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##Plant scientists support the safety of genetic modification technology

####Claims that scientific doubt remains about the food safety of Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) technologies are misleading and hinder the next Green Revolution

Noah Fahlgren1, Rebecca Bart1, Luis Herrera-Estrella2, Rubén Rellán-Álvarez2, Daniel H. Chitwood1,*, José R. Dinneny3,*

1Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, St. Louis, MO, USA. 2National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity, Irapuato, Mexico. 3Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford, CA, USA. *Corresponding authors. Email: jdinneny@carnegiescience.edu, dchitwood@danforthcenter.org

On November 9, 2015, we initiated a petition to gauge the support of the plant scientific community for the use of advanced genetic modification approaches for crop improvement (1). Over 1,400 individuals have signed a statement, which advocates the position of the American Society of Plant Biologists—the largest organization of plant scientists in the world—on GMOs. The ASPB position statement “supports the continued responsible use of genetic engineering … as an effective tool for advancing food security and reducing the negative environmental impacts of agriculture” (2). This position, supported by our petitioners, and voiced by other scientists via governmental and scientific organizations from throughout the world (3-8), invokes that science guide decisions about GMO safety and efficacy.

The signatories of our petition represent a worldwide network of scientists with expertise in plant science (Fig. 1A). Petitioners have authored over 17,600 publications, as retrieved from Scopus-identified author curations (9), in areas relevant to the molecular and genetic mechanisms underlying plant growth, development, and responses to environmental stresses as well as the genetic manipulation of plants, through breeding and molecular-based technologies (Fig. 1B). Thus, our consortium of petitioners represents an essential segment of the international scientific community adept at evaluating the molecular basis of GM technology compared to other methods of crop improvement.

Petitioner comments highlight the strong support highly respected scientists have for the use of GM technology in agriculture. Matthew Scott, Carnegie Institution for Science President and Stanford Professor Emeritus, and a life member of the Sierra Club, writes “GMO crops, deployed appropriately in light of scientific knowledge and societal and environmental imperatives, can improve food and health substantially without detriment to the environment. In fact there is considerable potential for lowering damage to the environment through use of GMOs to reduce pesticide and fertilizer excesses.” Detlef Weigel, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, states, “While GMOs are not a panacea for solving every agricultural problem, their use is an essential tool for modern crop improvement. To overcome challenges such as climate change, we need to draw on every technology available to make crops more resilient.” Mark Tester, Professor of Bioscience at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, writes, “GM technologies are another tool to support our efforts to increase food production sustainably. There are no sound scientific reasons to oppose the use of this tool, neither theoretical nor experimental. To deny opportunities provided by this technology, especially for developing countries is, in fact, immoral.

Our petition gives voice to the individual scientist and demonstrates to the broader public that scientific consensus exists regarding the efficacy and safety of GM technology for foods and other agricultural products. Such consensus amongst plant scientists is further supported by similar position statements from internationally recognized scientific organizations such as the American Medical Association (3), US National Academy of Sciences (4), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) (5) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (6) and international organizations such as the European Commission (7) and World Health Organization (8).

Despite such broad support for GM technology, anti-GMO advocates have had an extensive and troubling impact on policy—at the governmental level and through biasing public opinion—regarding the use of GMO-based ingredients in consumer products and food. More worrisome is that these arguments are often founded on retracted science previously demonstrated to be unsound (10), such as that of Séralini et al. (11) claiming that rats fed genetically modified corn and the herbicide RoundUp have higher rates of tumor formation. For example, the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) organized a petition signed by 313 individuals in 2013 claiming that “no consensus” exists regarding the safety of GMOs for human health and the environment (12). Commercial entities have seized upon ENSSER’s statements to profit from unfounded fears in their consumer bases. The Non-GMO Project, for example, cites the ENSSER petition (13) in its efforts to verify the absence of GMOs in over 4,500 branded products. The fast food restaurant chain Chipotle cites the ENSSER petition to justify a campaign against GMO ingredients (14).

