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GMO safety, weed control top concerns as U.S. study kicks off

Report By Carey Gillam (Reuters) – “Agriculture experts raised a number of concerns with genetically modified crops, including safety and spreading weed resistance, at the first public meeting of a U.S. government sponsored study of genetically engineered crops held Monday.

The study, led by the National Research Council (NRC) and sponsored in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, comes at a time of growing consumer suspicion of genetically modified crops, which are used in a variety of packaged food products. Many U.S. states are seeking mandatory labeling of foods with GMO ingredients, and a growing number of food companies are offering non-GMO products.

The study also comes as some important U.S. trading partners, notably China, are showing reluctance to allow imports of some GMO grain.

The stated goal of the study is to examine the concerns along with the benefits of GMO crop technologies and “inform the public discourse.” The NRC said its work will be “an independent, objective study” to be completed by 2016.

Findings can’t come soon enough, many said.

“There is not a universal consensus in the scientific community about many aspects of this technology,” Chuck Benbrook, research professor at Washington State University, said in his address to the study group.

Benbrook said a lack of confidence in the safety of consuming the specialty crops is due in part to a U.S. regulatory system that lacks independent review and relies largely on research supplied by the companies that develop GMO crops.

“For us to turn the tide on this erosion of confidence… we have got to do the work,” Benbrook said.

Major Goodman, a crop genetics expert from North Carolina State University, said at the meeting that weed resistance tied to widespread use of Roundup herbicide and GMO crops engineered to be used with treatments of Roundup, was a major problem hurting farmers who are seeing crop yields choked off by weeds that are getting harder to kill.

In addition to GMO safety and weed resistance issues, other speakers said the study group should examine growing insect resistance to some GMO crops, contamination of organic crops by pollen from GMO crops, and fears about control of the global seed supply being limited to the handful of seed companies that dominate the market.

The National Research Council is the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, a nonprofit institution chartered by Congress to provide science, technology, and health policy advice to the government.

The committee members working on the GMO study include scientists specializing in ecology, genetics and crop health from universities in Wisconsin, North Carolina State University, and Michigan State University, among others, as well as experts from the International Food Policy Research Institute, The Nature Conservancy and other groups”