GM Free Cymru

The corrupting of EFSA

Brian John (from GM-Free Cymru)

In the popular mind, corruption tends to be associated with bribery or embezzlement. But the dictionary definition is more subtle than that, making it clear that cash does not need to change hands in the course of corrupt transactions. Corruption simply means moral impurity, or a deviation from an ideal (1). Corruption in government -- or in the civil service -- occurs where representatives who are supposed to have the good of the public or the electorate at heart allow their decisions to be influenced by vested interests.

Systemic corruption occurs where there are weaknesses within an organisation or process. Sometimes those weaknesses are fully recognized by all those involved, but it is more than anybody's job is worth to get those weaknesses fixed, since the ramifications may be far-reaching. Whistle-blowing is in general an activity that is not encouraged (2). Factors which encourage systemic corruption include conflicting incentives; discretionary powers; monopolistic control; lack of transparency; and a culture of impunity. Specific acts of corruption by paid officials within a regulatory or advisory organisation include the pursuit of individual advancement or self-protection through the misrepresentation of research results or other studies -- thus deviating from the ideals of honesty and transparency which should be taken for granted in those who hold public office. The strange thing called "the public good" somehow slips down the order or priorities.

Another basis for systemic corruption is a pervasive culture within an organization based on the myth that "we are the experts and we know best." This can be particularly dangerous where matters of public safety are involved, and where scientists are forced onto the defensive by "outsiders" who directly and aggressively challenge their expertise and their conclusions on controversial matters. In such circumstances groups of scientific officers may connive or conspire to adopt a certain position, pretending that this position is supported by something called "the science." (3) The myth that there is something called "the science" is all too easily accepted by politicians, who like certainty and who are often scientifically illiterate. That suits scientific officers very well indeed. After all, they just want to be trusted, valued and loved, just like everybody else.

Scientific reductionism is partly responsible for this state of affairs (4). As a process, it allows scientists to take experimental findings or discoveries and to assume wide applicability or even "natural laws" based upon them. There is a tendency to simplify and generalize, and to assume that all key parameters and mechanical interactions are known and understood. That is all very well if the original research findings are reliable -- but if the initial studies were defective in some way, or even fraudulent, what then? For better or for worse, scientists may be stuck with a working hypothesis or even a ruling hypothesis which is fundamentally unsound, and on which their reputations and their self-esteem may rest. In that scenario, they may be pathologically incapable of accepting that any science which comes up with "inconvenient" research results is honest and worthy of respect and due consideration; the instinct may be to suspect -- and even accuse -- the dissenting scientist with incompetence or fraud (2). If there is sufficient corporate solidarity within an organization, it might feel empowered to launch a campaign of personal vilification against those scientists who are tending to make its operations and belief systems uncomfortable -- and it might even get involved in a direct conspiracy with like-minded organizations to bury inconvenient research and to portray their own partial or distorted views as coming from "the science community." The word "hubris" comes to mind. Sometimes this conspiracy is so crass -- and so crudely "spun" to the media -- that it is obvious to everybody except those actually involved in it.

The scenario described above fits the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) like a glove. Those within EFSA -- and especially within its GMO panel -- are fully signed up to a belief system that says that GMO products are safe. End of story. No doubt there are honest scientists and officers within the organization, but for better or for worse it has come to see itself as the final arbiter in matters to do with science and food safety. Its sense of security has been bolstered by the European Commission which needed, a decade ago, to place a buffer between itself and the pubic (and between itself and big business) so that it could concentrate on politics rather than regulation and science assessment. So EFSA was set up as a supposedly "independent" regulator able to draft in the best experts in the field of food safety and to practice top quality science for the public good (5). The problem was that EFSA was given no resources for conducting scientific studies on its own account, and another problem was that from the beginning it was heavily lobbied and influenced by industry -- in the fields of GMO products, pharmaceuticals and others. Steps were not taken at the outset to counteract this corrupting influence, and the matter has got progressively worse, as we have seen with the scandals of revolving doors involving Suzy Renckens and Diana Banati. Another problem is that the boundaries between risk assessment and risk management in the area of GM products have never been properly defined. And yet another problem is that EFSA has been allowed from the very beginning to write its own regulations and guidelines, in consultation with the EC Directorate called DG-SANCO. That was, and is, a very worrying scenario.

