Are Genetically Modified Crops Safe? It's been 10 years since genetically modified crops became commercially available in the United States. Advocates say 10 years of planting show the technology is safe. Critics say the technology is poorly regulated.

Are Genetically Modified Crops Safe?

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JOE PALCA, host:

And now, we turn to the scheduled topic for this hour, which is the genetically modified crops that have shown up in this country. You know, the Flavor Savor tomato was the first genetically engineered plant sold in the United States, and it was a dud. The tomato was created to last longer after harvest, but consumers decided it wasn't worth the extra money, and the project died on the vine, as it were. Was the industry deterred? Not a bit.

A couple of years later, genetically modified plants sprouted again, this time, with less fanfare and less direct dependence on pleasing the consumer. Seed companies started selling corn and cotton with a built-in insecticide. They sold soybeans that could hold up against herbicides. And, in the United States, farmers were buying it.

Today, GM seeds account for half the corn and 85 percent of the soybeans grown in this country. If you live here in the United States, it's nearly certain you've eaten something made from GM plants. So, for the rest of this hour, we'll take a look at the 10-year history of GM plants. We'll explore how these products became so widespread and why people in this country, at least, don't seem to mind. We'll also look ahead to the GM plants of the future, and we're not talking about the General Motors plants, we're talking about these crop plants.

Later in the hour, we'll talk about cloned cows. The Food and Drug Administration is trying to decide whether meat and milk from cloned animals can come to your market shelves.

So, give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255; that's 800-989-TALK. And, if you want more information about what we'll be talking about this hour, go to our website at where you'll find links to our topic.

Now, let me introduce my guests. Michael Fernandez is the executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. He joins me here in Studio 3A today. Thanks for coming by.

Mr. MICHAEL FERNANDEZ (Executive Director, Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, Washington, D.C.): Thanks for having me.

PALCA: Also, we have Doug Gurian-Sherman. He's senior scientist at the Center for Food Safety. He's also here in Washington. Thanks for coming in.

Mr. DOUG GURIAN-SHERMAN (Senior Scientist, Center for Food Safety, International Center for Technology Assessment, Washington D.C.): Thanks for having me.

PALCA: And, on the line from California, we have Martina Newell-McGloughlin. She's the director of the University of California Systemwide Biotechnology Research and Education Program. She's also an adjunct assistant professor in the department of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis. Martina Mewell-McGloughlin, thanks for joining us.

Ms. MARTINA NEWELL-MCGLOUGHLIN (Director, University of California Systemwide Biotechnology Research and Education Program; Adjunct Assistant Professor, Department of Plant Pathology, University of California-Davis, Davis, California): I'm most pleased to be with you. Thank you for having me.

PALCA: Good. So, we've had a little bit of a change in the start of the program as you've heard, so we may be just a few minutes getting on track here, but Michael Fernandez, why don't I start with you.

I mentioned that business about the American public, sort of, not minding, somehow. You've been testing people and polling people on that question. Do people even know that GM foods are here?

Mr. FERNANDEZ: That's right, Joe. We have done a series of public opinion surveys over the past four or five years. And, as you say, consumers are really largely unaware of the fact that this technology is so ubiquitous in agriculture. So, in our most recent survey, we asked people how much they'd heard or read about the issue of genetically modified foods and something on the order of almost 60 percent of the people said, nothing.

PALCA: Mmm. And when you ask people who have heard, what do they say about it? Do they say, we're happy, or what, you know, do they have objections?

Mr. FERNANDEZ: Consumers, generally speaking, in our polling are, I would say, cautious. They have some reservations. There are some questions about safety and also just some questions about whether they think this is a good idea.

PALCA: Okay. Doug Gurian-Sherman, should people - are they misinformed by not being more concerned about the safety of these crops?

Mr. GURIAN-SHERMAN: Well, I think there's a lot to know about these crops that people are really not aware of, and I think if they were aware of some of the issues around these crops, they would be more concerned - as people are all over Europe and other parts of the world.

And, especially, one of those issues that I've looked at, and we've looked at a lot, is the state of the U.S. regulatory system and how protective it is. How adequate it is to detect harm, which, really, all of the major scientific bodies have acknowledged can occur with these crops, both in terms of human health and the environment. So, then, the question becomes, in part - there's many other issues as well, but in part - is the regulatory system here adequate to protect the public, and we don't think it is.

