Letter to the National Academy of Sciences on the National Research Council project: Genetically-Engineered Crops: Past Experience and Future Prospects

September 2014

We, the undersigned, are academic scientists in genetics, breeding and agriculture and supporting fields. We have dedicated our careers to plant, animal and microbial genetics to ensure a safe, sustainable food and feed supply.  We recognize the contributions from both traditional breeding and genetic engineering to scientific research and to agriculture.  Accordingly, we applaud the importance the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) gives to the topic.

We are concerned, therefore, with at least three crucial aspects of the current National Research Council (NRC) study.  First, the scope of the study transcends science.  This is not to say that society shouldn’t consider these issues when setting policy; just that they have no place in a rigorous scientific analysis.

Two, the panel’s provisional members lack the expertise to address many of the points listed under the current scope of the study.[1]  As just one example, no scientist on the panel has hands-on expertise with the US regulatory system.

Third, and perhaps most important, we have a fundamental question of why this study and panel were convened, and why there is a need to review a topic which has perhaps been the most studied topic in the history of food and agriculture.  This biggest question is, Why is yet another NRC panel investigating GE agriculture/food when all the relevant questions have been addressed by earlier panels, especially the major studies from the NAS-NRC of 2002, 2004 and 2010?  We could understand if the issue was restricted to the ‘new’ technologies (cisgenic, genome editing, etc.), but even that would be a betrayal of the earlier lesson—that process (of modification) is immaterial to safety. There is no shortage of refereed literature on the topic—hundreds of papers are available[2], all of which relate directly to the scope of the current study. Yet we know of no new scientific justification for reviewing the findings, conclusions or recommendations of these earlier studies.

We recognize the importance of examining all available data from all legitimate experts in the field.  As it stands, the NRC is giving the same platform and credibility to a ballroom dancer/yogic flyer as to NAS members and other expert scientists.   It is important to recognize that opinions and anecdotes are not the tools we use; science depends on data, evidence and analyses.  The NAS should not be giving the impression that every idea or thought deserves equal recognition, regardless of the data and the underlying empirical science.  Would the Academy invite an astrologer to critique a study on planetary structure?   We therefore urge the NAS and the NRC to:

  • Suspend this study until these issues can be resolved.
  • Failing that, refocus the scope solely to the scientific aspects of modern breeding techniques, beginning with traditional biotechnology (rDNA breeding) and through RNAi, genome editing, and synthetic biology as compared to traditional methods.
  • Ensure that those who testify have appropriate credentials to address the topics.
  • Ensure that Committee members have the appropriate scientific credentials and experience to address these issues.

The NRC’s current agenda and scope tarnish the prestige and credibility of the NAS. It will also confuse the public with misinformation and disregard for scientists and the scientific method.

Sincerely yours,

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Comments (113)

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  1. Dr. Bing Yang says:

    Associate Professor
    Department of Genetics, Development and Cell Biology
    Iowa State University
    Ames, IA 50011

  2. Lila Vodkin says:

    Professor Emerita
    Department of Crop Sciences
    University of Illinois
    Urbana, Illinois

  3. Dr. Robert E. Paull says:

    Professor/Researcher – Plant Physiology
    Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences
    University of Hawaii at Manoa.

    It is unfortunate that this issue has become so divisive for agriculture and in society. All technologies need to be evaluated to meet future world food needs and to minimize environmental impact.

    We are told the GE food maybe unsafe. This statement ignores the significant body of published research, meta-studies and reports by reputable scientific bodies that GE crops have no greater health risks than conventionally bred crops. Are there any published reports of a food, GE or not, that has been been proven to be safe?

  4. David Douches, Professor, Michigan State University says:

    Potato breeder and geneticist
    Plant Soil and Microbial Sciences Department
    Michigan State University
    East Lansing, MI 48824

  5. Brian A. Federici, PhD says:

    Distinguished Professor of Entomology
    in the Graduate Division
    Member, Interdepartmental Programs in Microbiology
    & Cell, Molecular, and Developmental Biology
    University of California, Riverside
    Riverside, California 92521

    It is absolutely essential that to the extent possible politics and the opinions of the
    uninformed and scientifically unqualified not be used to influence state, national, and international policies related to the use of genetically engineered crops. The scientific evidence on the safety and environmental benefits of these crops is overwhelmingly in favor of their use, not only in the U.S., but especially in developing countries. The long term future of feeding the world a nutritious food supply is dependent on current engineered crops, and will be even more important in the future. Genetically engineered improvement of crops is a powerful tool, and will continue to be so.

  6. Dr. Cankui Zhang says:

    Assistant Professor in Crop Physiology
    Purdue University
    West Lafayette, IN 47906

  7. Nina Fedoroff says:

    I am particularly disturbed by the lack of appropriate expertise on the committee.

  8. James Reecy says:

    Professor and Director of the Office of Biotechnology
    Iowa State University
    Ames, IA 50010

  9. Dr. Andre T. Jagendorf, member of the National Academy of Sciences says:

    I am a Professor Emeritus of Plant Biology at Cornell University. My research has included Plant Biochemistry, and some Plant Molecular Biology. It is obvious that every plant product that we eat has been modified genetically over centuries past. The only difference is that modern science provides a more efficient, more specific way of accomplishing the desired modifications. It is basically more safe as well as efficient, because it does not bring in large numbers of other genes at the same time as the one desired.

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