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Academics Weigh In on Journal Article: “GMOs, Herbicides, and Public Health”

August 21, 2015
An article published in the New England Journal of Medicine by biotech critics Philip Landrigan and Charles Benbrook condemns the use of GMO crops and herbicides.  Ultimately, the authors offer a pair of personal recommendations calling for the EPA to delay its permit for Enlist Duo, a new combination herbicide comprising glyphosate plus 2,4-D; and urging for the mandatory labeling of GM foods.

Push back on the article and Landrigan’s and Benbrook’s recommendations has been swift, mostly from the academic community:

Dr. Andrew R. Kniss, Associate Professor for Weed Biology & Ecology at the University of Wyoming, writes on his Weed Control Freaks blog:

“The ‘Perspective’ piece is basically a plea from Dr. Landrigan and Dr. Benbrook for ‘all aspects of the safety of biotechnology’ to be ‘thoroughly reconsider[ed]’. However, in the two page opinion, they provide no evidence that crop biotechnology is harmful. In fact, Landrigan and Benbrook acknowledge that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) ‘has twice reviewed the safety of GM crops’ and they do not dispute the scientific consensus expressed by NAS that ‘GM crops pose no unique hazards to human health.’

“Regardless of the headlines that will eventually accompany reporting on this opinion piece, there is nothing new presented here. And in fact, the information that is presented doesn’t really support the actions Dr. Landrigan and Dr. Benbrook are proposing.”

Genetic Expert News Service provides responses from additional experts within the United States academic community:

Dr. Dave Stone, Director and Principal Investigator, National Pesticide Information Center & Associate Professor, Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology, Oregon State University, said:

“One of Landrigan and Benbrook’s central arguments is that the GMO landscape has changed as a result of the noted increase in herbicide applications to genetically modified (GM) crops. While this increase raises some key issues, such as weed resistance, the commentary suggests implications to consumers and public health that are unwarranted.  Whether or not a pesticide is used in conventional or GM crops, the level of acceptable residue on a commodity, known as a tolerance, is set to protect us from harm.  Year after year, residues in our food supply have been measured at trace levels that are far below what is required to result in clinically relevant effects.”

Dr. Jeff Wolt, Professor of Agronomy & Toxicology, Biosafety Institute for Genetically Modified Agricultural Products, Iowa State University, said:

“In their piece, Landrigan and Benbrook present a laundry list of familiar misperceptions of modern crop production. Through the lens of their perspective, the public gains a distorted view of the safety of biotechnology crops and pesticides; and of the immense contributions of agriculture to public health in the United States by assuring a safe and abundant food supply. There is always the need for vigilance regarding the safety of the foods we eat, but there is insufficient substance to these authors’ complaints to support their arguments for GM food labeling and against recent regulatory approvals allowing for expanded herbicide uses.”

On the Science Media Center website, a number of EU-based academics weigh in as well:

Prof. Ottoline Leyser, Director of the Sainsbury Laboratory, University of Cambridge, said:

“The authors make a common mistake in discussions about GM. They have confused GM with a particular application for GM, namely herbicide tolerance. They argue that food should be labelled as GM because of possible risks from the herbicides that can be applied to herbicide tolerant crops. However, many GM crops are not herbicide tolerant, and many herbicide tolerant crops are not GM.

“If the aim of food labeling is to allow consumers to identify products that may contain herbicide residues, there should be labeling to inform consumers about herbicide application.”

Prof. Huw Jones, Head of Cereal Transformation Lab at Rothamsted Research, said:

“The safe use of herbicides is paramount and appropriate safety measures should prevail. However, herbicides that kill weeds and not crops are everywhere and are not the unique preserve of GMOs. There is no logic in tightening the risk assessment of herbicides only when it involves GMOs. The principle of breeding safe new high-yielding, climate-resilient, pest and disease-resistant crop varieties using biotechnology is too important to get bogged down in weed control.”

Prof. Johnjoe McFadden, Professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Surrey, said:

“The authors conflate GMOs with herbicide use.  In many parts of the world use of GMO, particularly pest-resistant (bt) crops have dramatically decreased chemical use and consequent risk of poisoning to farmers.

“All chemicals, including biochemicals, may be dangerous if consumed in large enough doses. Glyphosate (‘Roundup’) is safer than most other herbicides and is biodegradable, which is why farmers, conventional or GM, use it.  Limits should be placed on herbicide levels in food but don’t use it an excuse to attack GMO’s.”

Dr. Joe Perry, former Chair of the European Food Safety Authority GMO Panel, said:

“The article by Landigran & Benbrook raises several issues…the classification by the IARC of glyphosate as a carcinogen, is controversial and not yet accepted by the EU. Within the EU, the toxicity of herbicides such as glyphosate is assessed under different regulations from those of GMOs. However, intensive and independent animal feeding trials conducted recently found no adverse effects of the consumption of GM crops treated with glyphosate.”

Prof. Anthony Trewavas FRS, Emeritus Professor of Cell Biology at the University of Edinburgh, said:

“The WHO classes glyphosate as ‘probably carcinogenic’. Only the cancer agency of the WHO made this claim. The WHO agency on pesticide residues, the US Environment Protection Agency and most importantly the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment that contains easily the largest toxicological data base on glyphosate, disagree with this designation.”

Industry experts also weigh in on the discussion about crop protection products but also staunchly defend the safety of biotechnology.

On Monsanto's “Beyond the Rows” blog, Daniel Goldstein, M.D., Senior Science Fellow & Scientific Affairs Lead, and Donna Farmer, Ph.D., Product Protection & Nutrition Lead, write:

“The authors of the op-ed piece argue in support of mandatory labeling of food products containing ingredients derived from GMOs because of claims about the potential for novel food allergies and the use of crop protection products on GM crops.  It’s important to respond to both claims.

“First, as part of the food and feed safety assessment for any new GM crop, the potential trait is fully analyzed for allergenicity.  In the United States, the FDA requires that all ingredients must be listed on the label, and when there is a meaningful difference in the safety, composition or nutrition of the crop from which they were derived, that difference is properly reflected on the label.  The American Medical Association (AMA) has re-affirmed that there is no scientific justification for special labeling of foods containing GM ingredients.

“Second, the use of crop protection products is not limited to GM crops.  However, regardless of whether crop protection products will be used on GM or conventional crops, the products undergo detailed regulatory reviews for safety.”

Dow AgroSciences provides additional information on its webpage titled 2,4-D - The Most Widely Used and Studied Herbicide:  

“Based on ongoing and continually updated scientific study, health and safety authorities around the world – including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Health Canada, the European Food Safety Authority and the World Health Organization – continue to find that 2,4-D meets modern safety standards. No herbicide has been more thoroughly studied.”

Finally, the American Council on Science and Health sums up most of the criticism over the Landrigan-Benbrook article:

“No one is saying toxicological and biological issues are not important but this kind of random list of charges is not informing the public, it is just red meat for NRDC and Environmental Working Group (EWG) and whoever else considers Benbrook an ‘independent’ scientist. These issues do need to be studied continuously, and they are, but not in this NEJM paper.”