By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
WASHINGTON (DTN) --- The first two days of hearings on the latest round of scientific review for biotech crops and genetically engineered foods reflected that the National Research Council is tackling a highly politicized debate about the future role of biotech crops in American agriculture.
An ad-hoc committee of 18 scientists is tasked by the National Research Council with examining the science and ramifications of biotech crops by looking at the history of genetic engineering and the potential the crops and biotech foods hold for the future. Speakers offered the committee a range of views from university professors and non-governmental experts who have battled over biotech crops for decades.
The forum is the first of several meetings the committee is expected to hold before generating a report sometime in early 2016. NRC reports can carry significant weight in Washington as they usually offer direction for both Congress and regulatory agencies to examine holes or changes needed to address scientific concerns over a given topic.
Missing from the early conversations was any perspective from the companies developing the next potential innovations in biotechnology. Some speakers on Tuesday also stressed the need to bring in farmers to speak to committee members about their experiences with biotech crops. The only farmers who spoke during the two-day discussions were during the public comment session. Danny Murphy, chairman of the American Soybean Association, spoke through a webcast offering some public comments.
"This technology has allowed me to reduce soil erosion," Murphy said of biotech crops, noting he makes fewer passes over his fields and has converted to no-till through the use of biotech crops. "This equates to sustainability to me."
Calls for Regulatory Review
Greg Jaffe, director of the Project on Biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said his group stresses that food from biotechnology is safe to eat. He also added there are benefits to genetically engineered crops, but those benefits need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. He said he is often asked about food allergies from the public, for instance. He said it's important for the committee to reassess the safety of biotech crops. Moreover, the Food and Drug Administration needs to play a larger role in assessing the safety of those foods. Right now, FDA largely approves studies conducted by the companies themselves.
"The FDA needs to have its own assessment," Jaffe said.
USDA also needs to change its policies to base regulations on risk, not simply whether the biotech crop involves plant pests, Jaffe said. There are a small number of products being approved without any regulatory oversight because USDA only regulates products that contain plant pest sequences.
Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist at Consumers Union, agreed with Jaffe that mandatory safety assessments are needed on genetically engineered crops. Hansen noted the American Medical Association supports mandatory pre-market assessments on biotech crops.
Bill Freese, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety, said the committee should examine the effects of having crops stacked with genes to resist multiple lines of herbicides. Freese noted that the deregulation of 2,4-D-resistant crops could lead to a 200% to 600% increase in 2,4-D applications by 2020, according to one company analysis.
"Herbicide-resistant crops offer short-term benefits but the problems stretch on," Freese said.
Tim Schwab, a researcher with Food & Water Watch, told the committee that the biotech industry heavily funds studies leading to conclusions the industry supports while stifling studies that are negative. "There is a recognition that just looking at the published scientific research might not tell the complete story," Schwab said.
Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, offered an aggressive defense of biotechnology and lashed out at critics of genetic engineering when he spoke. Entine noted some representatives of consumer groups "invariably only point to one side of the issue" on biotechnology. Entine asked the committee to reject these views and focus on science. He asked the committee to ignore some claims published in what Entine characterized as "one-off studies by paper-plate journals."
Opposition to Biotech
French researcher Giles-Eric Seralini spoke before the committee through the web, but his presentation was limited because of technical problems with the webcast. However, he said more studies are needed on endocrine disruptors in people and the toxicological effects of glyphosate and BT toxins in the human blood system. Seralini said studies should also examine whether those toxins are in the urine of Americans who have been exposed to both biotech traits for decades now.
"Long-term toxicological tests with mammals are needed," said Seralina, who is known mainly for a disputed study on toxicology of rats fed glyphosate-resistant feed and water contaminated with doses of glyphosate.
Jeffrey Smith, an outspoken biotech critic from Iowa and founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology, had a long list of demands he felt the committee should eventually recommend to policymakers. He concurred with Seralini, but also wanted investigations into the impacts of glyphosate on human gut bacteria. Studies also should examine gluten-related disorders. Smith also wants studies on milk, meat and eggs from animals fed feed from biotech crops and all such food products coming from biotech feed should be labeled, Smith said. Bees and butterflies should be further studied to examine how biotech toxins and pesticides from those crops affect bees and butterflies as well.
Of Smith's research requests, one committee member suggested Smith would essentially consume the country's entire research budget.
"You have a lot of recommendations that would take care of all of our federal research funding," said Neal Stewart, a plant science professor at the University of Tennessee.
Janet Cotter, a senior scientist with Greenpeace, told committee members they should simply question the value of genetically engineered crops altogether. Cotter, speaking through a webcast, said there are too many risks for food safety and there is a risk of introducing unanticipated effects into the environment. Moreover, Cotter argued that much of what is being done with biotechnology can be done with conventional plant breeding that has improved through genetic market-assisted selection.
Science Talk Fails
Though the committee is just starting its task, there already is a lot of angst over assuring the report garners public confidence. Dietram Scheufele, a University of Wisconsin science communications professor, told the committee that the report needs to go beyond the science of biotech crops. He noted the highly politicized nature of biotechnology stems from the complex science and lack of overall public understanding of it. Yet, a great many people have already framed their views and will validate their own opinions regardless of the report's outcome through the process of "motivated reasoning." However, the scientific committee would be wise not to ignore social concerns, Scheufele said.
"To say it's not a scientific question so we are going to ignore it is really the best way to destroy it (the report)," he said.
Carmen Bain, a sociologist at Iowa State University, said biotech crops are a "wicked problem" that reflects the rise of political consumerism. Reducing scientific uncertainty won't necessarily reduce the social and political uncertainty around biotech crops, regulations and labeling demands, Bain said.
Chris Clayton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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