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GMO crops are safe, say scientists. Do they need labels anyway?

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found no evidence genetically-modified crops pose a danger to health or the environment. But the report still recommends GMO labels. 

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    An Indian scientist next to a patch of genetically modified grapeseed crop in New Delhi. A study from the national academy of science in the United States found genetically-modified crops are safe.
    Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters
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Genetically-modified crops pose no greater risk to our health or the environment than natural crops, a comprehensive study from the national scientific academy found.  

The 408-page report, released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine on Tuesday, found no evidence that genetically-modified crops led to widespread health problems or that insect-resistant or herbicide-resistant crops have decreased plant or insect diversity. In some cases, it found the crops increased insect diversity.   

The report comes as the debate over genetically-modified organisms (GMO) and their safety intensifies. Opinions are divided over GMOs' dangers and ethics and if they should be labeled. Cognizant of the contentious nature of the subject, the report's authors declined to provide an "authoritative" answer on genetically-modified crops. 

"We made recommendations on our findings. Ultimately, however, decisions about how to govern new crops need to be made by societies," reads the report's preface. "There is an indisputable case for regulations to be informed by accurate scientific information, but history makes clear that solely 'scientific-based regulation' is rare and not necessarily desirable." 

Still, the report provides interesting food for thought. A committee of 20 members conducted the study, nearly all of whom work in academia. None of the committee members were affiliated with major biotechnology corporations that include Monsanto or DuPont, The New York Times reported.  

In their analysis of nearly 1,000 research articles, 80 speakers, and 15 webinars, the committee members concentrated their review on the types of genetically-modified crops grown most in the United States: corn and cotton with bacterial genes that makes them resistant to certain insects; and soybeans, corn, and cotton that are resistant to herbicides.

Based on chemical analyses and animal studies, the crops do not appear to increase health risks, the report finds, although with the caveat that many animal studies were small. 

The committee also compared the incidence of certain diseases in the United States – where genetically-modified crops have been part of the country's diet since 1996 – to western Europe, where GMO crops have been limited. The committee found no evidence genetically-modified crops increase incidences of cancer, obesity, diabetes, kidney disease, autism, celiac disease, or food allergies, all arguments used against GMOs.  

The study did find evidence of gene flow between genetically-modified plants and neighboring plants, but "no examples have demonstrated an adverse environmental effect from this transfer," as the National Academies say in a press release. 

Many scientists who work on the issue but were not involved in the report praised it, but said they weren't surprised by its conclusions, according to the Associated Press. Others, such as Food and Water Watch, a non-governmental organization and consumer rights group which focuses on corporate and government accountability, questioned its integrity.  

"The science surrounding this technology is one-sided. There are major gaps in scientific literature," Tim Schwab, a senior researcher with the consumer rights group that focuses on food, water and fishing, tells The Christian Science Monitor. "It's hard to have confidence in the safety or merits of the technology given those facts."  

"It's a radical new approach to breeding in agriculture that is very poorly regulated," he adds.   

The report found no health or safety justification to label GMOs, but encouraged it be considered anyway.  

"It noted that the issue involves social and economic choices that go beyond technical assessments of health or environmental safety; ultimately, it involves value choices that technical assessments alone cannot answer," reads a statement from the National Academies.   

Vermont, Connecticut, and Maine mandate that foods that contain GMOs be labeled. In March, the Senate voted down a Republican bill that would have reversed these requirements. Nevertheless, General Mills and Campbell Soup agreed this year to label their products that contain GMOs.  

Although most scientists dispute claims that GMOs are dangerous to health or the environment, the arguments against them "intuitively" make sense, writes one philosopher of science: they alter the essence of plants and animals, they seem to contaminate them, etc. 

"For now, the best way to turn the tide and generate a more positive public response to GMOs is to play into people's intuitions as well," writes Stefaan Blancke, who analyzed the psychological reasons people oppose GMOs, in the Scientific American. "Given the benefits and promises of GM technology, such a change is much needed."

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