Genetic engineering could play a role in making crops more resilient to climate change, but more research is still needed to understand the technology’s potential uses, the National Academy of Sciences said yesterday.

In a sweeping 400-page report, the country’s top scientific group found there was not evidence to support claims that genetically modified organisms are dangerous for either the environment or human health. At the same time, the introduction of genetically engineered crops had little apparent influence on the rate at which agricultural productivity was increasing over time.

In the future, the academy said, researchers and regulators should be sure to evaluate the safety and efficacy of specific crops, rather than focus on potential risk posed by the process of modifying the plants.

“The technology is changing so rapidly, we needed to see where it is taking us in the future,” said Fred Gould, chairman of the NAS Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops, which conducted the report, and a professor of entomology at North Carolina State University.

The report takes an in-depth look at past research on and future potential of the often controversial application of genetic engineering to U.S. crops.

Supporters of the technology say genetically engineered, or GE, crops are necessary for meeting the nutritional demands of a growing global population. Opponents say that the crops could pose environmental and health risks, particularly over the long term.

Currently, most of the genetically modified crops commercially available have added traits that protect plants from pests and make them resistant to herbicides. But in the future, the technology could be used more to address crop vulnerabilities to climate change, by incorporating traits for drought resistance and for heat and cold tolerance, according to the report.

“Climate change will affect both the yields and the quality of produce in a number of ways. Increased temperatures will speed crop development and thus limit potential yields. In colder climates, increased temperatures may extend the growing season, particularly of crops with indeterminate growth such as cotton,” the committee members wrote.

Some call report reassuring

Genetic engineering approaches could be used along with conventional breeding and changes in farm management to help plants better survive environmental changes, they said.

A major challenge is that adding traits like heat tolerance is much more complex than altering a single gene to make a plant herbicide-resistant, said Richard Amasino, a member of the NAS committee.

“If we had the basic knowledge to enable corn to grow at higher temperatures, then we’ve got a buffer to climate change. But do we understand the basic biochemistry of how that might work? No. There is no one magic little protein you put in. So these are all very complex issues. Basically, as we go to more complex biochemical things, we’re going to have to have a lot more knowledge, and there is going to be a physiological limit,” Amasino said.

To help close that knowledge gap, committee members called for continued public funding of basic research for better understanding of the “physiological, biochemical and molecular basis of these important traits.”

They also noted that any benefits from the research would depend on the amount of social, political and economic support for genetic engineering.

Altogether, the committee members evaluated 1,000 scientific articles on GE crops; received input from scientists, industry and environmental groups during 80 presentations; and read more than 700 comments posted on the NAS website.

“I was really encouraged by the report; the process was extremely thorough,” said Sarah Davidson Evanega, director of the Cornell Alliance for Science at Cornell University.

“The report concludes that there are no negative impacts of GE crops. It’s encouraging to see a report from a trusted institution to come forward with that conclusion. That should be reassuring to the public that they are no less safe than their non-GE counterparts,” she said.

Others blast it as ‘schizophrenic’

According to Evanega, the high quality of the report could help improve the policy environment for GE crop use and to convince more people that there is scientific consensus about the safety of GE technology and that biotechnology can help the country respond to climate change.

Gould noted that as conventional plant breeding has become a more high-technology practice, the line separating GE and non-GE crops has blurred.

He emphasized the importance of evaluating genetic engineering based on the products created rather than based on the technological process itself.

“Would you want to say that genetically engineered crops are bad because there are herbicide-tolerant crops? Or would you want to say genetically engineered crops are great because it’s going to save people from blindness?” Gould said.

“They’re not the same. So the idea of putting them all in one basket, it’s something that’s easy to do, but that’s not in our report. We tried very much to steer away from those broad, sweeping generalizations. I know some people would like to have them, but it didn’t make sense to us after we examined the literature.”

The report’s findings drew criticism and some praise from the Consumers Union, which opposes the use of genetic engineering and has been lobbying for GMO labeling on foods.

Michael Hansen, an evolutionary ecologist and senior scientist at the Consumers Union, called the report “schizophrenic” in its stance on safety testing of GE crops.

“On the one hand, it says that we should regulate by the product, and not the process, but then goes on to admit that the newer GE techniques, such as gene editing and synthetic biology, will produce more diverse and complex traits in more crops that could raise new safety concerns, noting that even the newer gene editing techniques have off-target effects,” he said.

Hansen lauded the report for saying that GMO labeling is not just about the science behind the technology but also an issue of the public’s “right to know.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500