Science review - 'the truth'? (21/7/2003)

As the Science Review comes up for publication, the spin machine hits full throttle.

The spin is best illustrated by an article in The Guardian by Ian Sample which has the suitably Orwellian title 'The Truth'.

'Is GM food safe to eat?' asks Sample. By way of answer he has a section called 'The Evidence' which states:

"The most famous paper on the safety of eating GM foods was published amid huge controversy in the Lancet in 1999. The report, by Arpad Pusztai of the  Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen (before the furore cost him his job) and Stanley Ewen at Aberdeen University, claimed that feeding rats GM potatoes damaged their stomach linings. But the report was largely rubbished by scientists. The Royal Society, and even the Lancet's own advisers, dismissed it."

The real truth is that the majority of Lancet's own advisers recommended the paper be published, ie it successfully passed through a peer review process in which the usual number of reviewers had been doubled by the Lancet. The fact that the opposite is claimed typifies the character of the rubbishing of the paper.

But if we can't look to Pusztai's paper, what is the evidence?

According to Sample:

"Since then, studies by bodies such as the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation, the International Union of Nutritional Sciences and the Royal Society have all concluded that the GM foods currently on the shelves in other countries are safe to eat."

Most readers will assume 'studies' refers to scientific research, but none of these 'studies' involved undertaking any such research. They were all desk top reviews of precious little 'evidence'. As Dr Charles Benbrook, former head of the board of agriculture for the US National Academy of Science (the US equivalennt of the UK's Royal Society):

"Many scientific societies... have been asked to look at the issue of GM food safety. When asked if there is evidence of harm, the answer is generally cautiously reassuring. Unfortunately, most reviews do not delve more deeply into the unresolved issues of food safety. The lack of pertinent data to review is one major reason why."

But is there any other evidence? Yes, there is, says Sample.

"A huge unofficial experiment is going on, thanks largely to the population of the US. Between them, they have eaten millions of meals containing GM food since 1995 with no apparent problems."

A curious form of scientific "experiment" this, in which no data has been collected. Nor could it be, since with GM foods unlabelled there's no way of tracking any impact. And as the science journal Nature has reported:

"Ben Miflin, former director of the Institute of Arable Crops at Rothamsted, near London, who is a proponent of the potential benefits of genetic modification of crops.... argues that, under current monitoring conditions, any unanticipated health impact of such foods would need to be a 'monumental disaster' to be detectable."
Nature, Volume 398:651, April 22, 1999

So what's Ian Sample's verdict?

"There is no evidence that today's GM food is unsafe to eat".

Sample's misinformation is predictably matched by BBC science correspondent Pallab Ghosh who in reporting that, "The review found... the current GM crops are in all likelihood safe to eat", tells us that "many of [the review scientists] are from anti-GM pressure groups"

Ghosh has repeated this ludicrous claim several times in BBC reports with no reference to the fact that it has already been reported that one of the few sceptics on the panel resigned for fear that his funding would be affected if he continued to resist the pressure from the majority of scientists on the panel who are well known GM supporters. It has also been reported that a scientist from Monsanto was selected to write the section of the report on GM food safety.

The verdict of former Environment Minister Michael Meacher on the safety claims in the report is spot on:

"This is just a rehash of existing reports and includes no data of systematic trials to test GM food safety. This is Iraq Mark 2: there is no supporting evidence for action, the public don't like it and the Government seems determined to over-rule all opposition."

GM - the truth
Today the government publishes a report which will have a major impact on whether Britain becomes a GM nation. Ian Sample asks the vital questions - and weighs the scientific evidence.
The Guardian, Monday July 21, 2003

GM crops 'low risk' for humans
BBC News, UK
Human health is at a "very low" risk from the current generation genetically modified (GM) crops, the government's scientific review is set to conclude.  

Go to a Print friendly Page

Email this Article to a Friend

Back to the Archive