GM Free Cymru

The GM science community is its own worse enemy

Open Letter 26th January 2011

Sir Paul Nurse
President The Royal Society
Carlton House Terrace
London SW1Y 5AG

Dear Sir Paul,

The GM science community is its own worse enemy

I was interested to watch the BBC Horizon programme in which you examine some of the reasons why the public at large is profoundly sceptical about science and scientists.

I congratulate you on the "climate change" part of the programme, which analysed some of the key issues in a logical and sensitive manner -- and identified some of the reasons why scientists are less clever than they might be in communicating facts and conclusions which are of vital significance for the future of this planet. However, I have to say that I found the last part of the programme -- relating to GM crops and foods -- condescending, complacent and even naive; and with all due respect I must take issue with some of the things which you presented as if they were self-evident.

1. I was deeply disappointed by your choice of visual material for the GM coverage. Prof Jonathan Jones can always be counted upon to give a gung-ho and biased resume of the GM state of play, and at the very least you should have questioned some of his pronouncements and assumptions. (He is heavily involved with GM multinationals as well as having a strong financial interest in the promotion of GM technology. He is not, in spite of the image he may project, a "pure academic.") And then your choice of a "crop trashing" episode as a means of portraying GM opponents as lawless, emotional activists with no respect for science did neither you nor the producers any credit. You know as well as I do that there are just as many "aggressive activists" (like Jonathan Jones and Vivian Moses) working within the GM industry and in academia as there are outside it -- and I was disappointed in the extreme that you chose to promote the cheap stereotyping of those who have serious concerns about the GM enterprise.

2. You gave a strong impression, through your choice of words in the programme, that there is something that might be referred to as "the science of GM" (developed over the years by scientific consensus) and that there are those who choose, for whatever reason, not to believe it. On the one hand, the noble scientific enterprise, and on the other the powers of ignorance and darkness. That of course is a travesty. The only thing we can be certain of in the GM debate is that there is scientific uncertainty, and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous and dishonest. You must know, if you have made any attempt to keep up with the literature on GM health and safety issues (for example), that there are many peer-reviewed articles that suggest that GM crops and foods are harmless, and many peer-reviewed articles that suggest otherwise. The jury is still out, but the number of published articles showing that GM food causes actual bodily harm to the animals used in GM feeding trials is rising at a spectacular rate -- and scientists such as you cannot go on pretending that these papers do not exist or wishing that they would go away.

3. I am intrigued by your apparent belief that scientists are always truthful and honest, and that they are all signed up to an unbreakable code of ethics. If only that were true. In the GM field, as in the field of pharmaceuticals, research is driven above all else by the profit motive, and corporate funding has largely taken the place of public funding both in the prioritization of research and in the conduct of experiments. In our researches over the past decade, we in GM-Free Cymru have homed in on case after case of poor science, selective or biased science, and fraudulent science. We have exposed many examples of "nutritional equivalence" feeding trials dressed up as "safety trials" and of scientific conclusions which are at variance with data sets. Further, we have shown that in the great majority of cases scientists themselves have allowed their work to be distorted and misrepresented, on the basis that the paymaster (be it Monsanto, Syngenta or any other applicant for a GM consent) calls the tune, and that whistleblowers are not tolerated. The conspiracy of connivance and silence that we have uncovered is truly appalling -- and something of which the scientific community should be truly ashamed.

4. In parallel with the decline of scientific standards, there is a most regrettable slippage in standards of behaviour among senior scientists who find that their research is carefully scrutinized and criticised by others. For more than a decade now, scientists working in the GM field have mounted vicious personal attacks (sometimes politically rather than scientifically motivated) upon serious scientists who have had the temerity to discover "uncomfortable things about GM crops and foods. This trend started with the vitriolic treatment meted out (with the Royal Society in the vanguard) on Arpad Pusztai and Stanley Ewen a decade ago, and continued with the crucifixion of Ignacio Chapela and David Quist, Angelika Hilbeck, Mae- wan Ho, Judy Carman, Gilles-Eric Seralini, Andres Carrasco, Manuela Malatesta, Christian Velot, Irina Ermakova and many others. There has been a real and even accelerating conspiracy to silence "dissident voices" in the GM research field. Working scientists including Vivian Moses, Bruce Chassy, Adrian Dubock, Val Giddings, Alan McHughen, Henry Miller, and David Tribe have been prominent in these attacks, and even the supposedly respectable journal "Nature Biotechnology" was involved in the infamous "dummy proof set-up" of Irina Ermakova (for which it had to apologise when GM-Free Cymru blew the story wide open). What has the Royal Society done in order to uphold standards of scientific integrity during each of these miserable episodes? Nothing at all, apart from pontificating on scientific ethics and bemoaning the existence of scientific mavericks. More to the point, the Society was itself culpable, in the Pusztai affair, in initiating a literature review by Derek Burke and Mike Gasson and then dressing it up as a piece of primary research. That, if I may say so, was quite unforgivable.

