A new report in the UK entitled “GM Science Update” has been heavily criticised for containing very little real science and page after page of “unadulterated propaganda” such as might be found in any of the publications of the GM / biotechnology corporations or their trade associations.
Source: Press Notice from GM-Free Cymru
At a “news briefing” yesterday, the authors of the Report presented their findings at the invitation of the Council for Science and Technology (CST) (1). According to the news briefing, the Council “… last year… asked a group of independent scientists to look into the developments in the science of GM crops since the Royal Society report published in 2009.” However, on the CST web site there is no record of any Council meetings in 2013. There is no published record of how the report was commissioned, and how its “independent” authors were chosen. But because the CST is essentially the Prime Minister’s personal science advisory committee, and because he who pays the piper calls the tune, it may reasonably be assumed that the Council’s unwritten brief is to provide appropriate science in support of predetermined political positions — in this case, an unwavering commitment on the part of the Government to GM crops and foods.
The Report is described as “a new 50 page report which records the progress of the first generation of GM crops, the potential applications coming through the pipeline and the regulatory challenges. The report makes a series of recommendations that would allow a safe and sustainable agriculture to use GM varieties for the benefit of the farmer, consumer and the environment. The report is being published to coincide with a letter from the CST to the Prime Minister drawing on the findings and recommendations of the report.” Quite simply, this is science in the service of politics.
Speakers at the press briefing were Professor Jonathan Jones (Sainsbury Laboratory), Professor Jim Dunwell (University of Reading) and Professor Sir Mark Walport (Chief Scientific Adviser) — all of whom have been active in the promotion of the GM industry in the UK. So there was clearly no desire, on the part of CST, to choose authors who would present a nuanced or balanced assessment of the current situation with respect to GM crops and foods.
The authors of the report are Professor Sir David Baulcombe, University of Cambridge; Professor Jonathan Jones, Sainsbury Laboratory; Professor Jim Dunwell, University of Reading; Professor John Pickett, Rothamsted research; Professor Pere Puigdomenech, University of Barcelona. They are referred to as “independent scientists” but every one of them has a direct financial interest in the “success” of the GM enterprise, either through shareholdings, patent protection or a dependence upon a continuing flow of research funding in the GM field. In addition, three of them have taken a high profile in the attacks on fellow scientists who have had the temerity to discover anything inconvenient about GMO safety and environmental effects.
* Baulcombe was Head of the Sainsbury Laboratory, and is currently Regius Professor of Botany in Cambridge University. As such he clearly has a powerful vested interest in maintaining a flow of funds from the taxpayer into his department for GM-related research. In 1999 he was taken to task for referring to a report about the supposed environmental benefits of GM crops — when no such report actually existed. He was also accused of attacking a paper on the effects of GM pollen on monarch butterfly larvae without actually reading the paper. Baulcombe was lead author of the report entitled ‘Reaping the benefits: towards sustainable intensification of global agriculture’ published by the Royal Society in 2009; this was widely interpreted as a “spoiler” to counteract the somewhat negative view of GMOs presented in the multi-national IAASTD Report of 2008.
* Pickett was one of the Royal Society team who set out to destroy Arpad Pusztai’s research programme and his reputation in 1999. When he discovered that the Ewen-Pusztai paper was to be published in The Lancet, he initiated a spoiler article in The Independent newspaper under the headline “Scientists revolt at publication of flawed GM study”. The article claimed that the paper had failed the peer review process. That was a lie. Pickett also took a high profile in attacking those who protested against the GM wheat trial at Rothamsed in 2012. In an article in The Telegraph he said: “GM vandals are shutting down scientific debate.” He was also involved in organizing (with Sense about Science) a petition which was heavily criticised because it broke all the rules of public opinion polling — asking people to sign up for a generalist statement and then using it to support a very specific and controversial GM wheat trial. GM-Free Cymru referred to it at the time as “a classic piece of unscientific garbage.”
* Jones (currently Group Leader at the Sainsbury Laboratory) has a financial interest in two companies dealing with GMOs and has also had direct dealings with Monsanto and Bayer. His company Mendel Biotechnology holds at least 20 patents. He also has links with the Danforth Centre and with the GM industry lobby group ISAAA. He was a part of the vicious campaign to discredit and destroy Arpad Pusztai in 1999. Since then, he has frequently taken a high profile int eh media in promoting GMOs and in criticising those who have doubts about their safety. He has been heavily criticised for failing to declare his commercial interests in the success of the “GM enterprise”, and recently he has taken a leading role in the promotion of the GM “blight resistant potato” (which cost the taxpayer £750,000) and in attacking the supposedly over-restrictive European regulatory regime relating to GM crops.
* Dunwell (Reading University) has a number of collaborative links with industry and with commercial research organizations. He has been active in promoting GM crops as a solution to global food security. Recently he wrote an opinion piece in which he accused the EU of slowing down the commercial exploitation of GM crops because of “political expediency” and an unnecessarily tight regulatory regime. He blamed the complex and protracted authorisation process in Europe for the “loss” of commercial investments by the biotechnology corporations including Monsanto and Syngenta, and appeared to have no awareness of the reasons for public and political concern within Europe.
