Naive, narrow and biased...
Carlo Leifert explains why he resigned from the government's GM science
Thursday July 24, 2003
When I joined the GM science review panel, I thought that we would be
doing a detailed risk assessment. We would work out where there might be
problems with GM, what the nature of the problems might be and what
research had to be done to prove whether or not they were significant.
From the very start, we should have looked at whether something could go
wrong with the technology itself. If you add an alien gene to a plant,
how do you know what side effects you will get? We know that if we add
genes to bacteria, it can change things unintentionally, and studies
show this can happen in plants as well. How good are our methods to
detect these unintentional changes?
But it soon became clear we wouldn't be doing a detailed risk
assessment. Part of the problem came down to how scientific results are
reported. If anyone had found that the GM process caused unwanted side
effects in plants, it probably wouldn't make it into the scientific
journals. Side effects would be viewed as negative results and
scientists tend not to publish those. They often only get mentioned in
PhD theses and reports to sponsors, because in those you have to explain
why you've taken so long to do something. I made the point that to do a
proper risk assessment, we needed to try and obtain that original data
to get an idea of how often such side effects happen. This request was
ignored. The panel felt we should focus mainly on peer-reviewed work and
that going into that much detail would take too long. I completely
disagreed with this approach.
It quickly became apparent that the panel wasn't balanced enough to
produce an objective report. Most of the biologists who really
understood the technical details of some of the arguments were strongly
pro-GM. I felt that there should have been more specialists on board who
weren't so indiscriminantly positive about the technology. There should
have been more of an attempt to recruit scientists with good molecular
biology knowledge and a more critical approach to the technology.
For me, the last straw came when someone from the biotech industry was
asked to write the chapter on food safety. It seemed incredibly naive to
me to have someone whose interest is in selling GM to do the risk
assessment chapter. They were already convinced of its safety. I tried
to resign quietly, because I was warned that it was not a good idea
criticising your peers on scientific panels. But once everyone knew I
had resigned and I was asked about my reasons, I felt that I had to
explain why. Especially because what we have now from the panel is a
report that is essentially pro-GM. It means the government decision
makers may have to react to this scientific advice by allowing imports
of GM crops and the growing of GM crops in the UK.
In my opinion, this report is not carefully enough researched to give
the green light to GM and doesn't identify the uncertainties well
The report mentions that Americans have eaten GM food for about seven
years now and they haven't suffered. But nobody has actually
investigated the effect of GM consumption on public health in the US.
The argument doesn't make sense, and to have it coming from a scientific
panel is really quite sad.
I don't believe the government has tried to force the science review in
any particular direction to push an agenda. My feeling is they are
concerned that GM technology could be risky to human health and the
environment. I feel that the bias came from the strong lobby of pro-GM
scientists and biotechnology representatives on the panel. They seem to
be much more prepared to take little or no evidence as meaning no
problem. I felt we should be more careful than that and say, let's get
more information and then judge it.
There are already signs that Europe is being more cautious about GM
technologies. The European Union is now seeking to fund research into
ways of improving our ability to check GM plants for unwanted side
effects. They have also put out a tender for testing the difficulties of
co-existence between GM crops and non-GM crops). We should wait until we
have better techniques and more information on the questions that are
still open. As soon as improved methods for safety assessments are
available we should insist they become part of the routine risk
assessments of the GM companies.
One of the conclusions of the report is that we have to look at GM crops
on a case-by-case basis. I wouldn't agree with that. Right now we still
have to check that there isn't some inherent problem with the
Professor Carlo Leifert, an expert in organic farming at the University
of Newcastle, resigned from the government's GM science panel last week.
The panel's final report was published on Monday.
Interview by Ian Sample.
News Update From The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods, 7/31/03
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