No scientific evidence of risk to justify GMO regulations, researcher finds

By Mark Lynas

September 5, 2018

An extensive review of the scientific literature concludes that genetic engineering is less disruptive of crop genetics than conventional breeding, meaning the rigorous evaluations and regulations imposed on the process are not justified by any scientific evidence of safety risk.

French scientist Agnes Ricroch concluded: “Our review does not provide evidence that more food safety testing is necessary for GE crop varieties. These long-term and multigenerational data and ‘-omics’ data taken together suggest that, apart from specific cases, their risk assessment could be lowered.”

Ricroch’s finding confirms an open secret among plant scientists that the extensive burden of national regulations applied only to genetic engineering and new breeding technologies like gene editing are not actually justified by any scientifically identifiable increased risk.

These regulations force crop breeders to spend tens of millions of dollars on unnecessary safety studies for crop varieties developed using newer molecular methods, while older techniques like conventional breeding and mutagenesis can be taken straight to market without any testing.

In her 2013 review, Ricroch examined data from 60 “-omics” comparisons between genetically engineered (GE) and non-GE crop lines, as well as 33 long-term and multi-generational animal feeding studies.

These “revealed that the genetic modification has less impact on plant gene expression and composition than that of conventional plant breeding.” Moreover, “environmental factors (such as field location, sampling time, or agricultural practices) have a greater impact than transgenesis,” the process of transferring a gene with a desired trait into another species.

Several studies showed greater variation in gene expression and other factors between conventionally bred varieties of rice, wheat, maize and soya than between GE and non-GE lines of the same variety.

As Ricroch noted: “Interestingly, one study showed that transcriptome alteration was greater in mutagenized plants than in transgenic plants.” However, EU regulations assume that crops bred using mutagenesis are safe and no testing is therefore required.

Regarding long-term animal studies, Ricroch noted that the European Food Safety Authority has stated that “animal feeding trials do not add to the safety assessment” of GM food and feed where “molecular, compositional, phenotypic, agronomic and other analyses” have already demonstrated equivalence.

Even so, she examined the evidence from 17 long-term animal feeding studies – all publicly funded, not supported by industry – in rats, mice, cattle, pigs, salmon and quail. None found any significant differences between the health of animals fed GE and non-GE equivalent food.

Ricroch also examined 16 multi-generational feeding studies – again, all publicly funded – intended to see whether one generation of animals consuming GE food had any impact on the health of their offspring.

Although “no new safety concerns were raised in these multigenerational studies,” several did suffer from weaknesses such as the lack of an appropriate control group and a failure to evaluate statistical power, which meant that some small differences could be misinterpreted.

She concluded: “None of these published assessments using new ‘-omics’ profiling points to new safety concerns about marketed GE crop varieties.”

With no actual science to justify the regulatory system, some experts claim that – given the decades-long furor about GMOs – it is at least useful to reassure the public by conducting extensive and expensive multiple safety studies.

However, experience in nuclear power and other industries where risk perception is similarly out of proportion to scientific reality has shown the reverse is more likely to be the case, and that huge amounts of safety testing applied to food instead convinces people that something really risky must be going on to justify it.

Pointless regulations likely serve more to worry people than reassure them, and scientists therefore get trapped in a vicious circle by activists when they accept an ever-increasing burden of regulations in the naïve hope that this will reassure a suspicious public.

Activists are therefore quite content to see the regulatory system de-facto blocking innovation in crop genetics, as it has done for nearly two decades in Europe, Africa and elsewhere, even when this flies in the face of a world-wide consensus that crops developed using molecular techniques are as safe as any other.

In the case of GMOs, no scientific standard of safety will ever be sufficient to convince anti-GMO campaigners to drop their opposition because their objections are not based in science to start with.

This post has been updated to reflect that the review occurred in 2013.