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National Academy of Sciences Weighs In On Genetically-Engineered Foods

By Jan Lee

The National Academy of Sciences has some conclusions to share about genetically-engineered foods -- 420 pages worth. And no matter which side of the fence you stand on when it comes to this divisive topic, you probably aren't going to like what the nonprofit has to say.

The report, Genetically Engineered Organisms: Experiences and Prospects, was released last week online amid a flurry of news articles that attempted to breathlessly summarize the findings in a few short sentences. Some expressed disappointment in the authors' inconclusive findings; many others attempted to pin a final yea-or-nay viewpoint on the Academy's nine-chapter investigation.

But it seems reasonable to assume, with a title that takes neither side captive, that wasn't the intent of the Academy's report.

Too often, scientific analysis gets boiled down to a for-or-against summary. And no subject more exemplifies that fallacy, says the Academy, than the GMO debate. Determining whether herbicide resistant (HR) crops have a place in the production of the world's major food sources -- and whether science can actually increase yields by modifying the way that insects respond to the crop and reducing the growth of weeds -- deserves a balanced answer that is based on clinical results, the authors said.

But avoiding simple conclusions, it would seem, is harder than it looks. In the report's chapter on agronomic effects of genetically-engineered (GE) crops, the authors pointed out that after over 20 years of genetic engineering, scientists still aren't really sure whether HR technology actually helps reduce the amount of herbicide that is needed in a farmer's field. Results from previous studies varied from year to year, the authors determined, and researchers zeroed-in on that point when they published their conclusions.

Rather than conclude that the earlier data suggested GE technology might not be as helpful as proponents suggest and that this finding had valuable worth, the National Academy authors criticized prior researchers for publishing inconclusive findings. "Researchers should be discouraged," the authors recommended, "from simply publishing the total number of kilograms of herbicide used per hectare per year because such data can mislead readers." The authors did not suggest how researchers should determine whether the claims of the product (which includes reducing the amount of herbicide) should be investigated.

For those readers who felt that the country's flagship science academy would be able to drill down and find conclusive evidence as to whether GE technology contributes to health problems like cancer, diabetes, food allergies or obesity, they will be disappointed. The authors note at outset of this topic that "there are limits to what can be known of the health effects of any food." This is a significant divergence from the position that the GE industry has taken, which tries to point to the lack of a verifiable link between rising cancer rates and two decades of GMO production.

But apart from this caveat, the report appears to be more focused on reassuring readers against the ill effects of GE technology than asking probing questions that have, so far, not been asked about the nation's health status.

And that is perhaps because delving beyond already published findings isn't the point of this report. The authors open by stating that they are following a standard research methodology that takes into account what was already published and experienced. Their job isn't to ask probing questions that haven't been asked, but to interview, compile, interpret and summarize for readers what has been already published.

That said, there's a benefit to the even-handed approach when it comes to controversial topics like this. It helps to remind both investigators and readers that there is always at least two sides to every story. And oftentimes, even when we don't expect it, there are two different results to a lab test. A summary suggesting that previous studies haven't found conclusive evidence that HR technology is harmful doesn't prove that it isn't. It just means that studies on GMO foods aren't conclusive, and the global scientific community has an opportunity -- and an obligation -- to prove that the technology is safe.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/Cliff; 2) Flickr/Orin Hargraves

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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