An Interview with Fred Gould and Aaron Gassmann on the NAS Report on Genetically Engineered Crops

The National Academies of Sciences recently released a study on the safety of genetically engineered crops on human and livestock health and the environment. While many folks wanted the study to take a firm stance on GE crops (e.g., “GE crops are bad,” or “GE crops are good”), the findings were much more nuanced than a firm stance would allow.

Josh Lancette

For example, the study found no substantiated evidence that GE crops pose a greater risk to human, livestock, and environmental health than conventionally bred crops. However, it did find that overuse of GE crops resulted in damaging levels of insect resistance, and that there are no data showing that GE crops have increased crop yields over the past 20 years.

Dr. Fred Gould, a professor at North Carolina State University and an Entomological Society of America member, was the chair of one of the committees that undertook the study and compiled the final report. He was kind enough to talk to Josh Lancette, discussing what the report means for entomologists and entomology as a whole, and explaining the need for nuance when discussing GE crops and the National Academies of Sciences report. Josh also spoke with Aaron Gassmann, an associate professor at Iowa State University who served as a reviewer of the report.

Josh Lancette: What effects do you see this report having on entomological research trends or funding?

Fred Gould: The report points out that as genetic engineering of crops becomes easier to do, it is likely that more smaller acreage crops will be engineered for resistance to insect pests. Entomologists will likely be involved in the development of these engineered crops and in testing the impacts of the engineered traits at the economic, ecological, and evolutionary levels. Entomologists know more than anyone else about which crops in which locations insect pest resistance will be most useful. Their voices need to be heard.

More crops that are grown primarily in developing countries are likely to be engineered for insect resistance. This will probably result in more international opportunities for members of the Entomological Society of America, and may also result in opportunities for entomologists from other countries to train in the U.S.

Another thing pointed out in the report is that when there are experiments on GE crops that produce equivocal results, there should be follow-up studies by trusted researchers, funded by trusted groups, to examine the question that needs resolution. The report uses the example of impacts of Bt corn on monarch butterflies to illustrate the utility of this approach. In that case, there were two early reports indicating that the Bt toxin in corn pollen might get on milkweed and be toxic to monarch larvae feeding on the milkweed. Follow-up research funded by a consortium of university, industry, and government groups was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and laid the controversy to rest. If other equivocal studies are done on other entomological topics, we may see more follow-up work of this kind.

Aaron Gassmann: This report does a wonderful job highlighting the important role that GE crops have in agriculture today and will almost certainly have in the future.  Because of this importance, hopefully, there will be more public sector funding for research on GE crops.

JL: How do you think this report should advise legislative actions related to GE crops and/or entomology?

FG: The report makes a strong recommendation that it is the product and not the process that should be regulated when it comes to new crop varieties. This recommendation has been made before, but our report provides approaches for using –omics technologies (e.g., genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, and metabolomics) for setting up a tiered approach to regulation that would be more rational than the current system in which crops with similar characteristics are regulated very differently depending on the specific approach used in developing them.

AG: I think it should be used as a resource — a comprehensive and objective review of the scientific literature — that can help in understanding the issues and current research on GE crops in agriculture.

JL: Do you see it affecting entomology or entomologists in any other ways?

FG: Debates about GE crops are not likely to go away. Entomologists who are comfortable interacting with the public and policymakers will continue to be needed in this area.

AG: This report might serve to inspire scientists to work on research topics involving interactions between GE crops and insects. As I was finishing my PhD, I read the National Research Council report entitled Genetically Modified Pest-Protected Plants: Science and Regulation. That report was published in 2000, and was influential in my decision to pursue a career studying interactions between insects pest and GE crops, in particular the evolution of insect resistance to GE crops.

JL: The report mentions that some folks wanted the report to take a firm side (e.g., “GE crops are bad,” or “GE crops are good”). Why do you think there are such strong pushes to take a side?

FG: We had people tell us that the public really needs a clear answer: Are GE crops safe or not? Issues related to GE crops may be the focus of attention for some of us, but most people have a lot of other things on their minds and would rather not have to think hard about the details of a nuanced answer. Beyond that, the public has been hearing that these crops are perfectly safe and are needed to feed the world, and that these crops are increasing the rates of cancer and hurt farmers. They want a simple answer that they can trust.

