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New NAS Report Aims to Engage Consumers on GMOs

By Eric Sachs, Monsanto Scientific Affairs

Engaging the public in periods of rapid innovation and scientific advancement has always been a prerequisite for facilitating progress. But those in the biotechnology industry, including Monsanto, missed this point in the past. We viewed GMO crops as improvements over existing methods for crop protection and production, and, therefore, farmers, as our customers, were our primary audience. Of course, in hindsight we now are aware that engagement with wider society is a prerequisite for progress when science, commercial interests and public policy come together.

That’s why Monsanto is excited to see the National Academy of Sciences report on Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects to be released tomorrow.

According the NAS, its reason for commissioning this most recent study is to objectively examine the wealth of information available and determine what work still needs to be done so that consumers can rely on an accurate depiction of the benefits and risks of GMOs:

“Consumers in the United States and abroad get conflicting information about GE crops.  Proponents tout the benefits while opponents emphasize the risks. There is a need for an independent, objective study that examines what has been learned about GE crops, assesses whether initial concerns and promises were realized since their introduction, and investigates new concerns and recent claims.”

This is an admirable goal. There is fear and misunderstanding in the public and with many policy makers globally on many scientific topics. And I believe that to make progress we need to engage skeptical audiences in a different manner.

When the study began, it received mixed reactions from the scientific community. The panel was comprised primarily of subject matter experts with diverse backgrounds, including agronomy, genetics, economics and sociology, to name a few.  Most had little direct experience with GM crops research, development, regulation, safety assessment, and most importantly, with evaluating the dozens of studies claiming harms that have been widely reviewed and discredited by numerous scientific bodies and regulatory authorities globally.

While on the surface this seemed problematic, I viewed this new approach with optimism, as a way to view the science through a new lens. I was excited about the possibility of putting all of the claims into the crucible of science and producing clear and concise conclusions that once and for all would lay the foundation for moving forward. The NAS recognized the need to shift discussion from the scientific and policy arena to larger society, and that its process needed to be inclusive and transparent and recognize consumer interests and concerns about GE technology.

Monsanto agrees.  It is critical that we meet the public in its space; at the foundation of where fears and mistrust of science and GMOs lay.  While criticized early on for engaging both the proponents and opponents of GMO crops, the GE Crops committee understood that its process for engaging the issues was as important as its commitment to adhere to scientific principles and evidence.  As a result, it undertook a series of open meetings and webinars covering a variety of relevant topics and invited broad audiences to participate.  Whatever the outcome of its assessment, no one will be able to say that the process was not intended to consider all of the available evidence, as well as potential uncertainties and knowledge gaps.

We look forward to reading the GE Crop study over the next few days, and we fully support the open, inclusive, and transparent process employed by NAS to carry out this study.  The report is a welcome opportunity to engage in a new and different dialogue about a technology that offers so much for our growing and changing world.  GMO technology is a necessary tool for sustainably enhancing food security in our evolving world.

A New Promising Paradigm – Key elements of the NAS GE Crops Committee process to address conflicting information about GE crops:

  • Bring all viewpoints to the table for discussion, including people and organizations with concerns in the scientific and societal concerns.
  • Examine all concerns, uncertainties and knowledge gaps before utilizing robust science and evidence to communicate objective and reliable information.
  • Take a broad perspective focused on common societal interests, including how technologies can help to address important social, environmental, and economic challenges inherent to food production, food security and climate change.
  • Utilize broad knowledge and expertise to suggest ways to advance safety assessment, improve regulatory clarity, and to more fully realize the potential of GMO technology to address global challenges.

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