A lot of people around the world want to know the answer to the question
posed in the title.
Here in the United States, genetically engineered (GE) crops have been
grown on a large scale since the mid-1990s, with documented reductions
in insecticide use and production costs. No discernible ill effects
have shown up to offset these benefits. Not only that, but science promises
a tremendous array of future advances, such as improved nutritional
balance, elimination of trans fats, and enhanced disease resistance
and cold tolerance.
So, what's the problem? With this relatively new technology of genetic
engineering, naturally there are questions the public has never considered
before, and people want some answers before they accept it. Some questions
are obvious and have been thoroughly researched. For example, are these
crops safe to humans and other species that inhabit Earth? Scientists
measure the degree of safety by posing the question, "What is the
risk?" Hence the origin of the science of risk assessment.
Risk is never perfectly controlled. Every activity in life carries
some degree of risk. For example, we know that there were 42,815 highway
fatalities in the United States in 2002, but we still get into our cars
because we are familiar with that risk and we accept it for the benefits
that our cars bring us.
Similarly, crops bred conventionally may carry risks, such as allergic
reactions, but again we accept the risks. We also accept that some foods
are riskier than others, and while we may handle them with more care,
we still eat them.
Risk assessment basically consists of providing the answers to three
questions: What can go wrong? How likely is it? How bad would it be?
Risk analysis examines the answers and compares them to various alternatives
so that the least risky pathway can be followed (risk management). Risk
assessment is science. Risk management is art. It depends on the values
and experiences of a society, which then decides which types and degrees
of risks are acceptable and which are not.
This is where ARS research comes
in. Research provides answers to the risk assessment questions. The
answers may differ greatly depending on circumstances. For example,
if genetic engineering simply moves a gene for a common food ingredient
from one safe food crop to another, this does not expose consumers to
new components in their food supply. The added risk to food safety is
very small. But if a genetically engineered plant contains a pharmaceutical
or other new compound that must be kept out of the food supply, the
answers could be very different.
This is why ARS committed $24 million in fiscal year 2004 to biotechnology
risk assessment and risk mitigation research, an increase of more than
$8 million compared to fiscal year 2002. The research covers many topics,
from assessing allergenicity of GE foods to blocking the movement of
genes from GE crops to non-GE crops in the field. The story on page
4 gives a more in-depth look at this research.
Part of the reason for ARS to carry out risk assessment research is
to provide data on the transgenic products of its own research projects.
But there is more to it than that. ARS is supported by public tax dollars,
and it takes on issues important to the public good that can't be done
elsewhere. For example, ARS is monitoring insect resistance to Bt
on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency. (Some crops have been
genetically engineered to contain Bt, a bacterium that controls
certain insect pests.) It's a long-term, continuous effort that's national
in scope and best done by a single organization. Data will be drawn
from the Bt crop varieties of multiple seed companies, so it
isn't research that a single company could carry out.
What happens when research detects a significant risk? If the product
is important and there is no other way of producing it, then research
to reduce risk is appropriate. ARS is developing several tools to decrease
or eliminate some of the risks that might be associated with transgenics.
For example, if a plant needs protection against a leaf-feeding pest,
the protective agent need not also be present in the grain (that's harvested
for food). The first defense against risk is to choose safe genes well
and carefully and prove their suitability. A second line of defense
is a risk mitigation strategy, in this case blocking accumulation of
the new material in the grain. The technology to direct synthesis of
these agents, such as Bt, to specific tissues is known and under
development but not yet perfected.
ARS is not alone in carrying out risk assessment research. Companies
that produce genetically engineered seeds or genes collect a lot of
specific information about their products to prove safety. The public
sector (USDA and state universities), however, generally takes a broader
approach, attempting to bring out principles and issues beyond specific
products. In addition to ARS's in-house research, USDA funds a competitively
awarded grants program for research on biotechnology risk assessment.
That program focuses on environmental risk and is supported by a 2-percent
levy on all biotechnology research funded by USDA.
The aim of all this research is to provide useful and important agricultural
products to feed and clothe the worldnow and well into the future.
If genetic engineering is to fulfill its potential, it must be the safest
way to meet that lofty goal. Moreover, it must be accepted as such by
the public that eats the food. Until both those goals are reached, our
work is not done.
John W. Radin
ARS National Program Leader
Plant Physiology and Risk Assessment
"Forum" was published in the September
2004 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.