Royal Society attacks media speculation about GM scientific papers (2/10/2003)

It's amusing that the Royal Society which was involved in a vicious campaign to vilify and suppress publication of Dr Arpad's Pusztai's Lancet paper should be up in arms that a paper to be published in its journal should be discussed ahead of publication.

Below the RS press release we reproduce THE GUARDIAN ARTICLES REFERRED TO BY THE RS.
Royal Society attacks media speculation about GM scientific papers
PRESS RELEASE, 2 October 2003

The Royal Society today (2 October 2003) attacked 'The Guardian' newspaper for putting its own commercial interests ahead of the public good by publishing a speculative article about the contents of scientific papers due to appear in one of the Society's journals.

In response to publication of the front-page story 'GM crops fail key trials amid environment fear', Stephen Cox, Executive Secretary of the Royal Society, said: "Last week's report on the GM public debate stressed that the public wants "confidence in the independence and integrity of information about GM - the assurance that it does not reflect the influence of any group with a special interest for or against GM". We believe that the information in this speculative article, which 'The Guardian' describes as "a serious setback to the GM lobby", flies in the face of this plea from the public.

"The eight scientific papers describing the results of the GM farm scale evaluations, which are due to be published in 'Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences' on 16 October, contain a lot of information. The journal is aware of the wide interest in these papers and is preparing them for publication on its website where they will be freely available to all. We encourage all interested parties to consider the full contents of the papers once they are published and to engage in a debate about their implications.

"This attempt by 'The Guardian' to summarise in a soundbite the entire contents of the eight scientific papers has not been checked for accuracy by either the authors of the papers, who carried out the farm scale evaluations, or the journal. In fact, it does little more than repeat much of the content of a similarly speculative article that appeared in 'The Independent' newspaper on 2 August.

"The article in 'The Guardian' is wrong about the publication date of the scientific papers, even though that information was made public three weeks ago, and misrepresents the journal's reasons for rejecting a ninth paper about the farm scale evaluations. You can draw your own conclusions about how accurate the rest of the article is likely to be."

"Media reports like this, which are purportedly based on leaked information, will inevitably provide a misleading and inaccurate impression of the full contents of the scientific papers. Indeed such reports are likely to be biased by spin applied by the alleged sources of the leaks to further their own interests.

"We understand the commercial pressures under which 'The Guardian' and other media outlets are placed, and that an exclusive story based on a leak may boost numbers of readers, viewers or listeners. Nevertheless, we believe such commercial interests should not outweigh the public interest in the provision of an accurate account of the full contents of the eight scientific papers.<br><br>"We appeal to editors in the print and broadcast media to ensure that reports about the eight scientific papers are based accurately on their full published contents and not on speculation that cannot be checked for reliability."


1. The Royal Society is an independent academy promoting the natural and applied sciences. Founded in 1660, the Society has three roles, as the UK academy of science, as a learned Society, and as a funding agency. It responds to individual demand with selection by merit, not by field. The Society's objectives are to: - strengthen UK science by providing support to excellent individuals - fund excellent research to push back the frontiers of knowledge - attract and retain the best scientists - ensure the UK engages with the best science around the world - support science communication and education; and communicate and encourage dialogue with the public - provide the best independent advice nationally and internationally - promote scholarship and encourage research into the history of science.

For further information contact: Bob Ward

1.GM crops fail key trials amid environment fear
2.Field trials raise pressure on government
3.Counting the cost for insect life

If the trials don't show serious environmental problems from all 3 crops, it won't have been the fault of the scientists conducting them. See how herbicide applications have been manipulated - Fixing the farm-scale trials: http://ngin.tripod.com/120302b.htm
1.GM crops fail key trials amid environment fear
Two out of three strains 'should not be grown'
Paul Brown, environment correspondent
The Guardian, Thursday October 2, 2003

Two of the three GM crops grown experimentally in Britain, oil seed rape and sugar beet, appear more harmful to the environment than conventional crops and should not be grown in the UK, scientists are expected to tell the government next week.

The Guardian has learned that the scientists will conclude that growing these crops is damaging to plant and insect life.

The judgment will be a serious setback to the GM lobby in the UK and Europe, reopening the acrimonious debate about GM food.

The third crop, GM maize, allows the survival of more weeds and insects and might be recommended for approval, though some scientists still have reservations. 

The results of the three years of field scale trials - the largest scientific experiment of its type on GM crops undertaken anywhere in the world - will be published next Friday by the august Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. The results have been a closely guarded secret for months, and will be studied by scientists, farmers, food companies and governments across the world.

The study will include eight peer-reviewed papers about the effect of growing GM crops and accompanying herbicides on the plants and animals living in the fields around. The papers compare the GM fields with conventional crops grown in adjacent fields.

