WASHINGTON, D.C. — Campaigns that seek to stigmatize all genetically modified crops and foods through “GMO-free” labeling distort the scientific record on their safety and represent an abuse of science, a leading biotechnology researcher said today.
Such campaigns contradict findings from many high level scientific and regulatory organizations, said Steve Strauss, a distinguished professor of forest biotechnology at Oregon State University, speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS.
Groups such as the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the AAAS have all studied issues related to the production of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, Strauss said. They have found that GMO methods used to produce a great variety of modifications and benefits pose no more risk to public health or the environment than do other means of genetic modification, he said.
Some opposition to GMOs can be traced, he said, to social concerns about equity in decision-making and control of technology.
“The social context of GMOs is problematic to many, and often for diverse reasons,” Strauss said. “GMO identification and labeling is often used as a proxy for other values and concerns. None of these, however, are unique to GMOs or linked to all GMO uses and traits.”
The safety of GMO methods has been strongly backed by recent genome-wide studies of their effects, compared to traditional breeding and to natural genetic variation in the environment, Strauss said. These studies have included a wide range of natural and cultivated plants, including major food crops such as maize, soybeans, rice and wheat.
Examples of new GMO crops that offer significant benefits to consumers, Strauss said, include the Innate potato (reductions in spoilage, pesticide use and neurotoxin production during cooking); Golden Rice (enhanced vitamin A); insect resistant sweet corn (reduced insecticide use); and the Arctic Apple (reduced spoilage).
Strauss, a member of the Molecular and Cellular Biology Program at OSU, is an AAAS Fellow, former director of the Oregon State Outreach in Biotechnology program, and has been active in communication initiatives about biotechnology for more than two decades. During a 30-year career in plant genetics, he has published 157 peer-reviewed articles in journals such as Science, Nature and Frontiers in Plant Science, including analyses of regulations and biotechnology policies as well as original research.
Strauss uses genetic modification of tree species to understand processes such as flowering and other aspects of reproduction, supported primarily by the Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy and National Science Foundation. He also leads a research consortium of forest companies, which aims to develop reliable methods for genetic containment, reduce ecological risks and promote public acceptance.
By marketing products as “GMO free,” some companies imply that genetic modification processes are undesirable, Strauss said, and they can also be misleading. In some cases, “GMO free” products contain no genes or derived proteins (e.g., sugars and oils), and similar consumer alternatives may not use GMOs at all.
Labeling also ignores the point, Strauss said, that the farming or consumption of GMO-derived foods may have widely accepted, science-based economic, environmental or health benefits - such as reduced greenhouse gas emissions or improved nutritional quality.
Strauss said that regulation and oversight of GMOs is a reasonable objective of public policy. Management of some types of GMO crops falls entirely to the private sector after regulatory approval, and this system has a mixed record of success, he said. Also, the balance between benefit and harm — such as improved soil health along with accelerated weed resistance to herbicides — can be complex.
Strauss suggested several ways to increase consumer awareness of the nature of GMO processes.
Third parties such as universities, nonprofit organizations and government agencies could effectively communicate about GMOs and consumer product standards. However, he said, most universities have been very hesitant to play a significant role because of the high level of controversy and scientific complexity.
Low-cost, non-stigmatizing labels about genetic modification, combined with responsible, online consumer information — as recently begun by the Campbell Soup Company — may also provide a viable alternative, Strauss said.
Changes to regulations and to trade standards are also badly needed, Strauss said, to reduce the extraordinary risks from routine levels of gene movement and unintentional mixing during research and farming. Regulations also need to recognize the benefits of new, more precise methods of genetic modification, he said. These include the AAAS Breakthrough of the Year — a gene editing method known as CRISPR/Cas9 — and the widely used RNA interference method that yielded a Nobel Prize.
Strauss has given more than 250 invited lectures, many of them directed to public understanding of biotechnologies. His presentation at the AAAS meeting was titled “GMOs in Regulation and the Marketplace: Informed, or Distorted by, Science?”