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National Research Council urges greater regulation of genetically modified plants
By Bijal P. Trivedi

In the ongoing debate over the safety of genetically modified plants a new study by the National Research Council, a research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, concludes that although no genetically modified crops appear unsafe to eat, all plants, whether genetically altered or bred by conventional methods to resist pests—insects, worms, bacteria, fungi, and viruses—should be more closely regulated.

There is no evidence that health or environmental risks posed by transgenic plants are any greater than those posed by traditional selective breeding methods, according to Perry Adkisson, chair of the committee on Genetically Modified Pest-Protected Plants: Science and Regulation. "Just because a plant is transgenic doesn’t make it dangerous," says Adkisson, referring to plants that contain a gene from a plant of a different species. A potato that contains a gene from a virus, making it resistant to the virus, would fall into this category.

The NRC committee also urged the EPA to scrutinize genetically modified plants that receive genes from compatible species even if they have been exempt in the past. While the newly introduced genes may be from a closely related plant, the genetic switch regulating the gene may cause it to function at a level that could produce dangerous levels of pesticide, says Adkisson.

The committee recommends that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) expand its research and regulation of genetically modified plants to include plants with natural pesticides that are bred by conventional methods. These plants have been exempt because the public is comfortable with breeding strategies that have been used over centuries and appear safe. But the committee suggests that the health and environmental risks of these naturally pest-resistant breeds be studied.

The report also calls on the EPA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration to clarify their roles in regulating genetically modified plants to ensure that the process is consistent throughout the government, and that their different responsibilities are explained to the public.

Scientific recommendations include screening transgenic plants for potential to cause allergic reactions and creating a database of natural plant compounds. The committee also urged researchers to take great care that these genes from genetically modified plants would not spread to weedy relatives creating pest resistant super weeds.

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