The overwhelming public hostility in the UK to GM crops has not been shared by scientists or the government but the results of the field scale trials are expected to be a jolt to the enthusiasts. The Royal Society refused to publish a ninth paper produced by the scientific group. 

The Society's explanation was that the ninth paper was not a scientific document but a summary of findings and in effect a recommendation to the advisory committee on releases to the environment - the expert quango. The scientists involved will now themselves publish this summary at the same time as the other eight papers, concluding that two of the three crops should not be grown.

The trials were set up four years ago by the former environment minister, Michael Meacher, urged on by English Nature, the government's watchdog on the natural world, which feared that the UK's already declining farmland species might be further damaged by the introduction of GM crops. 

A three-year moratorium on the commercial introduction of crops was negotiated with the GM companies Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer Bioscience while the experimental field trials took place. Despite repeated attacks by anti-GM protesters that destroyed many of the fields, the scientists decided they had enough results to be scientifically valid. Experts not involved in the trials had not expected definitive results even though hundreds of fields were used.

The numbers of weed species and various types of spiders, ground beetles, butterflies, moths and bees in fields of GM crops and the adjacent conventional crop fields were counted to see if they showed marked differences. All were treated with herbicides to kill weeds but the GM crops were modified to survive special types made by Monsanto and Bayer. 

The papers accepted for publication by the Royal Society show that in GM sugar beet and oil seed rape the weeds and insects were significantly less numerous. Spraying with the Monsanto herbicide glyphosate had taken a heavy toll in the beet fields and the Bayer product glufosinate ammonium had wiped out many species in the rape fields.

For maize the reverse appears to be the case. The reason seems to be that maize fields are normally sprayed with atrazine, which kills weeds as they germinate, and is an even more savage killer than the Bayer product. But the result may be controversial because maize is particularly sensitive to competition from weeds and yields may be down. Farmers in America found glufosinate ammonium was not enough to kill competitive weeds and used a second herbicide, further damaging biodiversity. 

The political fall out from the trial results is potentially enormous. It would give the government every excuse to refuse permission outright for two of the three crops on environmental grounds. One of the two legally watertight reasons for such a refusal is the environment, the other is health. Almost all of northern Europe, with similar farming conditions, would be expected to follow any British ban.

GM maize, grown in the UK as a fodder crop, may be given the green light under strict guidelines, as a concession to the GM companies and the US where a trade war looms. The US is threatening to take the EU to the World Trade Organisation if the moratorium on GM crops is continued.

The government has other minefields to negotiate before GM crops can be introduced. The agriculture and environment biotechnology commission is still wrestling with the vexed question of distances required between GM and conventional crops to avoid cross contamination and compensation schemes for injured farmers if all goes wrong.

If contamination above 0.9% occurs in conventional crops it will have to be declared and will be virtually unsaleable to food companies and all UK supermarkets. For organic farmers the threshold is even lower at 0.1%. 

The majority of the commission members believe that the biotech industry should set up a fund with a levy on farmers growing GM crops to compensate any conventional farmers whose crops lose value because of cross-contamination. The biotech industry is wholly opposed to this.

The commission is also set to recommend a second statutory fund paid for by the government to compensate farmers who lose organic status for the same reason. 

New legislation would be required to set up the schemes and enforce the separation distances between crops. The legally enforceable separation distances could be made larger or smaller in the future in the light of experience. 

The commission meets again in December by which time a draft of proposals will be circulated.
2.Field trials raise pressure on government
With the US alleging restraint of trade, the latest in a long line of consultations and tests has only made a decision harder
John Vidal
The Guardian, Thursday October 2, 2003

When Michael Meacher, then environment minister, set up the farm scale field trials in a blaze of publicity in 1998, it was very much a holding operation by a new Labour government needing a breathing space from an avalanche of bad publicity and growing concern about the controversial crops.

The field trials, said Mr Meacher, were to be the most ambitious conceived by any government in the world - devised by scientists at the independent advisory body English Nature working in consultation with the GM companies. Widely welcomed by a confident industry, they were dismissed by some environmental scientists as selective, narrow, and potentially biased in favour of GM.

The critics argued that the crops would not be grown in realistic conditions. Yields would not be measured, giving the farmer no incentive to use extra herbicides, the sites were to be selected and overseen by the biotech industry, and there was to be no independent monitoring of the farmers. 

Moreover, there was to be no attempt to measure the health effects on humans or the distances that pollen from the crops could be carried by the winds or wildlife. The only intention was to see the impact on insects, weeds and plants of a very few crops over a limited period.

