Claire Robinson uncovers some uncomfortable truths about the machinations of the pro-GM establishment in Britain
In a recent debate on genetically modified (GM) foods at the House of Commons, Dr. Ian Gibson, who chairs the all-party Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee, dismissed concerns over GM food safety.
As a scientist, he said, he could wipe the floor with his opponents. Gibson, MP for Norwich North, said: "The epidemiology studies carried out in every major centre, including in the universities in the States and elsewhere, into the effects of [GM] food ... have shown no effects whatever that correlate with the food - although I understand how difficult that is to prove."
Unfortunately for Gibson, one of the few scientists to have done GM food safety tests, Dr. Arpad Pusztai, responded to his comments in an open letter. Pusztai pointed out that "there have been no epidemiology studies, and certainly none published. This is obvious from the fact that, apart from this generalisation, you could not refer to a single such study. It is not surprising because in the absence of labelling of GM food in the USA such studies could not be carried out! However, it is known from official statistics that in less than ten years food-related illnesses have practically doubled in the USA since the introduction of GM food into the American diet." He went on to add that while the reason for this is unknown, it is blatant bluster to declare that everything is well in the USA and that none of these ill effects correlate with food, including GM food.
Gibson went on to claim that "the evidence is piling up to say that the [GM] food is, indeed safe." But when Pusztai asked Gibson to elaborate on this evidence, Gibson's reply was less confident. He gave just three examples to support his case, including a Monsanto study. Pusztai commented, "I expect what constitutes a pile is a matter of definition. One can reverse this argument by saying that the evidence is in fact piling up to show the health problems of GM foods reported in the published science literature However, these you and other pro-GM supporters conveniently ignore."
Indeed, Gibson has ignored other recent evidence that further casts doubt on the safety of GM foods. These were raised at an Independent Science Panel (ISP) briefing in Parliament organised by I-SIS and Gibson's fellow MP, Alan Simpson. The evidence includes reported illnesses in villagers living near Bt maize fields in the Philippines, recent disclosure in Le Monde of kidney abnormalities and changes in blood sugar and blood cell numbers in rats fed Bt maize resistant to corn rootworm, published scientific papers documenting problems with Bt toxins and transgenic instability in commercial GM lines. Gibson had pointedly declined the invitation to attend the briefing.
The evidence should, at the very least, set alarm bells ringing and prompt scientists and policy makers to take appropriate action. Surely this should mean not approving GM foods unless they can be unequivocally proven safe; and at the same time, conducting serious, independent research into GM food safety. In ignoring all of the evidence, Gibson is adopting an extreme anti-precautionary approach, one that is totally unacceptable and irresponsible, considering that it is human health that is at stake.
In contrast, former environment minister Michael Meacher had, at the briefing, demanded a new, full-scale expert GM enquiry in the UK, in light of the lack of good research into the long-term effects of GM foods on human health and the rubbishing and lack of follow-up on research that turns up evidence of potentially adverse impacts (see "Meacher calls for enquiry into GM safety", SiS 22).
What forces could bring Gibson, a former Dean of Biology at the University of East Anglia, who is proud of his independent-mindedness, to join the chorus of spin with which GM technology is promoted? After all, this is the same man who, just a few years ago, warned against the inclusion of GM ingredients in school meals: "There is an awful lot unknown about hazards of new [GM food] crops and until it is fully tested we should not be subjecting people to risks, least of all young children."
A clue to the source of Gibson's apparent conversion lies in the introduction to his speech to the House of Commons: "The point has often been made here that genetically modified crops are being grown extensively in north and south America and in China, although not in Europe. They have in a sense become part of the normal diet in those places, if not in Europe, where there is still contention, despite the fact that 300 million US citizens continue to eat GM soya without any ill effects in a very litigious society, and many Europeans, including people here, have eaten it while in the US, with no adverse consequences."
Compare Gibson's words to the following introduction to an article: "Genetically modified (GM) crops are now being grown extensively in North and South America and China, although not in Europe. Food produced from these crops has become a part of the normal diet in North and South America and in China, but not in Europe, where contention continues despite the fact that millions of US citizens eat GM soya without any ill effects in a very litigious society, and many Europeans have eaten GM soya while in the US without any adverse consequences."
Gibson's introduction is copied almost word for word from this article, which, it turns out, was published in May as an EMBO Report - intended to provide short papers on molecular biology - by Nature Publishing. It was written by Derek Burke, a former Vice Chancellor of the University of East Anglia - where Gibson also worked. Burke is known among campaigners as the 'GM godfather' for his aggressive protection of biotech interests and his alleged tendency to influence so-called "independent" reports and government policy.
