WASHINGTON – Genetically modified foods are no more risky for people than other foods, the nation's top science advisory body said Tuesday, jumping into a roiling debate on food safety.
The group also said genetically modified foods pose no extraordinary environmental risk, though it warned new technologies are beginning to blur distinctions between crops with genetic engineering and those bred conventionally. New ways to evaluate crops and ingredients may be needed, it said.
The statements came in a 407-page report by the National Research Council of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, the organization Abraham Lincoln formed to perform research for federal and state government agencies. The report has been widely anticipated by activists and agriculture interests, including farmers and food companies in Minnesota.
It comes as Vermont prepares to institute the country's first mandatory labeling law for foods containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in July. The food industry has fought against the requirement, saying it stigmatizes GMO products.
The National Research Council said it "examined epidemiological data on incidence of cancers and other human-health problems over time and found no substantiated evidence that foods from GE [genetically engineered] crops were less safe than foods from non-GE crops."
Most of the GE plants are soybean, corn, cotton, canola and sugar beets. In most cases, genetic changes made them resistant to certain insects and herbicides.
The research council also found that animals in a large number of experimental studies have not been harmed by eating food derived from GE crops.
Minnetonka-based Cargill Inc., the food processing and trading company that employs genetic engineering in some products, said the report offers more proof that GMOs can help feed the world.
"We hope NRC's findings help raise awareness of how genetic engineering and other food technologies are helping to protect our natural resources, support millions of farmers and meet consumer demand for nutritious, sustainably-produced food," Cargill spokesman Mark Klein said in an e-mail.
Nicholas Jordan, University of Minnesota professor of agronomy and plant genetics, said the report provides a "careful and comprehensive review" of the effects of the relatively small number of GE crops now grown by farmers.
"They're saying something very sensible," said Jordan, who was not involved with the study. "There are environmental benefits, but a lot depends on the way in which the GE crops are actually employed in agriculture," he said.
For example, insect resistance has been engineered into a number of crops, Jordan said, decreasing the use of insecticides, with economic and environmental benefits. However, some insects have developed resistance to the GE crops in locations where farmers did not use other strategies to manage pests. The same is true for weeds that have developed resistance to the herbicide glyphosate that some people call "superweeds." The report called the resistant weeds a "major" problem for farmers.
Perhaps the most notable feature of the report, Jordan said, is its foresight in warning that new plant products are being produced by a range of new technologies that will soon make the current concepts of genetic engineering obsolete. Technologies with far superior and precise genome editing techniques are beginning to be used, he said, and new approaches are needed to evaluate and regulate them.
Critics of genetically modified foods fired a pre-emptory shot at the report Monday, claiming the food industry made payments to the National Research Council.
"More than half of the invited authors of the new NRC study are involved in GMO development or promotion or have ties to the biotechnology industry," the group Food and Water Watch said, citing ties in consulting and research funding.
The perceived impact of GMOs on human health has driven labeling initiatives in a number of states. The food industry has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to thwart those efforts. But faced with the impending application of Vermont's law, some big companies, including Golden Valley-based General Mills, have chosen to go to a labeling scheme that will apply the Vermont GMO labeling mandate to all of their products.
The council's report touched on the labeling debate by saying their benefits depend on how consumers use them. Not having labels would deprive consumers "of the ability to make an informed choice about each product," the report said.
Organizations like the Environmental Working Group take those words as an affirmation.
The committee "did not find a food safety rationale [for mandatory labels]," executive Scott Faber said. "But it found other compelling reasons for mandatory GMO labeling."
The Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food, funded by companies that support genetic engineering, said the report substantiated its view that "mandatory on-pack labeling will have far-reaching negative consequences on our food supply."
The coalition has been pressuring the U.S. Senate to vote on a bill that would outlaw state laws mandating GMO labels before the Vermont law takes effect. But the federal legislation was never brought to a vote because it also would have prohibited a national GMO labeling standard. Many Senate Democrats believe a path to mandatory labeling must be part of any national law.