I was asked to make this brief presentation not because I am a scientist working in the GM field, but because I am a scientist who is not. To an extent I am looking in on the GM scientific debate from the outside, and I have to say that I do not like what I see. I want to report to this meeting on what I am picking up from a vast network of NGOs and consumer groups worldwide.
My title is carefully worded. I do not want to ask the question "Are
GM crops and foods fit for public consumption?" but "Is the SCIENCE
of GM foods and crops fit for public consumption?" My involvement in
this issue dates back to 2001 (seems like a century ago!) when Aventis proposed
to plant two trial fields with GM maize near Mathry in Pembrokeshire as part
of the Government¹s FSE programme. Like many others with a scientific
background I was immediately deeply concerned by the secrecy, obfuscation
and arrogance which surrounded these two trials (1)(i), and the deeper we
dug into the science, the more worried we became. It would require a whole
course of lectures to describe the issues which caused us concern, but just
a couple of examples:
(a) We were told that the proposed trials were simply to do with the environmental acceptability of GM maize plantings associated with GA herbicide use (1)(ii), but nobody appears to have noticed that the fields proposed were adjacent to the headwaters of the Western Cleddau River, were part of an otter habitat, and that just downstream was an area designated as part of a candidate EU Special Area of Conservation. That did not inspire confidence.
(b) We were told that health and safety issues were off the agenda, having already been sorted out. But when we looked into these issues we found that there was virtually no published material to support this contention (1)(iii), and that something called "substantial equivalence" was repeatedly quoted by DEFRA, Aventis, ACRE and various other august bodies. On delving further we discovered that this term means whatever you want it to mean, which caused the scientists among us to wonder whether we were looking in on Alice’s Scientific Wonderland.
Now Welsh people may be radical and we may occasionally even be subversive, but we are not stupid, and within a few weeks of the "announcement" (if that is the right word) of the two FSEs the landowners concerned had been virtually ostracised by the rest of the community, and had pulled out of the trials. I have never in my life seen such unanimity in a community on a single issue. The opposition came from a loosely organized coalition of many disparate groups, but it had a common purpose and it spread right across West Wales and further afield. If the crop had gone into the ground, it would not have survived. What did survive was GM Free Cymru, with support today from right across Wales (1)(iv) and a policy line which is not far removed from that of the Welsh Assembly Government.
I want to make several key points about the science of GM.
1. Almost from the outset of our work in the GM field (1)(i), the scientists who belonged to GM Free Cymru noticed that there was a very dangerous "spin" being put on the debate by certain sections of the media, who were presumably being fed "exclusives" and being carefully briefed by the GM industry. The spin was that opposition to GM was based largely upon emotion and even hysteria, and that the pro-GM arguments were based upon science. The ignorant on the one hand, and the informed on the other. We have discovered that the biotechnology industry, DEFRA, the Prime Minister, ACRE, the Royal Society, the FSA and many other powerful individuals and wealthy organizations are signed up to this piece of nonsense. It is nonsense, and the Great British public knows that it is nonsense. Such over-simplifications explain why science and scientists are held in such low esteem by people today; scientists (especially very senior ones) are perceived as arrogant, complacent, and probably corrupt. They insist on repeating the mantra "Trust us -- we are scientists" without apparently doing anything to deserve that trust. I would go so far as to say that many of them deserve the title of "technologist" but not necessarily the title of "scientist".
2. The pro-GM case on health and safety appears to us to be based upon old-fashioned reductionist science which assumes no link between a GM food input and an identifiable pathological condition unless a direct causal relationship can be established. That is all very well, except that none of the scientists in whom we are supposed to place our trust is actually looking for causal relationships; the FDA in the United States has confirmed that it has never undertaken research into the health effects of eating GM foods, and now the FSA has just confirmed to us, after much prodding, that it has no intention of doing such work either (2)(i). When I was a research student, I was very impressed by the contention of Karl Popper that science can only progress through a process of investigation and falsification. In the case of research into GM foods and health, we are not so much talking about the testing of a working hypothesis as total inertia brought about by the reaffirmation and on-going acceptance of a ruling hypothesis. This is irresponsible and very dangerous, since we are talking here about public health and about bodies such as the FSA who are supposed to be working in the public interest (2)(ii).