Our committee made a major effort to hear from people who have been making positive and negative claims about GE crops and foods so that in writing our report we could assure the public that we had listened to all of the voices on the issues related to GE crops. In total, we had 80 people give presentations and we received and read over 700 comments sent to us by the public.

JL: The report is careful to avoid sweeping statements on GE crops (even calling such statements problematic). How can the public think about and discuss GE crops with more nuance than perhaps the current public rhetoric often has?

FG: I wish we could have given a simple answer but like so many technologies, the safety all depends on the characteristics of the specific product and how it is used. Most people don’t believe simple statements that “guns are safe” or “guns are unsafe,” even though they hear such statements in the media. Most people would want to know what kind of gun and in whose hands. It’s no different with engineered crops. For our committee to make a simple up or down statement was not possible. And if we made such a statement, people would be right not to trust us.

We have done something with our report to help the public access it that has never been done before with a National Academy study. We have an open access website where the public can listen to all 80 presentations heard by the committee. Beyond that, we have on the website a summarized list from the comments and questions received from the public. Any person who goes to the website can click on any comment/question on the summarized list and be taken to the place in the report that deals with that issue and see what specific studies we looked at to address the issue. Furthermore, knowing that some people don’t trust results of studies done by industry researchers or funded by industry, we have a list of over 900 references on our website that indicate the affiliation of the first author of each study. We also provide information on the funding sources for each study where such information could be found. We hope that this accessible website will enable the public to more easily see for themselves how the committee came to its conclusions.

FG: Do you see scientific communities discussing GE crops in terms of sides (i.e., lacking nuance)? If so, how can scientific communities learn how to discuss GE crops with more nuance?

JL: Our committee certainly heard very different views from groups of PhD research scientists. I’ve seen well-respected economists with strong disagreements about GE crops. One would like to think that if two researchers had the same data they would come to the same conclusion, but researchers, like regular members of the public, use their own value systems in assessing evidence. There is plenty of social science research showing this.

So, how can we move past our proclivity to only look for evidence that reinforces our prior beliefs? I heard one person say that to do this you should find the smartest person in the room that disagrees with you and talk to her. Not a bad suggestion. All of our committee members were forced to do something like that, and I think it had a good impact.

AG: Yes, the report covers a diversity of traits, such as insect resistance and herbicide tolerance, in addition to addressing both current and future GE crops. With such a broad spectrum of traits under consideration, broad generalizations are typically not possible. I think the key is to consider the specific trait and how it functions in an agricultural system. From there, one should consider the costs and benefits of a technology. This approach should lead to a more scientifically based and nuanced discussion of the issues surrounding a specific application of genetic engineering in agriculture. The best way to have a constructive, nuanced discussion is to focus on the scientific data that have been generated around GE crops.

JL: What has been the response to the study and resulting report?

FG: Given the controversial nature of GE crops, it is not surprising that diverse media outlets have framed our report in different ways. Some stories about our report start with headlines like “Genetically Engineered Crops Found to be Safe” while others point to the finding in our report that there are no data indicating that the use of GE technology over the past 20 years has increased the rate at which U.S. agriculture is increasing crop yields. Our committee has been delighted by the few media reports that really address the nuances in the report.

JL: How can ESA use the findings in the report to better support and serve the needs of our members?

FG: We worked hard to make our report accessible to anyone who has a reasonable Internet connection. As I mentioned before, it is easy to search our report to find out what the reasoning of the committee was in coming to its conclusions. Our committee hopes that the report will serve as a reference for starting more grounded conversations about GE crops and foods. I think everyone on the committee would be delighted to see more discussions on the topics we addressed.

We examined a huge number of studies, but we likely missed some and may have misinterpreted others. It would be great if readers would push further into the literature than we did on specific topics.

I think our report could easily be used as the focus of an entomology graduate student seminar course.

AG: One role of a scientist is to interact with the public and increase public understanding of issues related to science and technology. This report provides a resource that scientists can use to increase their understanding of GE crops, and consequently should enable a better, more informed dialog with the public around issues related to GE crops in agriculture.

JL: As a reviewer, do you think the report accomplished its goal of being objective?

AG: Yes, I think this review is broad and comprehensive, and addresses data on GE crops in an objective manner.

Read more at:

Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects

Josh Lancette is Manager of Publications at the Entomological Society of America.

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