3 Jun 2016

What does science say about the risks of GM food?

From Nine To Noon, 9:35 am on 3 June 2016

Do genetically modified crops make people sick? Could they damage the environment? Are they any better for the bottom line of farmers than conventional strains? Those are some of the key questions behind a massive scientific review carried out in the United States.

wheat crop

Photo: Flickr user Nell Howard / CC BY-NC 2.0

The National Academy of Sciences review found there is no evidence that GMO crops pose a risk either to human health, or the environment - but neither is there much evidence that they improve farmer's bottom lines or reduce environmental damage from pesticides.

Kathryn Ryan talks with Mike Rodemeyer, one of the 20 academics who carried out the review. He is a former policy professor at the University of Virginia.

An edited snapshot of the interview

Mike Rodemeyer: Attitudes and concerns about biotechnology, genetic engineering of crops and food really are different in different parts of the world. So in the United States, for example, most people do not know that they have been eating ingredients from genetically engineered crops for 20 years. There’s not a lot of high knowledge. But there’s a small group of very concerned people who are concerned about the health impacts of GE foods. In Europe, consumer concerns about health remain very high, as well.

We’ve looked at both the economic issues – who benefits from this technology, we looked at the health effects and we looked at some of the environmental concerns that have been realised. The bottom line that we came up with – with respect to health  – is that we could really find no persuasive evidence that there are any genetically engineered crops or foods that are any less safe or any more safe than conventional foods. There just was no difference between them when we looked at studies.

For some farmers this has been very beneficial, for some farmers clearly less so. One of the challenges has been that most of the crops that we have experience with have been developed for large-scale industrialised agriculture. We’re not seeing many crops yet that would be appropriate for smaller scale resistance-level farmers.

In the future we may be able to look at Omics technologies to help provide even clearer answers to the question of 'Is this plant like this other plant? Are there things in here that shouldn’t be here? And perhaps that will give both regulators a new tool and consumers more confidence, as well.