This article originally appeared in January 2017 CFAES Monthly on the website of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
Douglas Jackson-Smith, faculty member in the School of Environment and Natural Resources, participated in a Forum of Scientific Society Leaders held at the National Academies of Sciences in Washington DC on December 7, 2016. The meeting was designed to gather leaders of a wide range of scientific societies to respond to a recently released Study on Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects.
Jackson-Smith is a Professor of Water Security and joined OSU in August 2016 as part of the InFACT Discovery Theme hiring initiative. He is incoming president of the Rural Sociological Society and represented the RSS at the forum.
The study was written by an interdisciplinary committee of prominent scientists and reviews the extensive scientific literature on health, environmental, and social/economic impacts from the use of genetically engineered crops. The committee found no substantiated evidence of differences in health or environmental risks between currently commercialized GE crops and conventionally bred crops. They also review the rapidly evolving genetic engineering technologies and processes and predict that the next generation of GE crops may include a much wider range of traits.
The committee found that GE crops have generally had favorable outcomes for most farmers, but that these social and economic benefits depend on access to credit, technical support, and markets. Empirical studies by rural sociologists figure prominently in the discussion of the importance of governance and regulatory systems in shaping the trajectory of technological development and highlight the role of values in shaping public policy in this arena.
In his prepared comments, Jackson-Smith highlighted the committee’s findings that broad generalizations about the social and economic impacts of GE crops are difficult to make since they vary depending on (a) the type of traits contained in the plant, (b) the degree of competition and infrastructure development in the food supply chain, and (c) the nature of the market, regulatory and governance institutions that have influenced the specific forms of GE crops brought to market thus far.
He also challenged the scientific community to deliver on promises to develop GE crops with traits that are more likely to increase social and economic benefits, particularly for small and limited resource farmers and consumers. These could include crops with reduced reliance on purchased inputs, increased genetic diversity and resilience, and that allow farmers to save and replant seeds.
The forum included extensive discussion of widespread consumer opposition to food products made with GE crops, and ways to raise the visibility of scientific research in public debates over genetic engineering. In the discussion, Jackson-Smith emphasized that public opposition does not always come from ignorance of the science, but can also reflect the different values and weights associated with risks and benefits by consumers compared to the scientific or regulatory community.
Released to the public in May, the report has been one of the most widely downloaded reports in the NAS library and has generated significant attention from traditional and social media outlets. Free electronic copies of the report and supporting materials can be found at: https://nas-sites.org/ge-crops/.