PALCA: Right. But in one sense, it seems to me, you know, detecting harm from these products is kind of difficult, because if almost everybody's eating them and they're not dropping in the streets, obviously they're not immediately dangerous. So how do you detect this dangerous if it is, in fact, there?

Mr. GURIAN-SHERMAN: Well that's a very good point. There's no monitoring of any potential harm in the public. And clearly, as you say, which unless the effects were extremely dramatic and short term… I mean one of the big concerns is there's been really no long-term testing of any of these crops. So, short of something very dramatic and short term, it would not be detected.

For example, it's often remarked by strong proponents of the technology, that nobody's gotten sick. But that may well be, but we don't really Know that. Because, again, there's nobody looking. Just as one example, soybeans, for example, are one of the eight most common allergenic foods in the country. If the new protein in Round Up Ready, the herbicide tolerance soybean, which are the biggest GE crop, did cause an allergic reaction, it is very unlikely it would be detected, because it's already a common allergen.

If a person went in complaining to an allergist, they would identify it as a soy allergy. There's no way that they really have - now it could be. There are tests that can be done, and that's part of the problem. There are things that could be done to monitor and there could be a better job premarketing to do better testing to make sure they're safe.

PALCA: Okay. Martina Newell-McGloughlin, let me ask you. I mean, is the oversight of genetically modified crops adequate in your opinion?

Mr. MARTINA NEWELL-MCGLOUGHLIN (Director, UC SystemWide Biotechnology Research and Energy Program): Yes. In fact, I think biotech crops are the most thoroughly regulated crops ever. It takes 7-10 years before any of them even appear on the market. And there's at least nine different stages of review. And the soybean that was just referred to, in fact, went through 1,800 separate analyses, and I was involved in some of those.

In fact, most of the other crops that we've been producing over the last 10,000 years are not subject to any regulatory oversight. So, for example, all the asparagus you eat, all those are made from anthers. They're all supermales. They'd never had a female part, component, involved in their production and the chromosomes are doubled with a chemical called Cochasine(sp). So all your asparagus are supermales. Maybe some feminists may want to rethink that.

All of the spaghetti you eat has been mutigenized with Cobalt-60, way back in 1957. This was done, basically, to improve the starch so you got better quality pasta. And this was done randomly - you don't know what happened at the molecular level - yet that's not subject to any regulation.

All of your Asian pears, likewise, are mutigenized to make them resistant to black spot disease way, way back. Again, never regulated or reviewed. These are introduced with very minimum oversight. Where, as I said, biotech is thoroughly regulated.

And I'll give you an example from Davis. We took two approaches to improve the soluble solids in tomatoes. You know the soluble solids you have, the more pasta sauce you can make - the better spaghetti sauce. Well one approach, we clustered(ph) with a wild variety of tomato that was in our large germplasm selection here. And the one positive component was, it had large soluble solids, but it also was not very fertile, didn't taste good and was seriously toxic. We took another approach and just turned off the gene, got the same results, but it's the one that's crossed with the toxic plant that can be commercialized cause that's the older way of doing it. Whereas the biotech crop has held such a high standard…

PALCA: Dr. Newell-McGloughlin, I'm going to have to interrupt you. We need to take a short break and we'll come back to get the end of that answer if there's more to say. But we have to take a short break right now. We'll be back soon.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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PALCA: From NPR News, this is TALK OF THE NATION Science Friday and I'm Joe Palca. We're talking this hour about genetically modified organisms. My guests are Michael Fernandez, he's the executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology; Doug Gurian-Sherman is a senior scientist at the Center for Food Safety; and Martina Newell-McGloughlin is the director of the University of California SystemWide Biotechnology Research and Education Program.

And Dr. Newell-McGloughlin, just before the break, you were explaining about the safety of a particular tomato.

Ms. NEWELL-MCGLOUGHLIN: I have just one more point. Actually that for long-term studies, actually the one long-term study was done in the E.U., because that is often brought up as an area that's quite skeptical about biotech. And they actually had 400 teams looking at 82 projects in all 15 countries of the original E.U. - there's now 25. And they looked at this over 15 years and determined in that very long report. But their bottom line was that, because it's a more precise technology, and because of the degree of regulatory scrutiny, GMOs are probably safer than any conventional plants and foods.

PALCA: Well I'd like to invite our callers to join this conversation. Our number here is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. And let's take a call now. Edward in Newark, Delaware. Edward, welcome to the program.

