GM food is safe according to independent studies
Not-for-profit group Biology Fortified is dedicated to dispelling myths about genetically modified crops. Marc Brazeau reports.
Critics of genetically modified crops often assert that all research into the plants’ safety is bought and paid for by industry. Not so, according to a newly compiled database of biotech crop research. Independently funded, peer-reviewed research into GM crops “is common, conducted worldwide, and makes up half of the total research on risk associated with genetic engineering,” say the team behind the database.
The database was compiled by not-for-profit group Biology Fortified, which was set up in 2008 by plant geneticists Karl Haro von Mogel and Anastasia Bodnar, now both public sector scientists. As graduate students they both studied genetics and plant biology. They kept coming across each other in the comment sections of various GMO articles, pointing out inaccuracies and trying to explain common misconceptions.
Haro von Mogel says they began to think there must be a better way, and so they set up Biology Fortified.
One misconception that came up over and over was that little research exists about potential risks posed by biotech crops, and that what research exists is all industry funded. In reality, many studies funded by government or other independent sources have tackled the question, leading to the scientific consensus that GM foods are safe to eat and safe for the environment.
In a bid to dispel the myth, Biology Fortified board member David Tribe of the University of Melbourne collected more than 200 safety-related studies on his website. Haro von Mogel and Bodnar gathered more than 100 independently funded studies to add to the list. It quickly became apparent, however, that a few hundred citations would not be sufficiently useful or persuasive – and so work on the large searchable database, known as GENERA (for Genetic Engineering Risk Atlas), began.
'Every study has a page that tells you all about who did the research and in what countries, what crops and traits were studied, and who funded it.'
So far released as a test version, GENERA includes 400 randomly chosen studies from the 1,200 studies of GM foods collected, covering topics from the productivity of GM plants to the safety of eating GM produce. These 400 have been read and categorised by a team of volunteers led by Haro von Mogel over the last two years. The project received a $US10,000 grant from the American Society of Plant Biologists in 2012. It received a further shot in the arm late last year, when Alessandro Nicolia of the University of Perugia completed a massive literature review on biotech crop safety research.
“We’ve made it really easy for people to find the information they are looking for,” says Bodnar. “Every study has a page that tells you all about who did the research and in what countries, what crops and traits were studied, and who funded it.” Each study page also posts the results of the research, she says. And each contains a link to the original paper.
Of the 400 studies analysed so far, 197 relate to the safety of eating GM produce. Of those papers, 172 found GM foods either were equally safe and healthy to eat, or more safe and healthy to eat, than conventionally grown foods.
The database is not only aimed at the general public. GENERA will plug a major information gap, says Haro von Mogel. “Researchers can use it to find out what aspects of genetically engineered crops are not well understood and plan an experiment to explore it. Or a journalist can use GENERA to quickly check (claims) … and turn their story from ‘he said, she said’ into ‘he claimed this, but according to the scientific literature we know that what she said is correct’.”
GENERA won’t end the debate over GM, but its creators hope it will help bring more science into the argument.