Response to Prof Beddington, incoming chief scientist (14/12/2007)

NOTE: In fairness to the new chief scientist (John Beddington) not all of his remarks about GM were as uncritical as those Marcus responds to below. For instance, he was asked by an MP whether he agreed with the previouis chief scientist, David King's view that the UK has lost out by not going for GM crops. He does not agree and although he says that GM technology has the potential to increase food supplies, he emphasises the need for 'serious controls' etc. His evidence is available at - GM part starts 54:42 mins in).


GM crops - an open letter to Professor John Beddington, incoming Chief Scientist
From: Marcus Williamson
[email protected]
Date: Fri, 14 Dec 2007

Professor Beddington

Congratulations on your new role as Chief Scientist.

I am concerned to see from a recent article in The Times that you are already echoing your predecessor in voicing your uncritical support of nuclear power and GM crops. [1]

On nuclear power, the money spent on building new power stations, decommissioning and storage of waste would be far better spent on research and implementation of renewable and sustainable power generation schemes using solar, wind and waves. As you are aware, it is considerably more expensive to generate electricity by nuclear power than by other means. [2]

On GM crops, you say:

'The fact that GM crops have been grown for a very long period in America, and there hasn't been, as far as I'm aware, any litigation in a very litigious society, indicates that they are relatively safe.' [1]

However, there has never been any independent scientific safety testing of GM foods. Instead, the US FDA, UK FSA and EU EFSA rely on a paper-based 'assessment' of documentation provided by the GM seed manufacturer. [3] Furthermore, GM foods are not labelled in America, so it is not possible to know if they are doing any harm.

If you wish to restore trust in GM crops and GM foods you and your colleagues will have to create a scheme whereby every GM food is comprehensively tested (not just 'assessed') for safety. Then we will be able to know for sure whether Calgene GM tomatoes cause stomach lesions [4], Syngenta Bt176 GM corn kills cows [5] or Monsanto Roundup Ready GM soya harms young animals [6].

And on the point of litigation you should please research more fully before making sweeping statements as you have. There is currently a huge case against Bayer for its contamination of the US long-grain rice supply with the unauthorised LL601 variety. [7] An independent economist estimated that the total cost of the GM rice contamination could exceed US$1.2 billion. [8]

Likewise, the earlier Starlink GM maize contamination cost Aventis US$112 million in settlements and meant an estimated US$200 million in lost exports for US farmers. [9]

The mistakes made by government and by your predecessors mean that many of us are still distrustful of science, especially in the areas of nuclear power and GM foods. As Chief Scientist it is now up to you to restore that trust by engaging meaningfully with the public and by listening to - and accepting as equally valid - the views of those who see things differently to yourself.

I look forward to hearing from you with your comments.

Thanks & regards
Marcus Williamson


1. 'We need GM crops, says new chief scientist', Times, 13 December 2007

2. 'Nuclear power's cost conundrum', BBC News, 23 November 2005

3. 'How are GM foods assessed for safety?', Food Standards Agency

4. 'Opinion of the scientific committee on food on the evaluation of toxicological information related to the safety assessment of genetically modified tomatoes', European Commission

5. 'Cows ate GM maize and died', ISIS, 13 January 2004

6. 'Ermakova, I.V. Influence of genetically modified soya on the birth-weight and survival of rat pups.'

7. 'Firm Blames Farmers, 'Act of God' for Rice Contamination', Washington Post, 22 November 2006

8. 'Costs of Bayer GE rice scandal could exceed 1.2 billion USD', Greenpeace, 6 November 2007

9. 'Biotech firms pay $110 million to settle StarLink lawsuit', AP, 7 February 2003


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