EDWARD (caller): Hi, how are you?

PALCA: Good.

EDWARD: My question is how do they know, like, what genetically modified crops- -what with insects, the environment, birds that eat the insects, deers that eat the insects, rabbits - how do they know what effects that these crops are going to have on the environment? Since, I mean, we're not talking about something that's only been in the short - you know, it's so short of a time. And we're talking about maybe 20, 30, 40 years from now. How do they…

PALCA: Right. In other words, the consequences might be long term and we just don't see them in the time we've had these around. Is that what you're saying?


PALCA: Okay. Well let me asking Martine Newell-McGlouglin her point of view on that.

Dr. NEWELL-MCGLOUGHLIN: Well my take on that would be we know a lot less of some of the older systems we've used to make crops, the ones that I've just been describing there. And, as I said, we've been doing those especially over the last 100 - well, over the last 50 years. So that experiment has been done where we've been doing radical modifications without reading on what we were doing at the molecular level. So far we haven't seen any negative impact from that.

Every so often, you are going to find something that shows up that you don't want. So, for example, a company was looking at improving the proteins in soybeans and the source they used was Brazil nut. And it turned the particular protein they looked at was the one that many people are allergic to. But it was caught. The checks and balances are in place to catch that. Whereas with many of the older systems, there weren't any checks and balances in place to catch them.

PALCA: Let me get Doug Gurian-Sherman's take on this. I mean we're talking about environmental effects, not necessarily effects directly on people.

Mr. GURIAN-SHERMAN: Well, first of all, most of the testing that is done, most of the crops go through field trials through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the APHIS division. There are really no tests, no particular tests required for those field trials to test the kinds of things the caller brought up.

There's no test for, for instance, nontarget organisms, desirable insects, like ladybugs and butterflies. What is done is there's - almost all these field trials go through a simple notification process that was criticized by the Inspector General recently, of the U.S.D.A. And there's a requirement to report anything that's noticed in these field trials that may be untoward.

But as many ecologists have reported and published, this kind of testing is completely inadequate to detect any of these things that may occur after commercialization, or even on a larger scale, before commercialization. So there's really a minimal amount of environmental testing that is done for these crops.

E.P.A. does a little bit more, but they only look at a subset of the genetically engineered crops.

PALCA: Edward thanks for the call.

EDWARD: I think it's very scary, to go with things like this.

PALCA: Okay. Thanks very much for the call. Mike Fitzgerald, can I turn to you now and just say, what is the regulatory picture? I mean we've heard several different agencies mentioned. Is that maybe an issue here, that there're so many people involved in the regulatory process?

Mr. FERNANDEZ: Yeah. You really have to sort of step back to, how did we get to where we are? How did this all start? And if you go back into the mid-1980s, a decision was made when figuring out how we were going to deal with these genetically engineered products, to use the existing laws and statutory authorities that we already had in place.

So that meant that if a product looked like a pesticide, we're going to regulate it like a pesticide. If it looks like a food, we're going to regulate like a food. If it looks like a drug, we'll regulate it like a drug. So you have then, yes, three principal agencies: the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency - that all have regulatory authority and jurisdiction over some or all of different parts of this universe.

So you have issues, then, of coordination between the agencies. Some products are regulated by all three, some are regulated by only two, some by only one. And they all have slightly different standards and slightly different authorities that they apply. And so there are some questions. This technology does pose some unique challenges to the regulatory structure.

PALCA: Okay. Let's take another call now. How about Judith in Chico, California. Judith, welcome to Science Friday.

JUDITH (Caller): Yes. One of the most frightening things to me - never mind what the fear of what they do to the body - is the fact that these are patented products, that they regularly escape from the fields, like the corn, etc., contaminating other farmers' fields. Like the issues with Monsanto, and that, the corn getting into organic fields. And then legal action is taken against the farmer who is trying to grow organically or not grow patented products.

PALCA: I see what you're saying.

JUDITH: So the double fear is, first of all, that once they are in the environment, there's no recapturing them. And then legal action against people who are not trying to steal anybody's patented life form.

PALCA: Interesting question. Thanks for the call, Judith. Martina Newell- McGloughlin, you know, one thing about Judith's call that strikes me, she talks about a fear factor here. You don't think that people should be worried about these issues?