Privately, the government and the companies admitted the trials would not reveal very much, especially about other types of GM crops. The value of the tests was seen as being part of a fuller assessment of the technology. Over the next five years hundreds of trial sites were chosen around Britain, but they mostly provoked hostility and a significant number were partially damaged by protesters.

Although the environmental significance of the trials is limited, the political importance of the results, which will be given in full on October 16, is hard to overstate. They have become crucial for a government put on to the back foot by a succession of setbacks to its original desire for commercialisation.

Earlier this year the world's most comprehensive scientific review of the subject, compiled by scientists from pro- and anti-lobby groups and chaired by the chief scientist, Sir David King, unexpectedly emphasised the uncertainties and potential dangers of the crops rather than the advantages. It urged caution, more studies and the need to protect the consumer and the countryside.

This followed a devastating Cabinet Office economic review which saw little or no current financial benefit to consumers, farmers or the economy in growing GM crops because there was no market. The study warned that if there was a rush to grow them the government risked further damaging the trust between the public and food regulators which, it said, could lead to civil unrest and the destruction of crops.

And then last month, the widest formal public debate ever conducted in Britain found an overwhelming percentage of the 28,000 people who took part in a survey uneasy, suspicious or outrightly hostile to the crops' introduction. In a clear message to the government and supermarkets, only 2% of people said the crops were acceptable "in any circumstances" and only 8% said they were happy to eat GM food.

The government is now in a dilemma. With, at best, equivocal results from the farm scale trials, it cannot claim that any of its long consultations has come up with spectacular reasons for allowing GM crops to be grown commercially. But much is at stake, including international trade, relationships with the US and the future of Britain's science research base. The message that the environmental trials, overseen by the widest range of leading scientists, have not given GM the environmental all clear will ricochet around the world.

The government can now do one of two things. It could ignore the strength of public feeling and the growing mood of caution in the scientific establishment by pressing ahead with full commercialisation. But this would open it to accusations that it has not listened, and could affect an election. It will certainly unleash the fury of activists who are even now pledging to uproot the crops and go to the courts.

It could also say that the case for growing the crops has not been made scientifically, environmentally or democratically, but wring its hands and blame the European commission, which is legally bound to lift its moratorium and claims that no country or region may declare GM-free zones.

All this is taking place under pressure from the US, which is taking the EU to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) courts for restraint of trade. The US has argued that even labelling GM foods is the equivalent of marking them with a skull and crossbones.

The likely denouement, say analysts, is that the government will fall into line with the EC and agree to the planting of the crops but effectively make them ungrowable by forcing farmers and the companies to take financial liability if contamination occurs. This would put off all but the most bull-headed farmers.

The US, whose companies largely control the technology, have asked the WTO to rule once and for all on GM. Furious that EU precautions have already cost its companies an estimated $30bn (£18bn) in lost exports, Washington is confident that the long moratorium, the tight labelling and the low tolerance levels of contamination set by Europe will be classed as a trade barrier.

But it is a high risk strategy. A decision in favour of the US would force all countries to open their doors to the technology and relax regulations, but provoke a trade war. If the WTO decision went to Europe, it would effectively close the European market indefinitely to GM products.
3.Counting the cost for insect life
Ian Sample
The Guardian, Thursday October 2, 2003

The government's field scale evaluations were launched in 1999 to see whether growing specific types of genetically modified crops in Britain might harm wildlife.

The crops, sugarbeet, maize, and winter and spring oilseed rape, had been genetically modified to be resistant to a special herbicide.  When sprayed, the herbicide wipes out everything with leaves on but does not touch the GM crop.

The GM crops had cleared the main regulatory hurdles before commercial growing could begin in Britain.

However, some groups, including English Nature, the government's own adviser on wildlife, feared that if it killed all weeds in its path, it would leave nothing for insects and other creatures living on farmland to eat.

If the insects were wiped out, it could spell bad news for animals further up the food chain, particularly farmland birds such as skylarks, whose populations had already fallen drasti cally because of intensive farming.

To test what impact using the herbicide might have, around 70 fields each year were selected for tests up and down the country. Each field was divided in half. On one side, a standard crop was planted, on the other, a GM crop.

For the next few years, scientists regularly counted the numbers of creatures living on either side of the GM divide, using traps made from plastic cups filled with alcohol, upturned plant pot saucers to trap slugs and other molluscs, and devices like miniature vacuum cleaners to suck in insects directly from the crops.

Despite criticisms from some quarters that the trials would never be good enough to show harm to the environment, the scientists who devised the study stood by their plan.

In short, if the number of creatures collected from the GM side of the field was less than the number living among the standard crops, the only conclusion could be that the herbicide used with GM crops harms farmland wildlife.

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