Consensus is defined as “general agreement” and in the scientific debate regarding the safety of GM technology in agriculture, there is clear consensus amongst scientists. Nevertheless, questions abound about how to best implement GM technology as a tool. Our society must decide upon how to address those socioeconomic factors that GM technology impacts that fall outside the purview of plant science. Where we, as plant scientists, can speak confidently is on the relative efficacy and safety of technology applied to crop plants. To meet our current and future food supply demands, without destroying our planet, we need every efficacious tool available. We hope that the consensus among plant scientists presented here is heard by policy makers, the business community, and, more importantly, the general public and initiates a new conversation on how best to implement GM tools to improve crops for sustainable agriculture (15). We invite advocates of the responsible use of such tools to read our position statement, sign the petition and make your voice heard to encourage a scientific-approach in agricultural research and GMO policy.

References

  1. Scientists in Support of GMO Technology for Crop Improvement. Cornell Alliance for Science. 5 January 2016; http://cas.nonprofitsoapbox.com/aspbsupportstatement.

  2. Revised Position Statement on Plant Genetic Engineering. American Society of Plant Biologists. 5 January 2016; https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/aspb.site-ym.com/resource/group/6d461cb9-5b79-4571-a164-924fa40395a5/Statements/ASPB_GE_revision.APPROVED_ed.pdf

  3. H-480.958 Bioengineered (Genetically Engineered) Crops and Foods. American Medical Association. 12 January 2016; https://www.ama-assn.org/ssl3/ecomm/PolicyFinderForm.pl?site=www.ama-assn.org&uri=/resources/html/PolicyFinder/policyfiles/HnE/H-480.958.HTM

  4. Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods. Institute of Medicine and National Research Council of the National Academies. The National Academies Press: Washingon, D.C. 5 January 2016; http://www.nap.edu/read/10977/chapter/1

  5. Statement by the AAAS Board of Directors On Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods. American Association for the Advancement of Science. 5 January 2016; http://www.aaas.org/news/statement-aaas-board-directors-labeling-genetically-modified-foods

  6. Statement of Policy - Foods Derived from New Plant Varieties. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 5 January 2016; http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/Biotechnology/ucm096095.htm

  7. Genetically Modified Organisms. European Commission. 5 January 2016; http://ec.europa.eu/food/plant/gmo/index_en.htm

  8. Food, Genetically Modified. World Health Organization. 5 January 2016; http://www.who.int/topics/food_genetically_modified/en/

  9. Data and scripts used for meta-analysis. 5 January 2016; https://github.com/nfahlgren/scopus_publications_analysis

  10. Democratising Science & Decision Making. European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility. 5 January 2016; http://www.ensser.org/democratising-science-decision-making/.

  11. G.E. Séralini, E. Clair, R. Mesnage, S. Gress, N. Defarge, M. Malatesta, D. Hennequin, J.S. De Vendômois, J. S. (2012). RETRACTED: Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize. Food and chemical toxicology, 50(11), 4221-4231.

  12. Scientific Consensus on GMO Safety. European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility. 5 January 2016; http://www.ensser.org/fileadmin/user_upload/150120_signatories_no_consensus_lv.pdf.

  13. GMO Myths and Truths. The Non-GMO Project. 5 January 2016; http://www.nongmoproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/GMO-Myths-and-Truths-edition2.pdf.

  14. Food with Integrity. G-M-OVER IT. Chipotle. 5 January 2016; https://chipotle.com/gmo

  15. We Need a New Green Revolution. The New York Times. 11 January 2016; http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/04/opinion/we-need-a-new-green-revolution.html

Figure 1Plant scientists around the world support the safety of genetic modification technology. (A) Map showing nationalities of around 1,400 individuals, from around the world, signing a petition in support of the safety of GMOs (1). (B) Word cloud representing the expertise of petitioners in plant science, molecular biology, and genetics. Word frequencies derived from titles of >17,600 publications authored by the petitioners. Data can be found online (9). Species names have been omitted from the analysis.

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