Ms. NEWELL-MCGLOUGHLIN: Oh no. And in fact, the comment she made regarding impact on organic production. No U.S. organic producer can actually have his product legally downgraded, nor can the grower by decertified, by unintentional presence of biotech products in their crops. So they are legally protected.

So this notion, and it's widespread out there, is that organic production can be negatively impacted by a biotech. This isn't true. And in fact, the only cases that have been brought to date, have been infringement cases. And in each case, the farmer has said, that in fact, they have deliberately saved the seeds. And there was only one case upheld by the court.

But getting back to your notion of fear. Fear does, unfortunately, sell quite easily. It's rather unfortunate that it's easier to talk about concerns than it is to talk about how these concerns are addressed, or to talk about the positive aspects of biotech. Because when people talk about a technology that's a little unfamiliar to them, they are more inclined to focus on the negative components rather than any of the potential benefits. And I really think that's one of the real issues that we deal with here.

You know, that we're not aware of how other products are being produced over the last, as I said, hundreds and even thousands of years. But we are very focused on how biotech is being produced. It causes a (unintelligible) in the media.

PALCA: But the generalization - I mean, people are not afraid of iPods and they're very different from tube radios.

Dr. NEWELL-MCGLOUGHLIN: With iPods, though, you're personally in control of that. I think part of the concern is this feeling that these decisions are being made outside of their sphere of control. That they would like to be, individuals would like to be more involved in the decision process. And that they also think, you know, when you look at scientific on (unintelligible) cause science is inherently noisy.

When normal scientific debate occurs, you know, in written publications, etc., and people respond to concerns in that media, it's rather unusual to have it discussed within a public media forum where opinions of any scientist could circumvent any other scientist as far as the public is concerned.

PALCA: Let me ask Gurian-Sherman. You were shaking your head during some of what we just heard. What's your take on this?

Mr. GURIAN-SHERMAN: Well we have to get back to, again, the way this is regulated and what the scientific community has said about these crops. And Dr. McGloughlin represented an example where she said the genetically engineered crops seem to be less risky. Well, we can all cite examples. A delayed ripening tomato different than Flavor Savor went through FDA in the early 90s. It had an ACCH gene.

Now it's important to understand, FDA does not approve the safety of these crops. It regulates them under the generally recognized safe provisions of the Food Act that are the same essentially as any type of other crop. It's a voluntary process the manufacturers have decided to comply with and do some very cursory testing for the most part. I've looked at those and there's many problems with the tests that are done.

But in the case of this ACCH gene, later completely independently, similar genes were cloned from bacteria and put into tomatoes and it turned out that these crops could accumulate five times or more heavy metals in the crop plant unbeknownst to FDA. So part of the problem is, is when you're putting genes from foreign organisms and mixing them, you really don't know how the genetic interactions are going to play out. And so to suggest that this technology is similar to previous technologies, and therefore the safety profile is the same or that it's safer, really begs the question, again, you know, the national academies and others have all said that this technology should be regulated and they've all criticized in various ways the current regulatory process in the U.S.

PALCA: But the interesting thing, despite all this, Michael Fernandez, is, you know, I've been to Europe and, you know, anti-GM sentiment there still runs very high. Has the Pew center looked at all on why this issue hasn't, I mean, obviously there are people concerned. We have people on the phone who are saying, why are we doing this? But it hasn't stopped.

Mr. FERNANDEZ: Yeah, we have looked, we have had some questions about consumer's attitudes, sort of what motivates their attitudes. One of the things that I think is a big difference between what we've seen in Europe and what we're seeing in the United States is the degree of confidence that American consumers have in our regulatory agencies. To underscore something that Doug said earlier, that is why it's so important to make sure that we have a regulatory system in place that's able to, that has the tools that it needs to ask the questions, and you know, get the right answers. But consumers, you know, by far find FDA, for example, as the most trusted source of information about food and agricultural biotechnology.

PALCA: But trusted, but as we've heard, they are advisory more than regulatory in this case, and I suppose if a big bad thing slipped through we'd be hearing about how they hadn't been watching closely enough.

Mr. FERNANDEZ: Well, that, I think, our, what the Pew Initiative has seen in terms of consumer opinion sort of bears that out a little bit in that there are a relatively small number of people who are adamantly opposed. There's also a relatively small number of people who are very in favor of new technology and support the technology. And the vast majority of people are somewhere in the middle. And those people have opinions that are not very, very strongly felt, held, and I think are somewhat malleable. And so I think one of the issues is, if we had a situation where there were a problem, as you suggested, or even if there was something that caused them to question the safety of food in general, we could definitely see those opinions change.