3. If we contrast the attitude of the pro-GM scientific establishment with the attitudes which are prevalent among the public, we see a vast gulf between them. The public response to our campaign in Mathry, and to our subsequent campaigning, is based upon a much more sophisticated and subtle appreciation of science than that displayed by the proponents of GM crops and foods. The majority of people in the UK, if opinion polls are to be believed, have an antipathy towards the very idea of genetic manipulation of plants and foodstuffs -- not (as the GM spin-doctors would have us believe) because they do not understand the issues or the science, but because they understand them far too well. Over and again we have heard mention of Aids, Gulf War Syndrome, BSE, Foot and Mouth Disease, SARS and the bombardment of the human immune system by alien chemicals, antibiotics and biological constructs which may be unstable and even dangerous (3)(i). People, in our experience, are not interested so much in provable cause and effect relationships in science as in the cocktail of harmful products which their bodies are forced (by the medical profession, by government and by multinational biotech corporations) to absorb, whether they like it or not (3)(ii). Their babies, whether they like it or not, are also forced to absorb these chemicals, some of which are undeniably gender-benders. People are smart enough to know that what we all need is less chemical and biological bombardment, not more; and that GM crops are uniquely unstable and uniquely dangerous for the very reasons which today’s other speakers have enumerated. People also feel that they have been repeatedly let down by science and by scientists.
4. The corporate ownership of GM science is a further cause of grave concern to all of the NGOs who are interested in this issue. We can all understand why the Government cannot indefinitely maintain scientific endeavour across the board through the opening of the public purse; but what we have seen in the case of GM research and development is the domination of the field by technicians and multi-million pound research laboratories funded by Monsanto, Aventis / Bayer, Syngenta / Novartis and other commercial interests. They control the research agenda, they control the means of publication, and they pay compliant technologists to promote their commercial interests. What happens to objectivity in these circumstances? It is hardly worth asking the question; we all know that "inconvenient" research projects simply do not happen, and that "inconvenient" research results do not see the light of day. Even independent institutes and university laboratories and departments have to depend increasingly upon commercial sponsorship, and find themselves constrained and even gagged by the agreements that come with the money (4)(i). Among NGOs there is a widespread perception that the committees which are supposed to control the GM enterprise on behalf of the taxpayer are also dominated by industry placements and academics who are, or have been, funded by the GM multinationals. What are we supposed to think when DEFRA civil servants and Aventis employees travel to community meetings together, or when a Monsanto Director of Corporate Affairs sits at a DEFRA desk dealing with GM enquiries? (4)(ii). We who stand on the outside and look in on this see a field of scientific endeavour which is devalued and disfigured; and it is not surprising that consumer groups and thousands of members of NGOs have become convinced that the whole business of GM science is corrupt from top to bottom.
5. There are absurd accusations from the government and from the GM industry that those who oppose GM technology are somehow harming the UK biotechnology industry and affecting Britain¹s competitiveness abroad. Part of this myth, nurtured carefully by the biotechnology industry itself, is that wonderful shiny new biotechnology investments worth billions of pounds will simply relocate abroad if Britain maintains its hostility towards GM crops and foods. This myth is believed, so we understand, by the Prime Minister himself. Some people are very gullible. It is all poppycock, as we all know (5). Biotechnology is not the same as GM technology, and if the biotechnology industry and certain politicians and journalists have pretended that it is, simply as a means of pushing GM crops down our throats, then they have only themselves to blame for any confusion that there may be in the public mind. If the biotechnology industry was simply to listen to the public and dump its GM obsession, it could, and should, have a bright future with market support and public approval. I simply cannot understand why the biotechnology industry, obsessed as it is with the commercial imperative, seems incapable of acknowledging simple market economics. The advice from GM Free Cymru to the biotechnology industry is this: cut your losses, get out of GM technology, and REALLY listen to the consumer.
6. There is a widespread feeling among NGOs and consumer groups that we have all been betrayed over and again by the Government and its advisory committees on the matter of GM crops.
