UK Environment Minister Michael Meacher addressed an historic gathering at which dozens of prominent scientists launched themselves as an Independent Science Panel (ISP) to counteract what they see to be a concerted campaign by the government and the scientific establishment to promote genetic modification (GM) under the guise of 'sound' science.
"This amounts to open scientific rebellion, possibly unprecedented in history," said Mae-Wan Ho, Director of the Institute of Science in Society, who initiated the move, and confessed to having been taken by surprise, and delighted, by the positive response of the scientists contacted.
Many scientists are frustrated at the lack of open public debate on a whole range of scientific and other issues. The discussion meetings organised by the government are invariably stacked with pro-GM scientists hyping the potential benefits of GM, and giving the public bland assurances that "there is no evidence of harm".
But the move to set up an Independent Science Panel (ISP) was precipitated by the interview with Meacher, published in the March issue of The Ecologist, in which Meacher suggested that GM technology is not necessary to solve world hunger and could prove dangerous over the longer term, something that the scientists have been saying for years.
The twenty-five strong ISP on GM was officially launched 10 May in Kings College, London University, at a special public conference, GM Crops: Do We Need Them? Are they Safe? The launch coincided with the release of their much awaited draft report, The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World , published on the ISIS website (www.i-sis.org.uk), which calls for banning GM crops to make way for all forms of sustainable agriculture.
Imagine their collective delight, when within days of the conference, Meachers office rang up to say that he would be attending the conference.
Meacher arrived punctually at 1:25pm on the day, full of smiles as usual; and was met at the door by an ad hoc welcoming committee of several ISP members.
Peter Saunders, Prof. of Applied Mathematics, Kings College, who chaired the conference, welcomed Meacher with the words: "One good thing the present Labour government has done was to appoint an environment minister who took the job seriously; and when they discovered that he actually took the job seriously, left him in the post."
Meacher addressed the conference, and made clear that the GM Science Review will not be making their final report until after the public debate, and welcomed the ISPs input into the national GM debate. He hoped his presence at the launch would demonstrate that the government was keen to hear as many viewpoints as possible to inform policy-making, and stressed, "contributions from scientists of all shades of opinion are being included, in what is intended to be a fully participative process". He said, "I do believe that this launch today is an important development, and I look forward to its contribution to what needs to be a balanced, rigorous, thoughtful and comprehensive scientific debate "
Meacher stayed for the next hour to hear the first two talks, by David Bellamy and Arpad Pusztai. As he left, Meacher said privately he was "very pleased" to have met and heard Pusztai, apparently, for the very first time. History is being made indeed, in more ways than one.
"Miraculous", "Event of the year", "Brilliant" and "Wonderful" were some of the praises heaped upon the launching conference of the ISP by the 200 enthusiastic participants.
"All too often, debates on GM begin by taking it for granted that science is as industry and the other supporters of GM say it is," said Peter Saunders, as he opened the 5-hour long conference, "and that no one except anti-science Luddites are opposed to GM".
Not any more; the launching of the Independent Science Panel, its draft report released on the day, and the conference itself, all bear witness to the fact that it is the science of GM thats most debatable, and thats why the ISP is needed.
When independent scientists in molecular genetics and other relevant disciplines come out with evidence of GM hazards, that for far too long have simply been ignored and dismissed, the pro-GM establishment can no longer get away with sweeping assurances: "Trust me, Im an expert."
The conference was not due to start until 1:30pm, but people started arriving at noon, and by the time Meacher came, there must have been at least 200 in the lecture theatre.
David Bellamy, Britains best-loved botanist, broadcaster, and campaigner for Mother Earth, gave the first lecture, which, uncharacteristically, he read out from a prepared text, showing just how seriously he took the event. Bellamy decried the folly of the human race that put us at odds with Nature, and lamented the trappings of modern universities, with knowledge commodified and subject to market forces. He called for a return to the original meanings of education and philosophy, which are essentially teaching about life in a holistic manner. "We are doing that today; we are discussing no small matter, of how we ought to live," he said. He noted that the issues (including GM) are complex, and "thats why we need this panel of independent scientists".
Arpad Pusztai, formerly of the Rowett Institute, Scotland, and then Stanley Ewen, consultant histopathologist, Grampian University Hospitals Trust, followed with the clearest most damning evidence that GM food is by no means safe, in the still only systematic investigation ever carried out in the world. Pusztai, Susan Bardocz and Ewen had just published their most up-to-date and comprehensive paper in a book on food safety. The growth factor effects found in young rats fed GM potatoes may be early warnings of a progression to cancer, according to Ewen. There were also non-specific signs of viral infections. Michael Meacher was clearly impressed as he left after Pusztais talk.
Malcolm Hooper gave a galloping review on the hazards of the broad-spectrum herbicides, glufosinate ammonium and glyphosate, that together, are used with more than 75% of all GM crops grown today. These broad-spectrum herbicides not only kill plants indiscriminately, they are also harmful to practically all species of animal wildlife and to human beings. Both of them are systemic metabolic poisons that affect many vital functions.
Gundula Azeez, Policy Manager of the Soil Association, made clear that GM crops cannot co-exist with non-GM crops without risking large-scale contamination with all the attendant problems, especially for organic farmers.
Vyvyan Howard, toxico-pathologist, University of Liverpool, exposed the fact-free anti-precautionary risk assessment that industry and regulators routinely use, thats based on little or no relevant data, but often on models that have no contact with reality. He gave examples of early warnings being ignored and the late responses of regulators (e.g. in the case of radiation, asbestos and greenhouse gases). Given the potential serious impacts of GM technology and the long time lags involved, caution is warranted, as this is "self-replicating pollution".
Brian John, geomorphologist, environmental scientist and member of the coordinating group for GM Free Cymru, gave an eloquent and rousing speech attacking the corruption of science by commercial imperatives, which makes this science no longer fit for public consumption. He spoke for the sentiment of the ISP as well as for the audience. There was a standing ovation for Brian John.
Mae-Wan Ho gave the final talk, and displayed her penchant for play and the unexpected by images of "A time and a place for gene transfer", which makes the point that genetic engineering is breaking all the rules of evolution by increasing the scope and the tendency for horizontal gene transfer and recombination, precisely the processes that generate new disease agents that cause major epidemics and trigger cancer.
And as the conference was in progress, so was an "indefinite hunger strike", which begun 22 April in the Philippines, led by a member of the ISP, Roberto Verzola, Secretary-General of the Philippine Greens, in protest of his governments approval of Bt maize. "We will continue the hunger strike for as long as necessary to convince the government to hold in abeyance the commercial sale of Bt corn in the Philippines." Verzola said. An electronic copy of the draft ISP report was dispatched to the hunger strikers, to present to the Philippine President, together with a letter of support from the ISP.
The audience was so inspired that the hall was still buzzing after the conference ended. "Miraculous", "event of the year", "brilliant" and "wonderful" were just some of the praises showered on the proceedings.
Details of the proceedings will be available at a later stage. Meanwhile, see some of the pictorial highlights at the back cover of this issue.
A GM-Free London?
Noel Lynch, a Green Party member of the London Assembly, brought some good news to the conference. He reported that the Mayor, Ken Livingstone, has included the following statement in Londons Biodiversity Strategy: "The mayor will oppose commercial or experimental release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment in London". The Greens in the Assembly are now lobbying determinedly for the Mayor to declare London a GM-free zone.
Article first published 20/05/03
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