s method of development. 🙂 Keep up the good work, UCS!


    • Doug Gurian-Sherman

      Good questions Julie. The point of this blog post is to address some of what I think are misleading statements about the science behind GE made in the AAAS statement. But as I and others have said elsewhere, I think labeling is mainly an issue of consumer choice. For whatever reasons, consumers consistently, and by large majorities, say that want GE to be labeled.

      The NRC, at least the 2000 report that I cited, suggested that we should consider better regulation of other genetics methods. I think that may make some sense for some methods like mutation breeding. But if we wait for completely comprehensive regulation or labeling, nothing would ever get done. To some extent, an incremental approach is often the the only practical one.

      You are also assuming that labeling would be a mark against GE, when you say that GE is or would be “taking the blame” for the problems with industrial agriculture. I think whether labeling is perceived to be a black mark largely depends on how the labeling is done. Clearly, ingredients in the ingredient list are often healthful, and not perceived as harmful. So how labeling is done is important. I favor neutral labeling that is informational, and does not single out genetically engineered ingredients on the label in a way that suggests that they are necessarily risky. That is for citizens to decide.

      UCS wants to see change in agriculture toward sustainable methods. As it is predominantly developed and used now, GE is one important part of conventional monoculture, external-input intensive agriculture that is not sustainable. It also diverts attention and resources from better and cheaper methods. So we do see it as mainly part of the problem at this point rather than the solution. Some have argued that GE could be developed in ways that fit sustainable agriculture systems. That may be possible, but right now it is primarily controlled by large companies that are mostly not developing it in a way that is best for society as a whole.

      As for for possible negative environmental impacts, I do see some applications as being possibly riskier than conventional breeding. For example, if a drought tolerance traits through GE are developed that are more potent than can be done though conventional breeding (something I am skeptical of, however),transfer to wild relatives through gene flow (which can happen for many U.S. crops such as wheat, grapes, lettuce, timber trees,grasses, and so on) may have implications that could not occur to the same extent through conventional breeding. There is are also similar issues with pest-resistant traits, both for gene flow, and harm within the cropping environment.

      But labeling is a rather blunt instrument for getting at possible distinctions between different GE traits. It is imperfect for that purpose. But I do think it would be a step in the right direction, and could be refined, e.g. with bar codes that provide additional on-line information.

      One of the problems with the AAAS statement is that it assumes that the desire for choice is based on perceived health risks alone. Health risks, which I think have been sometimes exaggerated, are undoubtedly a significant reason for many consumers. But I also think it extremely presumptuous on the part of the AAAS Board to substitute its judgment about the large range of motivations that guide consumers on this issue. We do not question why consumers prefer certain styles of clothes over others. There, and for most things, choice is understood to be an important part of the “free market” system. But when it comes to what we put in our bodies, there is a huge amount of pushback. I suspect that if there was not the narrow interests of a powerful industry lining up against labeling, it would happen without a lot of angst.