** We were told at the time of our original investigations into GM science that "terminator technology" was no longer deemed acceptable, and that by agreement within the industry it was being phased out. Now we learn that this technology is being actively developed and extended by Monsanto, and that the OSR used in the FSE programme has also contained GM constructs designed to limit fertility and to discourage seed collection and re-use (6)(i).
** We were told over and again that as a response to concerns expressed by the medical profession, the use of ARMs in GM crops was also being phased out (6) (ii). Now we find that ACRE is recommending consent for AT Ltd to conduct trials with a GM potato containing kanamycin and neomycin resistant marker genes.
** We were told that there would be zero tolerance of unauthorised releases into the environment of GM crops used in the FSE programme. What we have is a catalogue of slapdash procedures, adventitious occurrences of GM varieties, and breaches of the regulations. Almost all of these reported breaches have gone unpunished, on the basis that the amount of harm done was "within acceptable limits".
** We were told that the integrity of organic farming and conventional farming would be protected at all costs (6) (iii). Now we learn that the Government accepts the inevitability of GM pollution of related varieties, and is talking of contamination thresholds well above the detectable level of 0.1% for supposedly unpolluted seeds, foods and products. At the same time it is fighting on behalf of the GM industry against the labelling of meat, cheese, milk, eggs and other products from animals given GM feed. And the Government is pressing the case for "coexistence", which is the Whitehall word for "pollution".
** The latest insult to the intelligence of all of us is the use of the term "holistic agriculture" to describe a mad fantasy world in which organic, conventional and GM farming all happily coexist side by side. This is the ultimate sick joke. One betrayal followed by another, and another, and another.
7. What about the science of the FSE programme? We have all been repeatedly assured that the farm-scale evaluations were being conducted under normal farming management regimes for environmental impact studies. But as the trials got under way it became apparent that there was interference all the way down the line. Farmers were being asked to do things within their management regimes for transgenic crops which they would never do under normal circumstances. The trials appear to have been designed not for the normal maximisation of yield and profit but for the benefit of wildlife (7). There were no studies of horizontal gene flow, or of soil microbiology, or of the unique effects of using specific proprietary insecticides and herbicides with specific GM crops. There were no extensive studies of cross-pollination, pollen drift or adventitious occurrences of GM varieties or GM hybrids. In addition, consent holders and seed owners like Aventis were allowed, within the FSE programme, to vary the densities of seeds planted and to carry out their own "off the record" trials on germination rates, ground coverage and so forth. We are convinced that within the FSE trials, these seed owners have been testing the effectiveness of their own terminator gene constructs. We will reserve final judgement until the full scientific findings of the FSE programme are published, but our view at the moment is that the FSE programme has been cynically manipulated, and that it will tell us nothing useful about what will happen in the British countryside if GM crops are commercialised.
8. Another feature of the GM scene is the replacement of sound science by media manipulation. In recent months the NGOs and some investigative journalists have been appalled to discover the extent to which the GM multinationals, government-funded research institutions, and bodies like the Royal Society and the FSA have been using high-pressure propaganda techniques to promote the take-up of GM crops and food products in this country. In addition, the NFU has in our view betrayed many thousands of its own members by effectively allowing SCIMAC to represent its views on GM crops. The Royal Society is a charity, and is supposed to take an independent and impartial view on GM issues; it protests that that is what it does, but that is not how it appears to many of us who have been keeping an eye on it. In our view it has strayed over the boundary and has been promoting the commercial interests of the GM seed and agrichemical companies at the expense of the public interest. We have asked the Charity Commission to look at its activities. The FSA, through its promotion of GM foods and its interference in the GM public debate, has outraged at least a dozen major NGOs and consumer groups and has lost a vast amount of public confidence as a result. Organizations like Sense about Science, the Scientific Alliance, the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, the International Policy Network and the Science Media Centre are supported and funded to promote GM issues; and there is a complex web of contacts between them and government departments and quangos (8). When one looks at the memberships of these organizations, the same names crop up over and again. The Royal Society, as we have seen in the PR work surrounding the "Brooms Barn / skylarks" study, is tied in to this network and fully signed up to its media manipulation activities.
