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PD Editorial: Adding some facts to ‘Frankenfood’ debate

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Sonoma County voters will be asked, again, to ban genetically modified crops and seeds via an initiative on the November ballot.

In 2005, local voters said no. But the idea has simmered ever since, with plenty of emotion on both sides, mirroring ongoing national debates about the safety of GMO crops and the wisdom of requiring labels on foods containing GMOs.

A long-awaited report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine offers some facts to inform those strong feelings.

Don’t expect the 408-page report to settle the issue. The findings by a panel of 20 experts, like the underlying issues, are complicated.

The key findings are these: Genetically engineered crops pose no greater hazard to humans or animals than conventional crops, and widespread use of crops modified to deter weeds and pests is resulting in increased resistance to pesticides, threatening a vicious cycle of strong pesticides followed by greater resistance.

In short, both sides can find something to cheer in the nuanced report.

Both sides also should heed the panel’s warning: “Sweeping statements about crops are problematic because issues related to them are multidimensional.”

Unfortunately, the snap reaction from some of the most passionate GMO critics is mimicking the unyielding certainty of skeptics who refuse to be swayed by science about climate change.

GMO foods have been around since the Food and Drug Administration’s 1994 approval of a tomato modified to ripen longer on the vine and remain firm and flavorful after being picked. Today, most of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States are genetically modified, and 70 percent of packaged food items contain GMOs.

Despite alarmist claims about “Frankenfood,” the National Academies’ report said epidemiological data from the United States and Canada show no evidence that modifying seeds in the laboratory increases the risk of disease, obesity or food allergies. The panel did recommend more long-term, controlled research of GMOs but emphasizes that it’s more important to focus on the final product than on the process of creating it.

More problematic was the panel’s finding that weeds and pests are developing stronger resistance to traditional pesticides. The panel said more study is needed to determine whether there is a risk to health or the environment.

This wasn’t the National Academies’ first look at GMOs. But this time the study team started by listening to critics of genetically modified foods, and then it examined more than 1,000 studies before making its conclusions.

“To some extent we know more about some genetically engineered food than we do about other food,” committee member Dominique Brossard of the University of Wisconsin said in an Associated Press report. “There are limits to what can be known about any food. That’s something we’re not used to hearing as consumers.”

Some food companies have started labeling GMO-free products as such, and many are adding the words “partially produced with genetic engineering” in response to a Vermont state law that takes effect July 1.

Expect even more labels, in the form of campaign signs, popping up all around Sonoma County this summer. You’ll learn more by reading the National Academies’ report. Find an abridged version of the report at http://nas-sites.org/ge-crops/2016/05/16/report-in-brief.

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