PALCA: We're talking about genetically modified organisms and we're taking your calls, and I'm Joe Palca, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's take another one of those calls now, and let's go to Ann in -is it Reston, Virginia, Ann?

ANN (Caller): Yes it is.

PALCA: Welcome to the program.

ANN (Caller): Thank you. I guess I'm one of those that's somewhat in favor of new technology, although I'm not in favor of rushing headlong. I don't trust blindly but I do think that it's a very bad idea to listen to fear. And if everyone is talking about all the bad things that can happen and completely ignores the wonderful possibilities, I mean the thing that appeals to me about some of the genetically modified foods is they can be resistant to pesticides. I don't like the idea of eating pesticides. I don't like the idea of huge amounts of pesticides being grown and put into the environment. They have the possibility of reducing pesticide use. That's organic. That's wonderful. That's a great advantage. And to just dump that possibility because of fear seems bad to me.

PALCA: Okay, Ann, let me ask Doug Gurian-Sherman. I mean, is there anything here that we should be grateful for and taking, and embracing?

Mr. GURIAN-SHERMAN: Well, I think if you look at the picture in totality, not really. The main crop that's been produced is herbicide tolerant crops, especially herbicide tolerant soybeans. And recent data by a well known agricultural economist shows that in fact herbicide use has gone up on those soybeans. And part of that is because this is not a sustainable technology. It's being overused, resistant weeds are growing. So now growers, more and more instead of having to use a single herbicide when the crop was first developed, are now being recommended to what's called tank mix with other herbicides that can also be dangerous.

And USDA just came out with a report, and if you notice from 2001 to 2002, they also show an uptick in herbicide use. Now, insecticide use is probably gone down somewhat on the BT insect resistant cotton and corn. But it's more than over balanced by the increase in herbicide on soybean. So, no, and also, you know, I think we have to look at this in another bigger context which is this is just a furthering of an unsustainable kind of agricultural, industrial agriculture, that looks for silver bullets and does not work with agro ecology that we know needs to be done to produce a sustainable agriculture and one that is favorable to the environment.

PALCA: Well, Martina Newell-McGloughlin, I mean, is there anything to that? Have insecticide and herbicide use gone down with these plants?

Ms. NEWELL-MCGLOUGHLIN: Yes, in fact a report came out from Brooks and Barfoot last November indicating that this technology has reduced pesticide spraying by 379 million pounds. And the use of herbicide tolerance has allowed switch to no-till agriculture. And the normal highly cultivated agriculture which we need for some other methods of production can lead to severe erosion. And in addition you're using a lot of complex cocktails of herbicides to control crops in the past. You had to use heavy machinery. So you were driving back and over a lot using fossil fuels and compacting the soil.

They're finding a great improvement, actually, in the flora, and the integrity of the soil itself and massive reduction in the loss due to erosion. And in fact the equivalent from the actual footprint of, for individuals who are growing herbicide tolerant crops, was the equivalent of taking five million cars off the road in 2004.

PALCA: Interesting.

Ms. NEWELL-MCGLOUGHLIN: That is a reduction in carbon dioxide...

PALCA: Interesting. Well, we're going take a short break, but we'll be coming back to talk about that and other things. And actually, right after this break, we'll talking about an entirely new technology that people I'm sure have heard of but may not realize that it, too, could be part of the food chain in this country. So stay with us and we'll tell you all about that.

We'll be back in a few minutes.

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PALCA: From NPR News, this is TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Joe Palca. We're talking this hour about biotechnology and our food. And I want to let Doug Gurian-Sherman make one quick point. We were talking about the notion of whether GM crops, plants would reduce tillage and he had something he wanted to say, and I had to cut him off.

Mr. GURIAN-SHERMAN: Well, this is a very debatable point. USDA's own data, published in 2002, in fact shows that in the main herbicide tolerant crop, soybeans, no till and conservation tillage use was going up dramatically. And that rate actually tapered off after the introduction of these crops. USDA said itself that there's no evidence that these crops have caused any actual increase in no-till acreage. So you have to look at the data before, and it was already happening, and already happening dramatically. So this is a real misnomer.

PALCA: Okay, well we'll have leave that particular point where it is.

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