The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has put forth a comprehensive analysis covering the social, economic, human health, and environmental effects and future projections of genetically engineered (GE) foods. The roughly 400-page report, entitled “Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects,” consolidates the research and input of more than 900 publications, 80 speakers, 15 webinars, and more than 700 comments from public citizens.
The report’s research committee found that existing data does not indicate a definitive relationship between GE maize, cotton, or soybean production and yield increase. Another main finding is that there is little evidence to suggest that GE crops cause adverse effects on agricultural and environmental systems. Evidence indicates that the widespread use of some Bt crop varieties—a type of GE crop which is insect-resistant—has reduced insect-pest populations regionally, to the point where the authors suggest it is feasible to increase the use of non-Bt crops, a move which could prolong resistance of pests. The analysis found that, in some countries, genetic diversity in major crop varieties has not declined since the implementation of GE crops. The committee calls for an investment of public resources in GE research, which “might enable society to make more rigorous assessments of the potential benefits and problems associated with GE crops.”
Regarding human health, the committee found that the existing data does not indicate negative health effects from the consumption of GE food, as well as consumption of livestock that were raised with GE feed. The authors did not find evidence to support assertions of causal links between the consumption of GE foods and cancer rates, obesity, type-2 diabetes, and the increase in the incidence of food allergies. The committee’s review of existing research at the farm level in the United States “does not show any significant increases in cancer or other health problems that are due to use of glyphosate.”
The analysis found an association between herbicide resistance in weeds and the overuse of herbicides, such as the application of glyphosate herbicides. The committee suggests that integrated and sustainable pest management approaches can contribute to the improvement of GE crop systems. The authors recommend that regulations and incentives should be used to support farmers in implementing such pest management practices.
The report’s findings suggest that GE crops are often economically beneficial for large-scale soybean, cotton, and maize farmers while the economic success of GE with small-scale farmers relied on access to credit, extension services, markets, and affordable seed prices. In the report’s recommendations, the committee determined that there is not enough available research to draw substantial conclusions about the economic and social effects of GE crops and food products. For example, the authors indicate an uncertainty of the economic implications of mandatory GE food labeling. The report stresses the need for investigations that compare economic returns on investment in GE crops and alternative low external input technologies. In addition, the report calls for a systematic analysis of farmer knowledge, as well as “more information on whether the concentration of the seed market is affecting farmers’ options and welfare,” the authors say.
The report includes additional sections which guide the reader through an account of GE technology’s history; regulatory frameworks related to GE technology; and the future of emerging GE technologies, such as gene drives. When discussing the future direction of GE regulation, the committee highlights the need for transparency and public inclusion in the development of GE governance.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine also provides an online platform for users to understand the report. The platform provides an overview of the report; a list of comments and questions that were sent by the public; a gallery of videos from expert speakers; and a search interface that allows users to locate specific findings and recommendations in the report.