April 5, 2000 (Washington) -- The National Academy of Sciences, perhaps concerned that science might not play the lead role in shaping public policy, finally weighed in on the issue of genetically modified crops Wednesday after more than a decade of silence. While protesters clamored outside its headquarters here, the organization created in 1863 to advise the government on matters of science issued a report saying that there is no "evidence suggesting foods on the market today are unsafe to eat."
But the 260-page report, written by a 12-member committee, is critical of the current regulatory system, which it says often leaves consumers in the dark as to how these conclusions are drawn. Given the current public debate, "our committee strongly believes that federal agencies responsible for regulating them [genetically modified crops] must take steps to better coordinate their work and expand public access to the regulatory process," said Perry Adkisson, PhD, the lead author, at a news conference.
"Public acceptance of these foods ultimately depends upon the credibility of the testing and regulatory process," added Adkisson, professor and dean emeritus of Texas A&M University.
Genetically modified plants have taken a beating in the public arena thanks in large part to the prominent voices of their opponents, and possibly to the lack of transparency surrounding the regulatory process. In 1998, these voices led to a ban on the import of certain genetically modified crops in Europe, and to the launch of products specifically marketed as "genetically modified free foods."
"If you look back at the history of the technology, all of us could have done a better job educating the public," Stanley Abramson, JD, a co-author of the report, tells WebMD. "I think we were very much aware that we were dealing with a global audience while writing this report," adds the attorney, who specializes in biotechnology, food safety, and environmental law.
But the report already is drawing criticism from groups opposed to the current system for being limited in scope and potentially biased. These groups question the participation of scientists on the committee that have received funding from industry sources, and the lack of focus on the FDA's and USDA's roles in favor of looking more closely at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Warren Muir, PhD, a director of the academy, points out that the majority of modified crops now on the market do fall under the purview of the EPA, and that the academy is planning additional studies to take a closer look at the roles played by the FDA and USDA.
Despite the report's seemingly limited scope, Abramson says he also hopes the report will play a large role in shaping public opinion. At the very least, he jokes, he has a personal interest in seeing it "well received" after volunteering more than a year of his time to researching and writing the consensus report.
That undoubtedly goes double for makers of genetically modified seeds, who launched Monday their own campaign to calm public fears surrounding genetically modified foods. The three-year campaign, which includes print and television ads, debuted with a 60-second ad illustrating the benefits of biotechnology.
Although not discussed in specifics, "we believe that this technology is leading to methods of creating new foods that will be healthier," Adkisson said at the news conference.