The finding of some Roundup Ready (RR) wheat plants in an eastern Oregon field must leave some PNW wheat growers feeling snakebit, since they decided a decade ago to oppose the commercialization of RR wheat until the technology is fully approved and accepted by consumers, both here and abroad. While this episode has disrupted trade flows and will undoubtedly increase wheat industry testing costs for the foreseeable future, some good could come from it if it triggers a fresh look at why skepticism and/or opposition to genetically engineered (GE) foods is growing in the U.S. The fate of many new GE crops hangs in the balance, including Simplot’s new potato technology that reduces levels of the known human carcinogen acrylamide.
Nearly everyone agrees that the presence of some RR wheat plants in an isolated field poses essentially no risk to consumers, yet some foreign buyers stopped booking new orders of PNW wheat. Media coverage has been intense, and already several lawsuits have been filed. Again, how can the intensity of the response be explained in light of the scope of the actual incident?
One likely explanation is the growing lack of confidence in our GE crop and food regulatory system. Many people, food buyers, organizations, scientists, and government entities no longer unquestioningly accept assurances from U.S. government agencies, the biotech industry, and various allied organizations. The Food and Drug Administration has little to add in reassuring those with food safety and nutritional questions about GE food, because the FDA, and indeed the U.S. government, does not conduct independent assessments of the safety of any GE crop technology.
Following standard protocols adopted in the late 1980s, the FDA accepted Monsanto’s conclusions that genetically engineered RR wheat is, first, substantially equivalent to non-engineered wheat, and second, poses no new food safety or nutrition issues that would warrant FDA assessment. A July 22, 2004 letter from FDA to Monsanto’s Regulatory Affairs Manager closes out the “voluntary consultation” between Monsanto and the FDA on the RR wheat technology. It states that:
“Based on the safety and nutritional assessment Monsanto has conducted, it is our understanding that Monsanto has concluded that the wheat grain and forage derived from the new variety are not materially different in composition, safety, and other relevant parameters from wheat grain and forage currently on the market and that the genetically engineered wheat does not raise issues that would require premarket review or approval by FDA.” (Access the full FDA letter)
Essentially identical language is found in every one of the 75 or so other letters that have been sent by FDA to GE technology companies closing out all other voluntary, GE crop consultations.
As more people learn that the U.S. government has not been conducting such research, and that GE crop approvals are based largely on industry-sponsored studies and judgments, public confidence may drift further south. More information is also bound to surface about the steps biotech companies take to discourage, if not prevent, independent academic scientists from conducting research on GE crops. Ironically, the biotechnology industry may come to regret its success over the past decade in blocking independent science, because there are now very few scientists that are unaffiliated with the biotech industry who can speak about the risks and impacts of GE crops based on their own experiments and research.
Much work remains in building the science and regulatory infrastructure needed to meet current challenges and turnaround growing GE food wariness in international markets. The absence of one obviously essential tool – a rapid test to detect the presence of the RR wheat gene – will delay resolution of current questions and increase the overall cost of this episode. In the interests of sound science and good public policy, practical quick tests for new GE transgenes should be developed, tested, and made widely available before open field trials are carried out. For a host of good reasons, when a company petitions EPA for approval of a new food use of a pesticide, the company must develop and make available a method capable of detecting residues at levels well below government-set tolerances. The government tests and validates the method, and publishes it in official documents available to anyone free of charge. This same policy could be adopted when a company petitions for approval of any new GE crop.
Simplot’s new potato is the first GE crop that, if approved and accepted by the market, would likely deliver significant human health benefits. The cancer risks stemming from acrylamide are not theoretical, and there is near-universal agreement that reducing acrylamide in the food supply is a really good idea. But can Simplot and/or the government make available credible, independent science that convincingly demonstrates that approval and planting of this new GE potato will pose no other risks?
The surest and smoothest path to market – and consumer acceptance — for Simplot’s GE potato, the Arctic apple, or any new GE crop that will be consumed directly by people should include a well-designed set of nutrition and safety studies that comply with widely accepted international test protocols. To build public trust in the science supporting GE crops and food, independent scientists should conduct a significant share of such studies. A mechanism needs to be put in place to fund such work, and shield the scientists doing it from personal and professional attacks if the results raise concerns over a given GE crop technology.
Given the broader public interest in getting the science right in this early stage of the GE-crop revolution, a good case can be made for the government (i.e., taxpayers) covering at least a portion of the costs entailed in carrying out a state-of-the-art battery of studies. Over time as experience is gained in projecting GE crop risks and in monitoring their actual impacts, data and testing requirements can be adjusted in light of deepened understanding of potential risks.
Another essential ingredient in building confidence in the American GE crop and food regulatory system will be results-oriented action when new science highlights a possible problem with a GE crop or food. Adoption of most GE crops will entail a series of tradeoffs. Some impacts will be universally positive, while other impacts or consequences may create new costs or concerns. Tradeoffs need to accurately quantified, and often can be managed effectively if confronted openly. Ducking or denying their existence is the worst possible response.
Deep passions now swirl around GE crop or food issues, creating a climate where it is hard to thoughtfully assess tradeoffs and reach agreement on where more science and field monitoring is needed. Unfortunately, the well of science supporting today’s GE foods and technology is surprisingly shallow and increasingly toxic, and that must change, both to thoughtfully deploy agricultural biotechnology and regain public trust in our regulatory system.