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,

Filed Under: Petitions

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Comments (113)

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  1. Thomas E. Spencer, Ph.D. says:

    Department of Animal Sciences
    Washington State University
    Pullman, WA 99164

  2. Michael Giroux, Ph.D. says:

    Montana State University

  3. Charles R. Long says:

    Department of Veterinary Physiology and Pharmacology
    College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences
    Texas A&M University
    College Station, TX 77843

  4. Richard E. Goodman, Ph.D. FAAAAI says:

    Research Professor, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Dept. of Food Science & Technology, Food Allergy Research and Resource Program.
    Manager of the risk assessment allergen database, Chairman of the International Union of Immunological Societies Allergen Nomenclature Subcommittee, Fellow of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

  5. Professor James L. Van Etten, Dept. of Plant Pathology, University of Nebraska and a NAS member says:

    William B. Allington Distinguished Professor
    Department of Plant Pathology
    University of Nebraska

    I was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2003

  6. Peggy Ozias-Akins says:

    Professor, Department of Horticulture
    Institute of Plant Breeding, Genetics & Genomics
    University of Georgia Tifton Campus

  7. Gary P Munkvold says:

    Iowa State University
    Dept. Of Plant Pathology and Microbiology

  8. Eve Wurtele says:

    Professor, Iowa State University

  9. Prof. Eric W. Triplett, Chair says:

    Department of Microbiology and Cell Science
    Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
    University of Florida
    1355 Museum Road, P.O. Box 110700
    Gainesville, FL 32611 USA

  10. Martin H. Spalding, PhD says:

    Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies and Professor of Genetics, Development and Cell Biology, Iowa State University

  11. Peter Hobbs says:

    Cornell University agronomist. I agree completely with the comments in this letter

  12. Jeff Essner says:

    Associate Professor, Department of Genetics, Development and Cell Biology

  13. Mark Westhusin, Professor, College of Veterinary Medicine, Texas A&M University says:

    Dept of Veterinary Physiology and Pharmacology
    College of Veterinary Medicine
    Texas A&M University

  14. Ronnie Coffman, International Professor of Plant Breeding says:

    Cornell University

  15. Gwyn A. Beattie says:

    Department of Plant Pathology & Microbiology
    Iowa State University
    Ames, IA 50011

  16. Michael G. Muszynski, PhD Genetics says:

    Assistant Professor, Dept of Genetics, Development and Cell Biology.

  17. Gary Stacey says:

    Let’s move on to something that is truly worthy of our consideration.

    University of Missouri

  18. Basil J. Nikolau, PhD says:

    Frances M. Craig Professor of Biochemistry
    Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology,
    Iowa State University
    Ames, IA

  19. Rick Roush, PhD says:

    College of Agricultural Sciences
    Penn State University

  20. K.V.Raman says:

    Associate Director
    International Programs
    College of Agriculture and Life Science
    306 Rice Hall
    Cornell University
    Ithaca- NY 14850

  21. Vladimir Orbovic says:

    Manager of the Citrus Core Transformation Facility
    Citrus Research and Education Center
    University of Florida/IFAS

  22. Scott A. Merkle says:

    Associate Dean for Research and Professor
    Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources
    University of Georgia
    Athens, GA 30602

  23. Wayne Loescher PhD says:

    Graduate Program in Plant Breeding, Genetics, and Biotechnology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI. Fellow, American Society for Horticultural Science

    I agree totally and completely with the contents of this letter.

  24. Tina Gray Teague says:

    Professor of Entomology,
    College of Agriculture and Technology
    Arkansas State University
    Jonesboro, Arkansas 72467

  25. L. Curtis Hannah, PhD in Genetics, Professor University of Florida says:

    These crops have been on the market for almost 20 years without a single problem. Why do we have to continue to listen to a bunch of people who want to peddle their potentially fecal laden produce? This technology is needed to feed a growing human population on less acreages and in the face of climate change. To continue this “slow down” and even more regulations is sinful!!

  26. Aron Geurts, PhD says:

    Human and Molecular Genetics Center
    Medical College of Wisconsin
    NIH New Innovator

  27. Guo-qing Song says:

    Associate Professor & Associate Director
    Plant Biotechnology Resource & Outreach Center
    Department of Horticulture
    Michigan State University
    East Lansing, MI 48824

  28. Keerti S. Rathore says:

    Dept. of Soil & Crop Sciences
    Institute for Plant Genomics & Biotechnology
    Texas A&M University

  29. Matthew B. Wheeler, PhD. says:

    Departments of Animal Sciences & Bioengineering
    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
    Urbana, IL

  30. Richard Veilleux, Professor says:

    Dept. of Horticulture
    Virginia Tech
    Blacksburg, VA

  31. Jeff Bradshaw, PhD says:

    Associate Professor and Extension Specialist
    Panhandle Research and Extension Center
    University of Nebraska — Lincoln

  32. Associate Professor Roberto Gaxiola says:

    Genetic modified plants are an intelligent approach to improve agriculture.

