The NY Times recently published “Engineering Food for All,” a gushing op-ed by professional GMO proponent Nina Fedoroff that bemoaned the increasingly burdensome regulatory oversight of GM crops. She went so far as to link world hunger to regulation of GMO’s.
I thought of her piece as I read 2 short pieces in the latest Nature Biotechnology. Actually both of them concern news from last month, but the journal happened to print them side by side, and together they tell us something troubling about the regulation of GMO’s. I find it troubling anyway, and I’m usually pretty unimpressed with chicken-little warnings from both sides of the GMO wars.
First let us remember how revolutionary it is to be able to move genes among organisms. This technology is in its infancy but even its first baby steps include bacteria that produce medicines and food ingredients, and crops that resist herbicides and make insecticides. Scientists are working on crops to improve nutrition and detoxify soil and animals to grow transplantable organs, to mention just a few feats. It’s hard to even guess what may genetic engineers might do in the future. (Someone on my campus recently suggested that we could even engineer animals so they didn’t mind being tortured in factory farms. Hey, could we could engineer poor people so they didn’t mind being poor?)
But obviously genetic engineering’s potential to harm is equal to its power to help. If you can make a crop that will kill bugs you can make a crop that will kill people. If you make a crop that will detoxify the soil you can make a crop that will toxify the soil. If you can make crops resist herbicides you can make bad weeds resist herbicides. If you can make a crop that will improve people’s health you can make one that will make people sick. Fedoroff tells us that GM crops are “no more dangerous” than conventional crops but how is that even possible — how could a technology only do unprecedented good but no unprecedented harm?
How to manage the risks inherent in genetic engineering is one of the most pressing and difficult issues the world faces today.
The US and the European Union have approached the problem differently. While the EU drafted new laws to deal with GMO’s, the US jerry-rigged a regulatory system using old agencies and laws. Regulators really only ask 2 questions about any GMO: how risky is it to public health and to the environment? But depending on which gene has been inserted and what the plant is for, the responsibility for oversight may belong to the USDA (Dept of Agriculture), FDA (Food & Drug Admin) or EPA (Env Protection Agency). This is called the Coordinated Framework. It’s coordinated alright, but it’s also Byzantine, inefficient, and slow to adjust. Almost everyone involved with biotech agrees that the US regulatory system sucks.
But does that mean that we just need “less regulation” as Fedoroff and some others claim? Well, consider this: in the US you can create and release a GM plant into nature with no regulatory approval at all, and then prevent anyone else from studying its effects on health or the environment. That’s what these 2 articles are about, so here’s a short explanation of both.
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