* Puigdomenech is Professor at the Institute of Molecular Biology at Barcelona CSIC. He has been a member of the Spanish Committee on Biosafety and Member of the Expert Group on Biology and Society, European Science Foundation (2000) and Member of the European Group on Ethics of Sciences and New Technologies. Spain is the only country in Europe in which substantial areas are planted with GM maize. Puigdomenech has also developed links with American biotechnology corporations via the EU-US Consultative Group on Biotechnology. He is currently a member of the EC’s Scientific Steering Committee. As a visiting research fellow in Cambridge he worked closely with Sir David Baulcombe and established links with the Sainsbury Laboratory, the John Innes Institute, and the Rothamsted Research Station.
The Report contains no new science, but purports to summarise the current situation with respect to GM crop cultivation, new scientific developments in the GM field, and safety and risk assessment. In each of these fields the current disputes within the literature are simply ignored, and the contributions of scores of independent scientists are simply airbrushed out. Consistently the authors take the line that GMOs are essential and desirable both within the farming economy and within the food chain — and that they must be encouraged in the UK on both commercial and “science innovation” grounds. It is no coincidence that the authors all belong to the GMO research community, and are senior academics whose status would drop and whose financial security would be threatened should the “GM enterprise” be abandoned or downgraded. So their instinct is simply to maintain the pretence that there is a scientific consensus that all is well in the world of GM research, and that there are no serious concerns expressed in the literature either about GM safety or negative environmental impacts.
There are fleeting mentions of “inconvenient” pieces of research, for example by Seralini, “……..the scientific community and food safety authorities found that that the evidence did not support the conclusions. There are other examples of this type where claims have been made based on poor science (e.g. (Ewen & Pusztai 1999); (Carman et al. 2013).” Poor science? We venture to suggest that every one of those cited authors knows a good deal more about animal feeding / safety assessment studies than the authors of this new Report.
Then we find this standard piece of nonsense, repeated over and again by the GM industry: “Notably, even in the highly litigious USA, there have been no successful lawsuits, no product recalls, no substantiated ill effects, and no other evidence of risk from a GM crop product intended for human consumption since the technology was first deployed commercially in 1994 (Masip et al. 2013).” That is patently absurd, because there has not been a single piece of epidemiology related to the consumption of GM materials in the food supply chain. And nor will there be, because it is now impossible to conduct a controlled experiment in a country where GM materials are everywhere. That does not mean that they are safe.
As one might expect from the track record of the authors of this Report, they have little time for the EU regulatory regime, and argue that it should be transformed into something akin to the US model — ie involving no regulation at all. They say: “Stringent regulation of the technology would be justified if there were no benefits, if it was associated with inherent risks to the health of humans or animals or the environment, and if the technology was so poorly understood there was a high probability of unforeseen consequences. However, extensive studies over the nineteen years GM crops have been cultivated, have failed to reveal any of these risks from transgenes of any type.” That is a falsehood. There are in fact abundant studies in the peer-reviewed literature which show, through experimentation and observation, that there are considerable risks both to human health and the environment, arising both directly and indirectly from the use of GM crops and foods (3).
The “big idea” of the Report is that the current pan-European system for the assessment and regulation of GM crops should be reformed, and that decisions regarding releases into the environment should be re-nationalised.
Quote: “The authors also endorse the view of 29 scientific bodies across Europe, represented by the European Academies Science Advisory Council (including the Royal Society in the UK), that there is no rational basis for the current stringent regulatory process for GM crops. “Most concerns about GM crops have nothing to do with the technology which is as safe as conventional breeding,” says Professor Sir David Baulcombe, chair of the report’s working group and Head of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge.” With all due respect, that is utter nonsense.
The authors say: “Regulations already add at least £10-20 million to the cost of developing a GM trait in a crop. These costs are prohibitive for the public sector and for small and medium sized enterprises.” Those figures are fanciful, and have been dismissed on the basis that they include long-term development costs that have to be borne anyway by the breeders of GM crops. Then they argue that with regulation coming under the control of the UK Government, there should be “……..a new programme of independent research to field test “public good” GM crops. The proposal, PubGM, would support innovations to benefit consumers and the environment.”
On the basis that there are (in their view) no risks associated with GM crops, the authors want unhindered access to open field trials for GM crops which are in process of development, presumably on the basis that if the developers say they are safe, then they are safe. This fanciful — and profoundly dangerous — suggestion will of course go nowhere, since public antipathy towards GMOs is as strong as ever, and since the evidence of harm arising from the growing and consumption of GMOs is accumulating at an unprecedented rate. Five authors who exist in a state of denial about the risks associated with their pet technology will not alter anything, no matter how much of a fanfare is given to their new Report.
Speaking on behalf of GM-Free Cymru, Dr Brian John said: “This extraordinary Report, published very conveniently to coincide with Owen Paterson’s attempts within the EU to dismantle GMO regulations and to repatriate powers to the UK, is in turns naive, biased, disingenuous, cynical and downright dangerous. We find it incredible that five senior scientists can have been so dismissive of the work of scores of independent scientists who have discovered that GMOs are directly and indirectly harmful to mammals and to the environment. In the world of science there should be respect for those whose findings are “inconvenient” and a recognition that discourse is essential in the pursuit of truth. There is no consensus about the safety of GMOs, and the authors must be aware of this. But they seem to be afflicted by the conviction that all is well in the world of GMOs — and maybe that affliction is caused by their own vested financial interests.
“This Report is unadulterated propaganda on behalf of the GM industry. It can only do harm to the already battered reputation of the scientific community, and the sooner it is forgotten, the better.”