5. You apparently fail to realize that GM research is very different from publicly-funded climate research in that it is driven, either directly or indirectly, by corporate funding, with Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer to the fore. The involvement of these companies, and others, is sometimes acknowledged and sometimes not in academic papers, and there have been many occasions on which so-called public laboratories and research institutes have produced work without mention of how their priorities are set and where their funds and salaries have come from. That situation is an inherently dangerous one, when it comes to scientific integrity. You may not be aware that the great bulk of research work on the matter of GM safety is conducted in conjunction with applications to the regulators (like ACNFP in the UK and EFSA in Europe) for growing or marketing consents or approvals. The bulk of the data relating to these studies is contained within "supporting dossiers" which are NOT made available for independent peer review or scrutiny. Over and again, organizations such as ours have had to resort to Freedom of Information requests or even to the courts to obtain sight of these dossiers, which come to us with large sections blacked out. Yet these dossiers are ALWAYS accepted as honest and truthful by the regulators prior to issuing their recommendations to the EC for approvals. When data sets and dossiers are examined, we have almost always found serious shortcomings and scientific fraud. When Professor Gilles-Eric Seralini pointed this out in a series of peer-reviewed papers, he was subjected to a series of vicious attacks by spokesmen from the GM industry, as a result of which he brought (and won) a case of defamation against his opponents in the French courts.

6. This is serious enough, but you should be aware that almost all of this "dossier research" is non-replicable. The material is owned and protected by Monsanto or one of the other major GM plant breeders, and they choose to protect their patents so obsessively that they will not allow independent researchers any access to their GM seeds, reference materials or plant products. They will only allow access to these materials to "friendly" laboratories and approved researchers undertaking sanctioned pieces of research. Researchers are forced into contracts that are very tight, and the patent owner almost always reserves the right to review research results and to give or withhold consent for publication. We have come across cases where research teams have done the research, and then Monsanto has moved in to undertake statistical analysis and to write the conclusions. In this way they ensure that nothing uncomfortable ever appears in print. If you are not worried by "research blocking" if this type, you should be -- and I was taught as a young man that NO research experiment should ever be trusted if it was non-replicable. Yet the whole edifice of "GM safety" is based upon research which cannot, and will not, ever be repeated. That is a scientific scandal -- to which the Royal Society has simply turned a blind eye.

7. You will be aware that there has never been a single piece of epidemiological research to back up the claims that GM foods are entirely safe to eat. Since the earliest days of the GM enterprise, the industry has set itself against such research, and governments, regulators and august bodies like the Royal Society have connived in this cunning little plan, allowing GM advocates like Julian Little to trot out this sort of nonsense: "two trillion meals containing GM ingredients have been consumed with no adverse health effects.” As we all know, there are abundant animal feeding studies that show that GM components in the diet lead to physiological changes and cell damage. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine drew attention to studies that indicate "serious health risks associated with GM food consumption including infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signalling, and protein formation, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal system”. They concluded that: “There is more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects. There is causation …........” It's worth pointing out that these studies have almost all been short- term (90 days or less) studies, and that the demands by Prof Gilles- Eric Seralini and others for lifetime and multi-generational feeding studies have fallen on deaf ears. Why? Because the GM corporations, regulators and even national governments are scared to death of what those studies will show up.

8. The GM regulatory system in both the UK and Europe is also corrupt. There is an incestuous relationship between the GM research sector, the GM industry and the advisory committees and regulators. Revolving doors are constantly on the move, and the same names pop up over and again on the key committees. We have complained over and again on the basis that GM applications are not scrutinized properly in the UK, and about the manner in which DEFRA and FSA orchestrate the activities -- and the decisions -- of committees like ACRE and ACNFP. Nowadays they tend simply to defer to EFSA, whose GMO Panel exists for the convenience of the GM industry and for the facilitation of GM approvals, rather than for the protection of the European public. As you will know, EFSA has been heavily attacked over the past few years by the European Parliament, national governments and NGOs, and even by the Commission for its incompetence and willingness to believe almost everything that the GM industry tells it. Currently it is coming in for severe criticism for its secrecy, its lack of transparency, and its agenda (under the guidance of Dr Harry Kuiper) of loosening up the regulatory system so as to permit fast-track and frequent GM approvals.

I could go on, but that would be too depressing. If you think that the members of the general public (including your friend who objects to the idea of eating food with genes in it) are simply ignorant, and need educating as to the merits of GM crops and foods, I fear that you are very wide of the mark. People are a great deal more sophisticated than you think. They DO have a gut feeling that it is somehow wrong to insert genes into plants that have come from unrelated species, and YES, the Frankenfood campaign has been effective in keeping that distaste and mistrust alive. But they are also fed up with endless promises from the GM industry (over two decades) that have not been delivered on. They are appalled by an industry that operates in such a slapdash manner that one GM contamination scandal after another has been allowed to occur. They dislike the idea of corporate control of the food supply. They have picked up on media coverage of the terrible social and health effects of large-scale GM monocultures in Argentina, Paraguay and India. They are aware that there is still not a single GM product in the marketplace that is cheaper, tastes better, is more nutritious, looks better, and delivers any benefit at all, over and above the GM-free diet that they are used to. The UK government has admitted that there are currently no GM products designed to bring benefits to the consumer -- why therefore should anybody want them, or even be prepared to tolerate them, given all the attendant risks? And people have seen the treatment meted out to "GM martyrs" like Arpad Pusztai, Ignacio Chapela and Percy Schmeiser by the GM rottweilers -- and even by academics who should know better -- and they have been appalled.

Sadly, attempts by the GM science community to improve its communications skills and to "educate" the Great British Public in a more sophisticated way are doomed to failure. That community has to win the trust of the public, and in order to do that it has to examine its own belief systems and working practices, and reform itself from the inside. The Royal Society could play a key role in this process. Has it got the guts to do it? Having asked a number of past Presidents exactly the same question, without getting a single reply from any of them, I have my doubts.

I end with a quote from Lord Robert Winston: "Scientists must listen to public fears, and respond to the concerns of ordinary people. We must behave responsibly, ensuring our work has the highest ethical standards."

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Brian John GM-Free Cymru