National Researh Council Weighs in on Transgenic Plants

Journal of Environmental Health, July 2000 | Go to article overview

National Researh Council Weighs in on Transgenic Plants


Farmers have been trying to minimize their losses from crop pests for hundreds of years by using conventional breeding practices, such as hybridization, to develop crops with desirable traits. Some types of worms cause an estimated $7 billion in crop losses per year in the United States; the damage from insects is even more severe. In the past two decades, scientists have used advanced knowledge of molecular biology to more precisely alter plants. The new methods introduce genes that endow plants with pesticidal traits, creating what are known as transgenic pest-protected plants. These genes may come from similar, sexually compatible species or from completely unrelated organisms. Transgenic plants have been grown commercially since 1995, and their use has increased dramatically since then. In 1999 alone, more than 70 million acres of transgeuic crops were planted in the United States.

But some scientists and members of the public have expressed concern that the genetic engineering of plants could result in unsafe foods, do irreparable harm to beneficial organisms, and spur the uncontrollable growth of weeds. Given the dramatic increase in commercial planting of genetically engineered crops and the safety concerns they raise, the National Research Council decided to review the scientific data on health and environmental risks and the use of these data in the regulatory process.

Health-Related Concerns

Thus far, pest-protected plants have caused obvious health or environmental problems only under rare circumstances. For example, although a human allergic reaction to a new gene product has never been documented for a commercially available transgenic pest-protected plant, one such incident did occur at the research stage. In that study, people with a known allergic reaction to Brazil nuts experienced a similar reaction when they were exposed in skin-prick tests to soybeans containing a gene transferred from the Brazil nut.

Priority should be given to developing improved methods for identifying potential allergens, specifically focusing on new tests relevant to the human immune system and on more reliable animal models, according to a report from the National Research Council (NRC). Changes in plant physiology and biochemistry should be monitored during the development of pest-protected plants. Also, because transgenic plants potentially could have increased levels of toxic plant compounds, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should create a coordinated database that lists information about natural plant compounds of dietary or toxicological concern. That database would aid researchers who monitor concentrations of these compounds in genetically modified plants.

Environmental Concerns

In examining ecological concerns, the committee that wrote the NRC report looked at the possibility that transgenic plants could affect organisms that are not the target of the pesticidal trait. The committee also considered the potential transfer of novel genes from one type of plant to another and the evolution of new strains of immune pests.

Both conventional and transgenic pest-protected crops could affect nontarget species, such as beneficial insects, but that impact is likely to be smaller than the impact of chemical pesticides, the committee said. In fact, when used in place of chemical pesticides, pest-protected crops could lead to greater biodiversity in some geographical areas. The committee called for more research to examine these issues.

The highly publicized report of monarch butterflies being poisoned by pollen from genetically engineered corn is an example of an issue that needs to be researched further and will require rigorous field evaluations, the committee said. Pollen from corn that had been genetically engineered to produce Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin--a type of insecticide--was shown to slow the growth and sometimes to kill monarch caterpillars when enough pollen was placed on milkweed leaves fed to them in a laboratory Follow-up studies are needed in the field, where pollen density might be lower and the toxin might be deactivated by environmental factors. …

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