Nature's genetically modified editorial (17/12/2007)

NOTE: Over the weekend a scientist contacted us to say his dream had always been to have a paper published in Nature, but that had changed after seeing the Nature editorial attacking Dimas and the treatment of Dr. Ermakova by Nature Biotechnology.

Another scientist, whose research has been published in Nature, told us, 'Nature is now doing as much harm to science as Science or the Proceedings of the Natl Academy, who have done nothing but become political outlets for the new owners of our societies, the corporations. In doing so, they have turned the lights out on real critical thinking, and alienated the public away from science - people are not stupid, and it does not take much to see how corrupt the house of Science has become. It is sad to see Nature in such a sorry state.'


Genetically Modified Editorial

Letter to Philip Campbell
Editor of Nature magazine

13th December 2007

To the Editor

Genetically Modified Editorial

I refer to your Editorial entitled 'Europe's handling of applications to grow genetically modified crops amounts to bad governance' -- Nature 450, 921 (13 December 2007) [see below under 12 December].

In 2004 Guy Cook referred, in his book 'Genetically Modified Language', to the arguments used by GM proponents as '........ illogical, obscure, patronizing and one-sided, populated with false analogies, misleading metaphors, and impenetrable ambiguities.' Such arguments pepper the Editorial which you published in your issue dated 13 December 2007, and it is clear that Nature Publications has now abandoned any pretence of impartiality on the issue of GM crops and foods.

So the EU is guilty of 'bad governance' because not a single GM crop has been passed for cultivation in the last six years? So Dimas 'inappropriately' went against the advice of 'his scientific advisers' in indicating that he would turn down the applications for the cultivation of maize lines 1507 and Bt11? So the Commissioner has a 'conflicted perspective', has 'misused science', and has based his decision on politics rather than science? So what we need is 'science based risk assessment' leading to the cultivation of GM crops for the general good? So science indicates one thing and prejudice another, while political expediency stands in the way of sound decision-making?

It appears that the Editor of this journal holds to the rather naive idea that science is value-free, and that advisory committees like EFSA are essentially correct if they say that their advice is science- based. He seems to think that GM scientists are virtuous people and that there is no such thing as a true scientist who is motivated to reject GM technology on scientific grounds. So there is no room for uncertainty or precaution, and when nasty politicians reject scientific advice they do it because they do not have sufficient respect for science or because politics and public opinion get in the way. With good training from the Chief Scientist and others, that can probably be put right........

That may or may not be a travesty of what the Editor thinks -- but it may be instructive to look at the quality of the advice which Commissioner Dimas has had to put up with for the past few years.

1. EFSA itself, held up by the Editor as responsible for providing 'independent scientific advice', provides advice which is anything but independent. The members of its GMO Panel have been carefully chosen because they are representatives of the GM research community, and because they can be counted upon not to question the essential function of that body, which is to facilitate GM consents. It connives in secrecy and scientific malpractice. It has been heavily criticised for its complacency and arrogance by independent scientists, NGOs and consumer groups, and even by the Commission itself; and (although it will deny this) its 'advice' is heavily influenced by commercial and political expediency. In essence, the GMO Panel is not fit for purpose.

2. The dossiers which the regulators and advisory committees examine, in the process of coming to decisions on GM consents, are filled with 'advocacy science' assembled (and manipulated) with the specific purpose of demonstrating lack of harm. The dossiers are not peer-reviewed. If the applicants for consent commission any studies which might trigger off health or environmental concerns, they simply leave them out of their dossiers. All sorts of techniques are used to portray matters in the best possible light, including data aggregation, the use of redundant and insensitive measurement techniques, the use of inappropriate statistical analyses, and experimental design which masks rather than reveals physiological or environmental damage.

3. Large parts of these dossiers are unavailable for public scrutiny, because the GM corporations routinely ask for (and obtain) 'commercial in confidence' dispensations from the EC and the regulatory bodies. This means that timely peer review of critical data and conclusions is impossible unless lengthy appeals are undertaken in order to access the removed or blanked-out pages. EFSA connives in the blanking out of large sections of material that cannot possibly have any negative impact upon the commercial interests of the GM plant breeders.

4. Most of the science contained in the GM dossiers is strictly non- replicable, and may therefore be fraudulent. There is no way of knowing, since the GM corporations routinely block genuinely independent research by refusing to supply GM reference materials, seeds and meal for bona fide researchers and laboratories. So experiments cannot be replicated or improved, data sets and results cannot be checked, and conclusions cannot be questioned. This is an affront to scientific ethics, and yet the regulators and the advisory bodies refuse to do anything about it. Nobody -- not even EFSA -- should ever accept experiments which cannot be repeated and results that cannot be verified.

5. A considerable amount of the effort that goes into the production of GM dossiers and supporting material is devoted to proving that a GM variety is 'substantially equivalent' to the non-GN variety from which it was bred. This is a nonsensical and meaningless term which has no scientific validity -- and yet the regulators and the advisory bodies believe in it as an article of faith.

Having examined the workings of EFSA, and its decisions, for some years, I am convinced that its processes are deeply flawed, that it examines and approves much science that could well be fraudulent, and that its conclusions are often at fault. NGOs have accused EFSA's GM Panel on more than one occasion of placing the public at risk, and of criminal negligence. It appears to have forgotten that the key Directives to which it is supposed to work have enshrined within them the application of the Precautionary Principle.

Perhaps, dear Editor, you assume that EFSA operates in a state of scientific grace and that Commissioner Dimas is involved in grubby politics, bowing under pressure from an ill-informed and emotional public? Think again. Commissioner Dimas has perhaps stumbled upon something many of us have known for a very long time -- that the EFSA advice he receives is not worth the paper it is written on. If EFSA wants to convince us otherwise, it had better start now, by addressing the five issues raised above.

Dr Brian John


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