Analysis by campaign group GM WATCH of Gibson's speech revealed that whole sections were lifted from Burke's article (see http://www.gmwatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=3822). It became clear from this comparison that the politician who boasted he had the scientific knowledge to wipe the floor with his adversaries is in reality nothing but a parrot.
For the record, I-SIS has invited the Royal Society to debate the scientific evidence in public more than once; but it has never accepted the invitation. The ISP is now happy to extend the same open invitation to Ian Gibson.
Gibson also, at the behest of the pro-GM lobby group Sense About Science, asked Tony Blair in the House of Commons to respond to Derek Burke's letter calling for more government support for GM. It subsequently emerged that this letter, too, was the work of the industry-funded group (see box).
Prof. Derek Burke was chair of the UK regulatory committee on GM foods (Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes - ACNFP) for almost a decade (1988-97), during which time the first GM foods were approved for the UK. In the 1980s he worked for a biotech company (Allelix Inc of Toronto) and until 1998 was a director of Genome Research Ltd.
During much of his time at ACNFP, Burke was also Vice Chancellor of the University of East Anglia (1987-1995) and a member of the governing council of the John Innes Centre (JIC). Both institutions have benefited from investment in GM research, with the JIC subsequently enjoying multi-million pound investments from biotechnology corporations like Syngenta and Dupont. Burke participated in the UK government's "Technology Foresight" exercise to decide how science could best contribute to the UK's economic competitiveness. He was then charged with incorporating the Foresight proposal to build businesses from genetics into the corporate plan of the UK's public funding body, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). As a result, BBSRC developed a strategy for integrating scientific opportunity with the needs of industry, which left it heavily aligned with industry.
Burke was a member of the Royal Society working group on GM foods whose report, "Genetically Modified Plants for Food Use", is said to have reassured ministers on the GM issue. He was also a member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics group that produced the report "Genetically modified crops: the social and ethical issues". This pro-GM report emphasising the "moral imperative" to push GM crops into the Third World was described by Guardian columnist George Monbiot as "perhaps the most asinine report on biotechnology ever written. The stain it leaves on the Nuffield Council's excellent reputation will last for years." Burke was also a member of a small Nuffield working group who produced a follow-up report along the same lines in 2003.
Burke has been revealed as having a hand in initiatives coordinated by the prominent industry-backed lobby group Sense About Science. In October 2003 he sent a letter together with 113 other scientists to Tony Blair complaining about the government's failure to intervene in the GM Public Debate in the UK. The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) initially reported the letter as "written and coordinated by Professor Derek Burke". But a THES article of 7 November said, "The letter was coordinated by Sense About Science", while a THES Leader on the same topic did not even mention Burke, referring instead to, "The new organisation behind the letter, Sense About Science". Burke is on the Advisory Council of Sense About Science.
So Gibson plagiarised Burke and made false statements about the state of GM science. Does it matter? Just why it does can be seen from what emerged following Gibson's exposure as "a parrot".
Gibson's local newspaper picked up the story and wrung an important admission out of him about his speech's similarity to the words of his former employer, Derek Burke: "When pressed Dr. Gibson admitted: 'We are working together to try and erode the anti-GM debate.'"
The whole point of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, which Gibson chairs, is to provide parliamentary scrutiny of science issues independent not only of government but of the vested interests that can impact on government policies and public bodies. When the UK Science Minister is a known enthusiast for GM crops and biotech entrepreneur, independent scrutiny is vital
The Select Committee has issued reports critical of Arpad Pusztai and, more recently, supportive of the BBSRC - the public body that Derek Burke did so much to align with industry. Indeed, the only serious criticism the Gibson-led Committee made of this corporate-friendly body was that it was not pro-active enough in promoting communication with the public on issues like GM crops where public trust needed to be achieved.
At a time when the biotech industry is retreating from the UK in despair at the GM-sceptical climate, Gibson appears to be stepping up his activities on its behalf. In collaboration with the industry-friendly lobby group The Scientific Alliance, he arranged a lobby assault on Parliament called "GM Question Time" on 13 July. The panel was uncompromisingly pro-GM (see a full rundown, with industry affiliations, at http://www.gmwatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid =4004). Naturally, the speakers' links with industry and its associated lobby groups are undisclosed in the press releases announcing the event.
Article first published 16/07/04
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