A careful study of the research on genetically engineered crops may persuade some people in the future that these organisms are safe for humans, a University of Idaho professor says.

Allan Caplan, who teaches genetic engineering and cell biology classes at the UI, said the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine survey that was released in mid-May looked carefully at both sides of the transgenic question. The primary conclusion of the report is that in places in the world where biotech crops have been widely used for two decades, those crops are safe and pose no apparent risks to human health.

"I think it's nice to point out how carefully these people tried to examine the data," Caplan said. "They have looked at the various kinds of reports on transgenic (or genetically engineered) plants and in the end they've concluded they had not found reproducible evidence of any kind of harm associated with transgenic organisms" to humans.

Genetically engineered crops were first introduced commercially in the 1990s. After two decades of production, some groups and individuals remain critical of the technology based on their concerns about possible adverse effects on human health, the environment and ethical considerations. At the same time, others are concerned that the technology is not reaching its potential to improve human health and the environment because of stringent regulations and reduced public funding to develop products offering more benefits to society. While the debate about these and other questions related to the genetic engineering techniques of the first 20 years goes on, emerging genetic engineering technologies are adding new complexities to the conversation.

The academies' report builds on previous reports published between 1987 and 2010 and takes a retrospective view of the positive and adverse effects of genetically engineered crops. The report also anticipates what new technology might hold for the future.

Caplan said some of the new technology will allow researchers to modify the genome of an organism without adding any new genes.

"For the moment, everything we discuss as a GMO (genetically modified organism) is transgenic, meaning they have new genes in them; they have something new that was added," Caplan said. "In the future, the new technology will allow us to alter things without adding DNA from another or the same species."

People who are opposed to any form of genetic engineering probably won't be satisfied with that development, Caplan said, "but I hope they'll be convinced that there are different levels of resistance (to the technology) in different countries."

There are several efforts in the world now, both by national governments and humanitarian organizations, to use genetic engineering technology to boost the nutritional value of some plants to benefit human health.

"If those (efforts) do succeed at being accepted, I think people will see there are a lot of clear benefits to genetic engineering," Caplan said. "Not that every plant or GMO plant is good, but there are some good ones that people should feel comfortable using."

Caplan acknowledged that there will probably always be people who are opposed to the whole notion of altering the genetic makeup of plants and animals, and for those, he said, there likely always will be a market for non-altered products.

"The hope is that they will see that we can benefit from these other sources," he said.

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Hedberg may be contacted at kathyhedberg@gmail.com or (208) 983-2326.

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