GM Free Cymru

Hilbeck on the corruption of GM science

This is an interesting interview with Swiss scientist Angelika Hilbeck on the manner in which GM science has been corrupted over the years to the point where it can no longer be trusted to be of any use whatsoever to the regulators who are supposed to look after the health of the public. Indeed, she makes it clear -- from personal experience --that the regulators like EFSA are so caught up in the web of lies and deceptions that they have in effect become part of the "GM establishment" -- setting rules that suit the applicants for GM consents very nicely indeed, turning a blind eye to anything inconvenient, and joining in with the carefully orchestrated campaigns of vilification directed towards Seralini and any other scientists who have the temerity to discover that GM products are actually harmful.

Crucial GM research: "This is about large sums of money"

Denise Battaglia Tages Woche (Switzerland), 2 Nov 2012

Rough English translation by GMWatch

*Plant ecologist Angelika Hilbeck of the ETH Zurich [the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology] on the defamation campaigns against researchers who are critical of genetic engineering

A study by French molecular biologist Gilles-Eric Séralini has made headlines. Séralini found that rats that had been fed for two years with a herbicide-resistant GM maize from Monsanto developed tumors more frequently and died earlier than the rats in the control group.

The study was defamed as untrustworthy. But campaigns against scientists that indicate risks from GM crops are normal, says the plant ecologist Angelika Hilbeck. She's already experienced this herself.

[Reporter] Ms. Hilbeck, according to the final report of the [Swiss] National Research Programme NRP 59, the cultivation of GM crops carries no risks.

[Hilbeck] We cannot say for sure. Nor can we say that GM crops are in every case risky for humans and the environment. There is currently insufficient scientific evidence for either statement. The general statement of the NFP report is unscientific. This research program produced results which could lead to a different interpretation. It all depends on who interprets the results. The report that led to this conclusion was written by two researchers who were self-professed GM enthusiasts.

[Reporter] Now Prof Seralini has caused a stir. He found that rats fed GM corn died earlier.

[Hilbeck] Yes, I am very shocked by these results.

[Reporter] You take the study seriously?

[Hilbeck] Of course I take it seriously.

[Reporter] On the day of publication other scientists accused the study of having methodological flaws.

[Hilbeck] Such attacks on scientists who highlight risks of GM plants are normal. It's always the same industry-linked GM proponents who immediately try to defame the critical studies and their authors in a concerted campaign. This is about money. Now they're pointing the large caliber weapons at Séralini, because his feeding study focused on the health of animals, which in turn serve as a model for humans.

[Reporter] It was said that Séralini chose a cancer-prone rat strain.

[Hilbeck] This is an absurd argument. Séralini chose the same strain of rat as Monsanto. Do we really think that a substance should be tested on an animal that is not sensitive to it? With these defamations they wanted to distract us from the fact that Séralini used the same methodology as Monsanto. Because if you take Séralini seriously as a researcher, you have to take seriously his study and the comparison with Monsanto's study. That would put into question Monsanto's study and hence the approval of GM maize.

[Reporter] How serious is Séralini's study?

[Hilbeck] The study does not stand as a final judgement on the dangers of the GM crop itself or on the herbicide with which it is sprayed. One study alone cannot say whether the corn or the spray is carcinogenic. But the results are alarming. More independent investigations are desperately needed. Séralini has shown the importance of long-term studies. The studies of industry on which regulatory authorisations are based take a maximum of 90 days. For a serious assessment that is simply not enough. Incidentally, the producer, Monsanto, in its 90-day study had already identified organ damage in rodents. Only these effects were dismissed as "biologically irrelevant".

[Reporter] Why have long-term studies not have been done?

[Hilbeck] When you discuss risk, you have to define the frame of reference, to determine what will be included as a risk in this context. The notion of risk is now very narrow. Many possible negative effects are excluded from the risk assessment.

[Reporter] For example?

[Hilbeck] Take the GM maize that Séralini tested in his study. The maize has been genetically modified so that it is resistant to Roundup herbicide. But only the new protein is examined, which is encoded by the integrated gene. If the protein - tested in isolation - shows no toxic effects, the GM plant is considered risk-free. They do not investigate the biosafety of the whole plant, in which the gene has been incorporated, including the interactions with the herbicide. Also not investigated are effects of the herbicide on humans, animals and the environment. They do not examine the effects of GM maize on animals that eat it, etc. These risks are externalized.

[Reporter] Onto society?

[Hilbeck] Exactly. If one excludes these effects from the risk analysis, then no long-term studies are needed for the approval of GM crops. The burden of proof is reversed: it is not the GM company that must make a comprehensive risk analysis of its product. It is left to the few independent researchers at universities to prove that there are risks and that industry's tests are too short. That's not the task of a public research institution!

[Reporter] Is there any independent research?

[Hilbeck] No, this is almost impossible. The industry keeps control of the research material. It selects the researchers that are allowed to investigate it. Independent research is only possible with seed that is already on the market. In the period in which critical risk data is necessary in order to make a serious decision whether to authorise the GM plant, the industry determines who can do research with the seed. Researchers can publish the data only if industry agrees.

[Reporter] As with your research about the impact of GM maize from Ciba, now Syngenta, on lacewings and ladybirds.

[Hilbeck] Yes, we needed the approval of Ciba to publish our results. As our studies showed that the Bt corn not only damages the target pests but also beneficial insects, Ciba refused consent for publication. When it was clear that the damage would be greater for Ciba if I were to inform the public of the publication ban, they agreed. So Ciba issued a press release on the day of publication [of our study] denigrating us with lies.

[Reporter] How do you respond to such attacks?

[Hilbeck] I try to respond with scientific arguments. Later, counter-studies against our study were published, which concluded that beneficial insects are not harmed. But then we showed again [in further published research] that these researchers chose a different method than we used. Also, we were able to reproduce our results.

[Reporter] Agriculture is facing major challenges: climate change, renewable resources, increasing population. Surely genetic engineering can solve these problems?

[Hilbeck] We are so conditioned to believe that the solutions to all problems lie in lucrative technologies that we have lost sight of the goal. The question is: What do we want from farming? It is now clear that we cannot continue with agro-industrial production, because it uses finite resources. We have reached peak oil, peak nitrogen, peak water, peak phosphorus. One can almost put a date on the end of industrial agriculture. And GM plants are made for industrial agriculture.

Someone said the question is: How do we get ecology into pure economics? But the question is: How do we get the economy into pure ecology? Because we cannot negotiate with planet Earth about how it must work. Either we come to realize that there is nothing to negotiate since we have to operate within the ecological limits and laws of the planet - or we will fail.