AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
We begin today with an issue that has divided Americans for 20 years. Are genetically modified foods - corn, soybeans, sugar beets and other crops - safe to eat? The National Academy of Sciences, one of the country's most respected scientific groups, says yes in a big report out today. Now, past studies have said the same, but this one goes further, calling for more regulation. NPR's Dan Charles has more.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: It's been 20 years since farmers started growing corn that was genetically modified so some insect pests couldn't eat it and soybeans that can tolerate the popular weed killer known as Roundup. And in those years, arguments about these crops have grown so contentious that the National Academy of Sciences cannot even be sure that people will believe whatever it has to say on the topic.
Even before this report came out, an anti-GMO group called Food and Water Watch attacked it, accusing some of the people responsible for it of getting research funding from biotech companies or having other ties to the industry. Here's Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch.
PATTY LOVERA: The makeup of the panel really is pretty clear, you know, that people are coming with the perspective that it's a pro, you know, pro-genetically engineered crop.
CHARLES: It's left the chairman of the committee, Fred Gould from North Carolina State University, sounding frustrated. Gould has actually been known in the past as a GMO critic. He's pushed for restrictions on the planting of some GMO crops.
FRED GOULD: You know, I have not been a darling of the industry. As a matter of fact, you know, they denied me seeds or plants to do my experiments.
CHARLES: And Gould says over the two years that he and the other members of this committee worked on the report, they had one important rule.
GOULD: If you brought up an opinion, you had to then back it up with data. And if you didn't have the data, it didn't go in the report.
CHARLES: The report tries to answer a long list of questions about GMOs, about nutrition, environmental effects, effects on the farm economy, about monopoly control over seeds. It says first of all, there's no evidence that GMOs are risky to eat. And it found that GMOs, as promised, have allowed farmers of some crops to spray less insecticide to protect their crops. Also, GMOs have not reduced the amount of wild plant and insect life on farms.
But the report found that some other claims about the benefits of GMOs have been exaggerated. For instance, the productivity of crops has been increasing for a century, and that did not change when GMOs came along.
GOULD: The expectation from some of the proponents was that we need genetic engineering to feed the world, and what we're going to do is use genetic engineering to make that increase in yield go up faster. And we saw no evidence of that either.
CHARLES: The report says the government should revise the way it regulates GMOs Up to now, companies have introduced just a small number of different kinds of genetically modified crops, but that could change very soon because there's new technology called gene editing that's not exactly genetic engineering, and it's not traditional plant breeding either. The report says regulators should look at all new crops, no matter how they're created.
GOULD: Things that have novelty and the possibility of having some kind of risk associated with them.
CHARLES: Many scientists who got their first look at the report today praised it. Some called it the most comprehensive review of GMOs that anyone so far has carried out. But longtime critics of GMOs were less impressed.
Patty Lovera from Food and Water Watch, the group that had attacked the academy's committee for being too closely linked to industry, took a quick look at the report and didn't see much that seemed new. It's not the final word on GMOs she said.
The National Academy of Sciences is trying to make this report more easily accessible to the public. It has set up a website where people can read the report and also look at the evidence that addresses specific concerns. Dan Charles, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.