The following passages are quoted, without footnotes, from the executive summary to the National Academy of Sciences April 5 report, Genetically Modified Pest-Protected Plants: Science and Regulation. Ellipses show breaks in the excerpted text; boldface or other highlighting is in the original.
E.S. 5 — Potential health and ecological impacts and research needs
Conventional pest-protected plants have substantially improved plant health and agricultural productivity and have often lessened the need for chemical pesticides. Transgenic pest-protected plants have the potential to make similar contributions, as has already been documented with transgenic pest-protected cotton (section 1.5.5). Human health and environmental benefits could arise from reductions in the application of chemical pesticides resulting from the commercial production of certain transgenic pest-protected plants. However, the relative risks and benefits will depend on the particular transgenic pest-protected plant in question.
Historically, pest-protected plants have rarely caused obvious health or environmental problems, but there is a potential for undesirable effects. Therefore, a major goal for further research and development of transgenic and conventional pest-protected plants should be to enhance agricultural productivity in ways that also foster more sustainable agricultural practices, enhance the preservation of biodiversity, and decrease the potential for health problems that could be associated with some types of pest-protected plants. Although the committee focused its discussions on transgenic pest-protected plants, many of the following recommendations for research and development also apply to conventional pest-protected plants. . . .
ES.5.1 — Health Impacts And Research Needs
Health impacts that the committee considered fall into three general categories: allergenicity, toxicity, and pleiotropic effects of genetic modifications. The potential for allergenic responses to novel gene products was considered. Such responses have not been documented for commercialized transgenic pest-protected plants, although one incident has been documented at the research stage. Several indirect tests for allergenicity are available. . . . While these indirect tests can be good indicators of potential allergenicity, the development of more direct tests is highly desirable. Therefore, the committee recommends that
Priority should be given to the development of improved methods for identifying potential allergens in pest-protected plants, specifically, the development of tests with human immune-system endpoints and of more reliable animal models.
. . . Although results of tests for changes in the levels of certain endogenous plant toxicants are presented during consultation with FDA, there is a lack of an extensive database on the natural levels of such compounds in both transgenic and conventional pest-protected plants. The committee recognizes the challenges associated with detecting changes in those compounds given insufficient analytical information, and therefore, recommends research to
Assess and enhance data on the baseline concentrations of plant compounds of potential dietary or other toxicological concern, and determine how concentrations of these compounds may vary depending on the genetic background of the plant and environmental conditions.
. . . In conclusion, although there is the potential for the adverse health effects discussed in this section,
The committee is not aware of any evidence that foods on the market are unsafe to eat as a result of genetic modification. . . .
ES.5.2 — Ecological Impacts and Research Needs
Three major ecological impacts were considered by the committee: effects on nontarget species, effects of gene flow, and evolution of pest resistance to pest-protected plants.
The committee reviewed studies concerning nontarget effects. The committee found that both conventional and transgenic pest-protected crops could have effects on nontarget species, but these potential effects are generally expected to be smaller than the effects of broad-spectrum synthetic insecticides. Therefore, the use of pest-protected crops could lead to greater biodiversity in agroecosystems where they replace the use of those insecticides (section 2.6.3).
. . . Gene flow between cultivated crops and wild relatives was the second ecological impact considered by the committee. On the basis of the literature, the committee found that pollen dispersal can lead to gene flow among cultivated crops and from cultivated crops to wild relatives but that only trace amounts of pollen are typically dispersed further than a few hundred feet (section 2.7). The committee found that the transfer of either conventionally bred or transgenic resistance traits to weedy relatives potentially could exacerbate weed problems, but such problems have not been observed or adequately studied.
. . . Evolution of pest resistance to pest-protected plants was the third major ecological impact addressed by the committee. The committee concluded that pest resistance to pest-protected plants could have a number of potential environmental and health impacts such as a return to the use of more harmful chemicals or replacement of an existing pest-protected variety with novel varieties for which there is less information available about health and environmental impacts. The committee recommends that
If a pest-protectant or its functional equivalent is providing effective pest control, and if growing a new transgenic pest-protected plant variety threatens the utility of existing uses of the pest-protectant or its functional equivalent, implementation of resistance management practices for all uses should be encouraged (for example, Bt proteins used both in microbial sprays and in transgenic pest-protected plants).
For more information
The complete text of the NAS report, Genetically Modified Pest-Protected Plants: Science and Regulation, is available in a pre-publication version as PDF files at http://www.nap.edu/html/gmpp/. The pre-publication version can also be ordered for $40 on the National Academies Web site at http://books.nap.edu/catalog/9795.html, or place an advance order there for the forthcoming final hard-cover version of the report, at $35.96.