Scientists Respond to GM Science Review (30/7/2003)

Here's the Science Media Centre (SMC) on the UK's GM Science Review.

The SMC claims to represent the "voices" of the scientific community and says it aims to ensure "that the public gets access to all sides of the debate about controversial issues." It even says it strives "to promote a breadth of scientific opinion - especially where there are clear divisions within science". The SMC's founder Susan Greenfield goes even further asserting that because the SMC is "independent of any particular agenda" it "will provide access to the wide spectrum of scientific opinion on any one issue. We can provide an anti-GM scientist and a pro-GM scientist... etc, etc."

But as the press release below once again demonstrates that's a lie. The "voices" presented by the SMC are entirely one-sided.

Top of its list of 'Scientists Respond to GM Science Review' is Mark Tester, the scientist the SMC worked with in its "secret campaign to descredit" a BBC drama relating to GM crops that led to accustaions of its operating "a sort of Mandelsonian rapid rebuttal unit", and its employing "some of the clumsiest spin techniques of New Labour". (see: Lobby group 'led GM thriller critics', The Observer Sunday June 2, 2002).  

The SMC (whose funders include Astra Zeneca, Dupont, and Pfizer) also includes two biotech industry-funded lobbyists from CropGen in its list of scientists welcoming the science review. But it presents them just as a 'Reader in Ecology' and a 'Visiting Professor of Biology' without any mention of their lobby-group affiliations.

Nor does the SMC mention that several of the other commentators are from institutes (eg Rothamsted Research and the John Innes Centre) whose scientists sat on the science review panel.

Needless to say many of the comments are equally unbalanced. For instance, we're told, "There is now a mountain of scientific evidence to indicate that GM food is safe and nothing to indicate it might do us harm." In reality a recently published study reports that there are only ten published peer reviewed studies testing GM food safety - five industry supported and four of the others indicating harm!

For more on the agenda of the SMC, see Strange Bedfellows
Scientists Respond to GM Science Review

- UK Science Media Centre Press Release

Dr Mark Tester, Head of the Stress Physiology Group, Department of Plant Scientists, Cambridge University said: "We cannot generalise about GM crops - the risks and benefits depend on the genes you put in. This is a completely logical position, and it is reassuring to see the Science Review state this so clearly, and with the authority of a large and eminent group of both pro- and anti-GM scientists. Surely we can now move forward towards the establishment of a system where crops are approved on a case-by-case basis."

Prof Peter Shewry, Associate Director, Rothamsted Research, said: "The report is logical and well-balanced. It is important to consider GM crops and foods on a case-by-case basis, in the same way as other novel foods and processes. GM technology offers the opportunity to deliver real benefits to consumers in terms of food safety, quality and, in particular, nutritional and health-giving properties: these must not be ignored in the debate which currently focuses on the environmental impact of first generation agronomic traits such as insect resistance and herbicide tolerance."

Dr Guy Poppy, Reader in Ecology and Head of Biodiversity and Ecology, Southampton University, said: "This is a very balanced and thoughtful review which has addressed both scientific and public concerns relating to GM crops. I am in total agreement about the need to consider GM crops on a case-by-case basis, as the variety of plants and traits make "all or nothing" decisions almost impossible. Similarly, I feel that it would be foolish to throw the "baby out with the bathwater" due to specific GM crops - GM technology is a toolkit which can produce many things and the secret is to ensure that we maximise the production of products where the benefits outweigh any risks. This review has done an excellent job in addressing seventeen areas of public concern and hopefully will start re-establishing public confidence in scientific development and the scientific process."

Professor Chris Lamb, Director of the John Innes Centre, said: "Through a careful analysis of the scientific evidence this report addresses issues raised by the public about the use of GM in agriculture and food. I welcome its clear endorsement of the potential benefits of GM crops and the safety of existing GM foods.

The report recognises that GM is one crop improvement technology among several, and that the products of all these technologies should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. In this context I regret that the report does not make it more clear that the major environmental impacts of any new or existing crop are determined by how it is managed.

Together with the economic review report, which recognised the short and long-term benefits of GM crops in UK agriculture, this report provides the evidence base on which the government can make its political decision on the re-introduction of GM foods and use of GM crops in the UK."

Professor Johnjoe McFadden, Professor of Molecular Genetics, Surrey University, said: "This report is yet another piece of scientific evidence that shows that GM food is safe. There is now a mountain of scientific evidence to indicate that GM food is safe and nothing to indicate it might do us harm. GM technology can provide great benefits to both farmers and consumers in providing food at lower costs with less damage to the environment. A new generation of GM food may even be healthier than conventional food. And in the developing world, GM technology may protect crops from pests and disease and thereby help to feed the millions of people who are starving each year. It is about time the anti-GM lobby either found evidence that GM food isn't safe, or abandoned their campaign against GM food and allowed British consumers, farmers (and the rest of the world) to benefit from this technology."

Dr Rosie Hails, Ecologist, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Oxford, said: "This report has pulled together a substantial body of scientific research on the potential impact of GM crops. In doing so it has drawn on established bodies of scientific knowledge spanning a wide range of disciplines, including microbiology, epidemiology, agricultural science and ecology. It has appropriately seen the key issues in the context of the impact of conventional agriculture, for which it has identified the need for better baseline data. Also highlighted is the continued necessity to review GM technology on a case-by-case basis, and that environmental impacts may well depend upon how farmers apply the technology in the field. I would hope that this report will form the basis of ongoing research and decision guided by sound scientific evidence."

Dr John Pidgeon, Director of Broom's Barn Research Station, said: "We welcome this impressively balanced report; particularly its conclusions that each proposed introduction should be looked at on a case by case basis for the specific crop trait, associated agrochemicals and broad farmland ecosystem involved; also that crop management by farmers will be important in determining environmental outcomes, and that there is need for further research on management options. Clearly there is a need for a changed climate where careful research on potential environmental problems and benefits can be carried out without vandalism of trials by minorities seeking to impose their own beliefs on society. This report provides welcome encouragement for a consensual way forward building the knowledge base necessary to ensure that GM crops are introduced, with appropriate regulation and advice on management, where there are demonstrable benefits for agriculture and the environment."

Professor Ian Crute, Director of Rothamsted Research, said: "This is a thorough, authoritative and objective scientific review of all the issues that have been raised as concerns about the cultivation in the UK of varieties of crops improved using GM technologies. It emphasises the scientific rigour of the regulatory process and the need to divorce the application of a specific technology from the actual characteristic altered in a new variety including the way this may affect cultivation practice. While more scientific information is always a good thing, the public should be assured by the conclusion from this expert panel that we are not running any significant risks by growing today's GM crops and consuming products derived from them. "

Professor Vivian Moses, Visiting Professor of Biology at University College London, commented: "The GM Science Review has reached very sensible conclusions: blanket judgements of GM technology are quite wrong and each product must be judged on a case-by-case basis; foods and crops already approved are as safe as they can be for eating and growing; and we can now go forward cautiously, taking as much care with future products as we have in the past. The collective views of 24 scientists working for nearly a year have not, however, stopped politicians and spokespeople for the organic industry immediately contradicting some of the findings in pursuit of their own commercial and other interests. If they want us sometimes to listen to them, it's high time they started listening to us."

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