9. While the media is being used to promote the merits of GM technology, scientists who happen to discover "inconvenient" things, or who happen to write papers of which the GM multinationals disapprove, are being marginalized and vilified by quite senior figures in the UK scientific establishment. Arpad Pusztai and Stanley Ewen know what I am talking about, as do Mae-Wan Ho, David Quist and Ignacio Chapela. Witch hunts are nothing new, but they are always conducted by people who are obsessed with the rightness of their own cause and who are afraid, very afraid, that their beliefs, their academic reputations and their commercial interests might suffer should some other view prevail (9). So in the famous case of the Mexican maize landraces, Monsanto hired a shadowy media company to invent biotechnologists, who then encouraged a massive campaign to bombard the Editor of "Nature" magazine with manufactured protests following the peer-reviewed publication of the Quist/Chapela paper (9)(i). The peer-reviewed paper by Ewen and Pusztai which was published in "The Lancet" led to the vilification of those two gentlemen, in which campaign senior fellows of the Royal Society were heavily involved. In order to justify its dismissal of that paper on the physiological effects of GM potato consumption, the Royal Society fraudulently cited a review paper – an opinion piece by Gasson and Burke which contained no new science. We have picked up from other scientists that projects which might lead to inconvenient findings on GM issues are difficult to fund; and that independent scientists feel intimidated and pressured to "toe the biotechnology line". This situation is an absolute disgrace, and reminds us that since the burning of witches in the sixteenth century and since the scientific purges of the Stalinist era in the USSR, not very much has changed (9)(ii). Truth and scientific integrity are the losers, and all of us in the UK scientific community should be thoroughly ashamed that we have allowed this quagmire of hostility and intolerance to develop.
10. Back to substantial equivalence. So far as we can discover, this was originally a marketing or commercial concept, designed to convince a sceptical market that GM crops are essentially the same as non-GM crops. Consumers and investors were both being wooed. Then somebody realised that the concept was handy for politicians, who have a limited understanding of a great many things and who like matters to be simplified. Then somehow or other it became a scientific term as well, although it is essentially meaningless (10)(i). Very conveniently, it was used by the GM industry and by the Government to explain away the lack of testing for GM health and safety effects; such tests were really not needed, it said, because GM crops and foods are substantially equivalent to the crops and foods we have been eating for years (10)(ii). This was a wonderland in which Alice and the Mad Hatter would have felt very much at home. Then it got even madder, because when it suited them (e.g. for the commercialisation of GM varieties in Europe) the GM multinationals said that their varieties were "distinctive" enough (i.e. peculiar or unique enough) to pass the DUS test and to be added to the seed lists while at the same time being substantially the same as the varieties that were on the list already. If anybody wants evidence of the insanity of the world of GM crops, look no further.
11. Finally, a word about the precautionary principle to which we all -- in theory -- subscribe. It is enshrined in legislation in European Directive 2001/18/EC and in the EPA, and it was used by the Scottish Parliament¹s Health Committee in its investigations into the health effects of GM crops and foods. The BMA has followed the same line -- namely that when somebody wants to introduce something unnecessary (like GM food) into the British diet, it should be assumed to be harmful unless its proponents can prove otherwise. Its proponents have not attempted to prove otherwise, other than by reference to the "substantial equivalence" nonsense. There have been no properly-conducted controlled clinical trials, and in spite of the alarm bells that started ringing following the publication of the "Newcastle feeding study" (based on one small meal of GM soya) neither the FSA nor the Government has shown any interest in looking at the effects of the short- or long-term ingestion of GM foods by the healthy population, let alone by those with vulnerable immune systems including babies, the elderly and infirm (11)(i). In my book this is criminally irresponsible, since we are owed a duty of care and since the evasion of this research might well result in substantial harm to large numbers of people. And what else is going on while the Government and the FSA are covering their eyes and their ears? Westminster puts huge pressure on the Scottish Parliament to reject the Health Committee Report. The BMA is also put under pressure to abandon its precautionary stance on GM foods. And the GM industry frequently challenges those of us with no laboratories and no resources to "go out and find evidence of harm from GM foods" if we can (11)(ii). DEFRA and the Ministry of Health connive in this, and simply assume that GM foods are safe unless their opponents can prove otherwise. This is a betrayal of the precautionary principle, and yet another indication of the extent to which commercial or profit interests have overtaken the public health interest at the heart of Government thinking.