Michael A. Gallo, professor emeritus at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, served on a National Academy of Sciences panel that studied GE crops and foods

Mature soybeans are among the most commonly grown genetically engineered crops.
Photo: Scott Bauer/USDA

Genetically engineered crops and food have spawned plenty of controversy, but what are their true risks and benefits?

After spending nearly two years trying to answer those prickly questions, a National Academy of Sciences panel released a 407-page report last week.

The 20-member Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops: Past Experience and Future Prospects examined data on cancers and other human health problems and found no hard evidence that foods from genetically engineered (GE) crops were less safe than foods from non-GE crops.

The committee also found no conclusive evidence of environmental problems linked to GE crops, but found it hard to reach definitive conclusions because of the complexity of assessing long-term environmental changes. Evidence also indicates that GE soybean, cotton and maize crops generally were profitable for their producers, its report says.

Since the 1980s, biologists have used genetic engineering to add or enhance traits in crops by altering their genes through biotechnology. That means cutting and inserting DNA. But just two traits – insect resistance and herbicide resistance – have been added to a few widely grown crop species. The first GE crops were grown commercially in 1996. Eight crops from genetically engineered seeds are commercially available in the United States: corn (field and sweet), soybeans, cotton, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya and squash, according to the academy.

One of the committee’s members is Michael A. Gallo, emeritus professor of environmental and occupational medicine at Rutgers-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. He is also an adjunct professor at Rutgers’ School of Public Health and the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology of the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy.

Rutgers Today asked Gallo to discuss the report.

Michael A. Gallo, emeritus professor of environmental and occupational medicine at Rutgers-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School
Photo: Wilson Rodriguez

Rutgers Today: What are examples of genetically engineered crops?

There’s a natural bacterium found in soil called Bacillus thuringiensis, or BT. The BT gene has been inserted into corn and produces a toxin that kills insect pests susceptible to it. Another example is insertion of a gene that makes crops resistant to glyphosate, a weed killer sprayed on farmland.

Rutgers Today: Is 20 years long enough to get a good read on the benefits and risks of GE crops?

Perhaps not for human health over the long-term. However, the committee reviewed 200 or more toxicology studies and found no statistically significant increase in health risks. Most studies covered rodents and lasted 30 days, but the committee also looked at long-term studies in pigs, which are very close to humans physiologically, and didn’t see anything in pigs. The committee saw nothing in several generations of chickens or in steers used for beef. The committee also looked at farmworker studies and the authors reported no problems. From an allergic reaction point of view, the committee saw nothing in the human population that was directly related to eating GE foods in the U.S. and Canada, compared with foods in the EU where GE foods are generally not consumed.

Rutgers Today: Is there a gap between public perception and risk?

No question. Food labeling is becoming a big issue at the state level. But there’s no evidence supporting the idea that genetically engineered foods are ‘Frankenfoods.’

Rutgers Today: What do you think of the report’s recommendations and what are the next steps?

The committee recommends more public funding for research because the bulk of the research is being done by the industries and at universities that are getting some of their money from industrial sources. Very little is done in the public sector. We have to take a look at the toxicology studies that are being done, not that they are not adequate now, but they could be improved and new methods are under development. One of the committee's recommendations is that regulatory agencies start to look at better ways to regulate novel foods. People should go to the academy website (http://nas-sites.org/ge-crops), read the report and make comments and suggestions. This report is a great teaching tool for our students here at Rutgers.