    School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University

  33. Jessica Barb, PhD says:

    Adjunct Assistant Professor
    Agronomy Department
    Iowa State University

  34. Alan Lloyd says:

    Professor, Department of Molecular Biosciences
    The University of Texas at Austin

  35. Jeremy F Taylor, Curators' Professor and Wurdack Chair in Animal Genomics, PhD, FAAAS says:

    Division of Animal Sciences
    University of Missouri
    Columbia MO 65211

  36. Sergei Krasnyanski says:

    Senior Researcher
    Department of Horticultural Science
    North Carolina State University

  37. W. Allen Miller, Professor of Plant Pathology & Microbiology, and of Biochemistry, Biophysics & Molecular Biology says:

    Plant Pathology & Microbiology Department
    Roy J. Carver Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics & Molecular Biology
    Iowa State University

  38. Monica Schmidt PhD Genetics says:

    University of Arizona
    Plant Sciences
    1657 E.Helen St.
    Tucson AZ

  39. Eliot M Herman says:

    School of Plant Sciences and Bio5 Institute
    University of Arizona
    Tucson, AZ 85721-0240

  40. Scott A Finlayson, PhD says:

    Associate Professor
    Dept. Soil and Crop Sciences
    Texas A&M University

  41. Professor George Bruening says:

    Plant Pathology Department
    University of California
    Davis, CA 95616

  42. Dennis J. Gray says:

    I’ve spent my 30+-year career developing and implementing the technology necessary to genetically improve grapevine. Now standing in the present and with 30 years of crystal clear hindsight, I can make the following observations, which I consider to be factual and correct.

    1. We have allowed a patently incorrect terminology to be used that, while it may seem to be trivial, has made it so that we cannot pursue a logical discussion with concerned non-specialists. The terminology is “GM”, GMO” and “non-GM”. Every single non-specialist who has contacted me believe to their core that nothing but these “worrisome” plants are genetically modified and that everything else is non-genetically modified. I’ve found it impossible to change their minds to accept the factual truth that all food and fiber crops that we buy, consume and use were Intentional Genetically-Modified by humankind, starting in the Paleolithic era. For example, modern corn found by Europeans when they reached the new world, began as the native grass plant,’teocinte’. It was genetically modified to a massive level by intentional selection to the point that’s it was no longer cross-fertile with its progenitor. I’ve found, and hindsight confirms, that it is impossible to initiate a logical, truthful discussion, when, as a basis, there exists a completely incorrect belief. At this point, while I am ready to discuss issues at any time, I must insist that all involved are in agreement concerning this basic fact. If not, I will not carry on as I know, again through hindsight, that it is pointless.

    2. We scientists are continually looking back, ready to defend 25 year-old technology, instead of looking forward. Again, hindsight has shown us that discussing the facts about the safety of round-up ready and Bt crops has not worked at all. At this point the massive amount of metadata has proven irrefutably that the crops are absolutely safe. Yet, we rush in to defend any challenge, effectively giving the professional naysayers their very reason to exist – we rush in to play their game & hit the ball back. If nobody returned the ball, they would be forced to disappear. For some reason, we continue to beat a dead horse, by harkening back to old technology that is obsolete in the present world. I have a saying: “We must stand in the present and look forward, using the clarity of hindsight as a guide”.

    3. Current technology now is allowing us to function entirely within the plant lifecycle and genetic systems, using, for example, only the genetic elements from the same species without exception. Because of this, all is understandable from the standpoint of “General Botany” and “Genetics”, which many people learned in High school and freshman college. In other words, one no longer needs to be a “rocket scientist” to understand. The technology is no longer comparable to “transgenics”, but instead it is directly comparable to conventional breeding. It’s termed “precision breeding” (PB), considered to be a logical extension of the conventional approach, giving breeders a new tool to use when needed. In fact, PB is much less disruptive to the plant’s genome, offering very significant advantages all crops, especially for those like grape.

    If interested, I’ve prepared a presentation that explains the technology from the standpoint of basic botany, which I’m happy to share.

    Dennis J. Gray
    Professor & Developmental Biologist
    Mid-Florida Research and Education Center
    Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
    University of Florida
    2725 Binion Road
    Apopka, FL 32703-8504 USA

  43. Charles R Santerre, Ph.D. says:

    Professor of Food Toxicology &
    Jefferson Science Fellow
    Purdue University
    West Lafayette, IN. 47907

  44. Ania Wieczorek says:

    Associate Professor/Associate Specialist
    Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences
    University of Hawaii at Manoa
    3190 Maile Way St. John 102
    Honolulu, HI 96822

  45. Allen Van Deynze says:

    Director of Research Seed Biotechnology Center, University of California, Davis

  46. Amy M. Brunner, Ph.D. says:

    Associate Professor of Molecular Genetics
    Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation
    Virginia Tech
    Blacksburg, VA 24061

  47. Perry B. Hackett says:

    30 years and over $100 billion to understand transgenic animals and exactly zero (0) animals have been approved after going through the FDA hoops. Zero is a number that reflects a TOTAL FAILURE by the SCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY to step up and show integrity and the faith that we have in the science that the American people have funded. We have failed the taxpayers by not standing up to a few people who refuse to let the scientific results speak for themselves. At the same time, we bemoan threats to our funding by legislators who wonder what scientists give for all the money they self-righteously feel entitled to.

    Its time for molecular biologists to show some integrity and stand up for applications of the understanding of molecular genetics that we have gained since about 1980 when so much of this nonsense first started. The members of the NAS should be the first in line to show some spine.

  48. Pablo J. Ross says:

    Assistant Professor
    Department of Animal Science
    University of California, Davis
    Davis, CA 95616

  49. Mark E. Westgate, PhD says:

    Professor of Agronomy
    Iowa State University

  50. Benjamin E Edge, III says:

    College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences
    Clemson University, Clemson, SC USA

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