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

November 2, 2012
Doug Gurian-Sherman
Former contributor

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.