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ASCB Statement in Support of Research on Genetically Modified Organisms

The American Society for Cell Biology represents about 10,000 basic biology researchers across the country and throughout the world.
The ability to move individual genes into crops presents an enormous opportunity for improving the quality and nutritional value of the food we eat. Moreover, because plants are capable of performing diverse chemical reactions, we anticipate that this technology will improve the production and availability of pharmaceuticals, prevent environmental damage through cleaner and safer chemistry, and facilitate environmental cleanup with plants designed to detoxify hazardous waste. Genetic engineering has many advantages over traditional breeding: it is faster, more precise, and can introduce genes tailored to confer beneficial properties. The ASCB vigorously supports research and development in the area of genetically engineered organisms, including the development of genetically modified (GM) crop plants.

In the United States, a regulatory network of multiple agencies controls the introduction of new food products, whether they are produced conventionally or through genetic engineering. The USDA regulates meat and poultry products, the FDA regulates other foods, and the EPA regulates pesticides. Agency approval requires testing for both human and environmental toxicity. If the contents of a food product can affect health risks or if they are likely to promote allergy, labeling is mandatory. If companies wish to add additional labels to promote their products, they bear the burden of proof to ensure that those labels are accurate. The approval process includes evaluation of the following:

  • The uses of the food, including both human and animal uses
  • The sources, identities, and functions of introduced genetic material
  • The purpose or intended technical effect of the modification, and its expected effect on the composition or characteristic properties of the food or feed;
  • The identity and function of any new products encoded by the introduced genetic material, including an estimate of its concentration;
  • Comparison of the composition or characteristics of the bioengineered food to that of food derived from the parental variety or other commonly consumed varieties with special emphasis on important nutrients, anti-nutrients, and toxicants that occur naturally in the food;
  • Information on whether the genetic modification alters the potential for the bioengineered food to induce an allergic response; and,
  • Other information relevant to the safety and nutritional assessment of the bioengineered food.

New products from genetically modified crops promise significant improvement in human health and the environment.

  • Soybeans that make three-fold higher levels of monounsaturated fatty acids and ten-fold lower levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids, providing healthier sources of vegetable oil.
  • Soybeans that are even more likely to reduce harmful cholesterol levels than ordinary soybeans, due to increased levels of particular isoflavones.
  • Rice and corn that express high levels of vitamin A and promise to dramatically reduce blindness in many developing countries.
  • Vaccines that can be delivered through food to provide safe and effective methods for disease prevention in much of the developing world.
  • Soybeans that produce compounds useful as plasticizers, paint and lubricants, eliminating the need for chemical modifications that produce toxic byproducts harmful to the environment.

These are just a few ways that, far from presenting a threat to the public health, GM crops in many cases improve it.

The use of genetically modified organisms can also improve our environment. The use of GM corn, cotton, and soybeans has dramatically reduced the use of chemical pesticides in the U.S. This is the result of the introduction of crops expressing the BT protein, which is specifically toxic to certain insect larvae. Many individuals and groups have raised concerns about the safety of transgenic BT crops despite the fact that the bacteria that naturally produce BT have been applied directly to crops as a form of organic pest control for over 40 years. Transgenic BT crops have passed rigorous testing in the US, Canada, and Japan, and they have been found to pose no threat to other insects, animals, or humans. The primary alternative to BT is large-scale spraying of pesticides which kills both beneficial and harmful insects and has other negative environmental consequences. Increased use of GM crops promises to further reduce chemical pesticide use, minimize the exposure of workers and people in neighboring communities to harmful chemicals, and increase profits for farmers.

Furthermore, GM crops will be instrumental in enabling farmers, for the first time in history, to literally feed the world. The world's population will likely grow by one to two billion over the next decades. In order to feed this many people, grain production must dramatically increase, perhaps by 40%. Traditional breeding methods are too slow to meet this increased demand; instead, the rapid production of disease resistant crops through genetic modification can enable rapid increases in crop productivity. The use of GM crops will make available farmland more productive, reducing the need to bring additional forest acreage into production.

Despite the promise of new food production technology, fear and concern both in Europe and the U.S., fanned by media coverage, have halted or severely slowed the investment of the agricultural industry in genetically modified products. In the past, the fate of recombinant DNA technology was determined by the dispassionate consideration of scientific facts — a decision that led to numerous health benefits including the production of new drugs and the diagnosis of genetic disease. Likewise, agricultural biotechnology policy should be not dictated by unfounded fears. The consequences of the recent fear campaign are evident in Europe, and are threatening to spread in the U.S. Ultimately, all biotechnology may be targeted, as many are becoming fearful of all recombinant technologies.

Some in the U.S. support special labeling of food that is derived from genetically modified crops. But, many experienced in public policy, as well as those who have witnessed recent events in Europe, caution that labeling may unnecessarily inflame public fears. Further, such labeling would merely specify the technology used to create the product without providing information on its contents. Mandatory labeling would also impose significant production burdens on farmers and manufacturers who would have to separate GM and non-GM goods from the field to the factories to the marketplace. Farmers and food producers strongly oppose this, as it would require costly storage and processing facilities and equipment to be added at all stages of production. In many cases, there is no test that can discern if a product, such as corn syrup, is derived from modified plants. Consequently, the cost of complying with mandatory laws could be so prohibitive as to invite dishonesty at several levels. Finally, some argue that labeling provides consumers with a choice. In fact, in Europe, labeling has had the opposite effect – those who do not object to purchasing GM food can no longer find suppliers bold enough to sell it.

The ASCB has a strong commitment to educating the public about science in general and the science of cell biology and genetics in particular. We believe that better public education will help allay many unfounded fears of non-existent dangers associated with genetic modification of food sources. We recommend investments in resources in supporting such educational efforts.

The ASCB believes it is important to protect research with GM crops from unnecessary restriction. This research could have far-reaching benefits for human health. In view of the current regulatory controls with regard to GM products, it is critical to avoid legislation that would slow the development of this important technology.

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