Determining the safety and the wholesomeness of a new plant product by evaluating its characteristics and not its means of development is logical, according to a task force organized by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST). The task force reviewed the scientific evidence in response to a proposed U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) policy for labeling of human foods derived from new plant varieties. The scientists concluded that the proposal is well reasoned.
“The FDA policy guidelines affirm the suitability of current regulations for overseeing the safety, wholesomeness, and labeling of both traditionally produced and genetically engineered food plants,” says Dr. Susan F. Barefoot of Clemson University, chair of the task force. “It provides an appropriate means of regulating the foods derived from new plant products according to laws regarding safety and labeling of foods and ingredients.” Barefoot says, “It simply makes sense that labeling requirements should depend on safety and nutritional characteristics, not on development method.”
Genetic engineering (often called biotechnology) is the manipulation of genetic information by techniques other than those classically employed in standard breeding technologies under natural conditions. Plant scientists use genetic engineering to increase food production through disease control, drought resistance, pest control, and increased yields; to improve utilization of feed and fertilizer; and to optimize nutrients in human and animal foods.
Companies are working to develop products for market with useful characteristics: tomatoes that can be picked near-ripe, but maintain flavor to the table; insect-resistant cotton plants; potato plants resistant to the Colorado potato beetle; and soybeans that tolerate and thus make possible the use of glyphosate, an environmentally friendly herbicide.
Plant breeders have been using genetic material from many sources to improve food crops. The newer genetic engineering technologies make it possible to introduce genes from more sources and minimize incorporation of undesired genes. In addition to expanded genetic sources and improved control, these techniques enable more rapid improvement of crops than classical plant breeding. The new techniques most often produce phenotypes (observable characteristics) identical to traditionally bred plants.
The FDA has proposed that the safety of plant foods developed by genetic engineering be reviewed under regulations now in use for plant varieties produced by traditional technologies. The report says that nutrition and safety issues are related to the food, not to the means of development.
“Labeling plant-food products to supply information about safety is both appropriate and necessary,” the report says. “The potential exists for all plant breeding techniques to create unexpected effects or to increase production of known toxic substances. The probability that plant breeding will result in a safety hazard, however, is minimized by currently mandated testing.”
The authors say labeling is appropriate when a new plant variety differs significantly from its parents or when a product is determined to be allergenic, whether developed by classical methods or by genetic modification through biotechnology. The authors conclude that in the absence of a significant known or suspected hazard and if the newly engineered plant conforms to the identity of the parental plant, no further action is required.
“Complex problems would be encountered if labeling were required for all foods modified by genetic engineering,” the report says. “A mandate for labeling such foods would require that different plant varieties be segregated from the time they enter the food chain–usually as seeds planted on farms across the country–through processing and into the retail food market. The task of segregating and labeling foods containing ingredients from genetically engineered crops would be extremely difficult if not impossible.”
Because many traits introduced by genetic engineering may be identical to traits introduced by breeding, in most cases there will be no tests to identify plants developed using the new methods. Subsequent generations of traditionally bred plant varieties could contain genes originally introduced by biotechnology.
“Labeling of Food-Plant Biotechnology Products” was written by a task force of three scientists, chaired by Dr. Susan F. Barefoot of the Department of Food Science at Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina. Three additional scientists served as credited reviewers.
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