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expert reaction to US National Academies of Science report on 30 years of GM crops

The US National Academies of Science has published a report on genetically modified crops looking at their impact since their introduction a three decades ago.

 

Professor Sir Mark Walport, Government Chief Scientific Adviser, said,

“This is a thoughtful contribution by the US National Academies on the role that GM technologies may play in resolving global food challenges. I welcome the recognition that GM is just one of many agricultural technologies.

“When considering GM the questions should always be: ‘what gene?’, ‘in what organism?’, and ‘for what purpose?’. The report also rightly recognises the importance of the role of public dialogue on these technologies.”

 

Dr Joe Perry, former Chair of the European Food Safety Authority GMO Panel, said:

“Put simply, this very extensive NAS report draws conclusions that should be no surprise to those who have followed GM plant cropping in north America.

Firstly, GM Bt crops are both environmentally friendly and good for growers, resulting in yield increases and pesticide reduction. Second, the picture is not nearly so rosy for herbicide tolerant (HT) crops, which, because of the profligate and lightly regulated way they are used in the USA, don’t increase yields and can lead to problems with weed resistance. But the report hints at how such problems can be overcome, by using the ecologically-based approach known as ‘integrated pest management’ (IPM).

“The message for Europe is clear. Several crops have been risk assessed by the European Food Safety Authority and deemed safe. The EC should give approval for the Bt maize crops, MONJ810 and Bt11, which require very light regulation. The EU should also approve maize 1507, although with slightly more stringent conditions, as 1507 is more toxic to butterflies. Then the EU should approve crops such as the HT maize GA21, but with conditions such that it is used within an IPM context, with strict regulation to avoid the onset of resistance.

“There is no longer any scientific reason to delay approval for these crops – the only reason for delay is purely political.”

 

Prof. Denis Murphy, Professor of Biotechnology at the University of South Wales, said:

“Unlike Europe, the USA has grasped the nettle of new gene editing technologies and come up with a commendably rapid verdict. In contrast Europe has been paralysed by indecision.

“This means that the USA stance is likely to set the agenda for other large GM producers that now include India & (very soon) China as well as several African countries.

“Europe is in danger of becoming an even greater backwater for new breeding technologies than it is already.”

 

Prof. Jonathan Jones, Plant Scientist at The Sainsbury Laboratory, said:

“This comprehensive, balanced and transparent report from the US NAS is essential reading for anybody who is concerned about the merits or otherwise of GM crops. It reviews past experience and assesses future scenarios, commenting on the challenge of appropriate regulation of rapidly advancing technology in a multi-jurisdiction world.

“I heartily endorse this key quote from the executive summary: ‘Emerging genetic technologies have blurred the distinction between genetic engineering and conventional plant breeding to the point where regulatory systems based on process are technically difficult to defend.’ ”

 

Declared interests

Prof. Murphy: “I have no relevant interests to declare.”

Dr Perry: “Dr Perry declares no conflicts of interest.  All of his interests are declared on the EFSA website and may be downloaded freely.  He has never received a penny piece for any of his work on GM from any commercial company.”

Prof. Jones did his PhD at the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge, and then worked on symbiotic nitrogen fixation at Harvard. He began making GM plants in 1983 at a startup agbiotech company, Advanced Genetic Sciences (now defunct) in Oakland California, where he worked for 5 years. He used the GM method to make discoveries about what regulates gene expression in GM plants, and about plant transposable DNA.

Since 1988, Jones has been a researcher at the Sainsbury Lab in Norwich (www.tsl.ac.uk), funded largely by David Sainsbury’s private charity the Gatsby Foundation. He has led a well-regarded basic research program into mechanisms of plant disease and plant disease resistance, for which he was elected EMBO member in 1999 and FRS in 2003. He is one of the highest cited plant scientists in Europe ((http://www.labtimes.org/labtimes/ranking/2013_04/index2.lasso).

Jones is cofounder of (in 1997) and science advisor to the biotech company Mendel Biotechnology. Monsanto was a major client, but no longer is. As of July 2010, Mendel had been granted over 20 biotechnology and GM patents. In its 2008 Annual Report it listed as one of two lines of business that were central to its growth a collaborative project with Monsanto on soybean yield, “the basis of which is a Mendel technology”. However it is not clear if this trait will be brought to market. Mendel’s 2009 Annual Report noted two collaborative partnerships: one with Monsanto and the other with Bayer CropScience.

Jones also co-founded Norfolk Plant Sciences in 2007 with Prof Cathie Martin of JIC, with the goal of bringing flavonoid-enriched tomatoes to market (www.norfolkplantsciences.com). Regulatory constraints in Europe mean that the benefits of this product are likely to brought to market in Canada before this happens in Europe.

He is also on the Science advisory board of Nomad Biosciences in Halle, Germany, which aims to produce human pharmaceutical and other valuable proteins using plant viruses rather than GM plants.

He recently became a science advisor to start-up Scottish biotech company Synpromics (http://www.synpromics.com).

Jones is on the board of www.isaaa.org and the science advisory board of David Sainsbury’s 2Blades foundation (www.2blades.org).

In addition to his basic science programs, Jones has isolated and is isolating new resistance genes against potato late blight from wild relatives of potato, with the goal of using them to deliver market-favoured potato varieties that are protected from late blight by genes, rather than by chemistry. Patents have been filed on the Rpi-vnt1 gene, which was trialed in Norfolk, and the gene is being commercialized in the US by Simplot (www.simplot.com).

Because of his 30+ years of experience with using the GM method, his distinguished academic career, his commitment to public engagement, his familiarity with the seeds and agbiotech industry, and his concern that the potential benefits of using GM methods be brought to public use and not carelessly spurned, he is sporadically called upon to provide advice to government. He was a coauthor on http://royalsociety.org/policy/publications/2009/reaping-benefits/ and on the annexe to a recent report about GM requested by the Council on Science and Technology (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/genetic-modification-gm-technologies).

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