Another dangerous feature of EFSA's operations arises from the natural desire, within all regulatory bodies, to enhance their power and scientific authority and to make themselves indispensible (6). Just like other regulators across the world, EFSA has become astute in the business of political expediency, doing whatever it deems to be appropriate in the service of its political masters and even responding to political pressures that come, for example, from the WTO and from US diplomats and from biotechnology corporate giants and trade associations. Self preservation is the name of the game -- and to hell with the safety of the public. Within EFSA, over the last decade, there have been some very astute political operators, who realized long since that the organization needed to draft regulatory rules and guidelines that only its own scientists and officials could understand, and to build into the documents underpinning their operations a greater and greater degree of discretion (7). Discretion equals power in the regulatory field -- and it also opens the door very wide to corruption on a substantial scale.

Over the last decade EFSA and the Commission have allowed into the food chain no less than 46 GM varieties, including two which have been given consent for cultivation in Europe. All of these consents have been given in the face of public hostility and in spite of a distinct lack of consensus among the member states. And yet, by the bizarre rules that govern the GM assessment and approval system, EFSA has unfailingly advised that these GM varieties are safe, and the Commission has unfailingly followed EFSA advice and granted consent. This is all in spite of abundant evidence in the scientific literature that there are both direct and indirect harmful effects associated with the consumption of GM materials (8). And this has all happened in spite of the fact that there are no demonstrable benefits to consumers in GM products, in terms of cost, nutrition, visual appeal, environmental impact, taste or anything else. Nobody, to my knowledge, even in the darkest depths of the American GM corn belt, has ever asked for a bowl of GM corn flakes. So this whole extraordinary exercise, which has cost EU taxpayers (at a very conservative estimate) at least €100 million, is designed for the happiness of Monsanto and the other GM multinationals. If that sounds grotesque, it IS grotesque. It also reveals a deeply sinister conspiracy which is endangering the health and safety of millions of consumers.

So we have at the very heart of Europe a corrupt organization which can no longer be counted upon either to conduct sound science or to protect the public. What is to be done about it? That is down to our elected representatives in the European Parliament (9). They know the score. It is really down to them to tackle the culture of complacency within the Commission, to demand an immediate halt to all GMO authorisations, and to achieve a root and branch reform of EFSA while there is still time to avoid the wholesale contamination of the food supply.



1. "Corruption is the use of entrusted power for private gain." See also:

2. When scientists choose to report honestly on their experiments, and to tell "an inconvenient truth", they do this at great risk to themselves and their careers if large and influential groups of colleagues in the science community are fully signed up to some alternative or mainstream hypothesis. The personal risk is even greater if the new research undermines or even questions the science establishment or threatens commercial interests. In the field of GM research, look what happened to Pusztai, Ermakova, Mae-wan Ho, Hilbeck, Chapela, Carman and Seralini.

3. A senior official from DG-SANCO of the European Commission was recently heard to say that "the scientific community" had determined that the recent long-term feeding study by Seralini and colleagues was not scientifically acceptable. that is of course a gross distortion. There is no such thing as "the scientific community", and there is certainly no unanimity on this particular issue. But it is of course politically expedient to pretend that the hundreds and maybe thousands of scientists who support Seralini (and are very concerned about his findings) do not actually exist.


EFSA -- hypocrisy, double standards and dodgy dealing on Seralini paper

William Sanjour: Designed to Fail: Why Regulatory Agencies Don't Work May 1, 2012

7. European Commission's illegal policy change
Kraemer, L., 2012, The consumption of genetically modified plants and the potential presence of herbicide residues, legal dossier commmissioned by Testbiotech, Legal_Dossier_Kraemer_Pesticide_RA_PMP.pdf

8. "Safe" Levels of Round-Up Weedkiller and GM Corn Found to Cause Tumours and Multiple Organ Damage
Teratogenic Effects of Glyphosate-Based Herbicides: Divergence of Regulatory Decisions from Scientific Evidence M Antoniou, MEM Habib, CV Howard, RC Jennings, C Leifert, RO Nodari, CJ Robinson and J Fagan J Environ Anal Toxicol S4:006. doi:10.4172/2161-0525.S4-006

9. See Petitions 813-08 and 436-10