The UK Government's GM Science Review issued its First Report in July 2003 amid accusations of pro-GM bias. One member of the Panel resigned weeks earlier, and another complained that a senior scientist attempted to undermine his research funding and career.
The Reports conclusions are now firmly rejected by an international group of prominent scientists, the Independent Science Panel (ISP) on GM (see Note). The ISP contests the conclusion that there is "no evidence" GM crops pose a threat to health and the environment, and the recommendation to effectively commercialise GM crops on a "case by case" basis.
The ISP accuses the GM Science Review of sidestepping the major scientific criticisms in its attempt to ultimately mislead and cajole the public into accepting the commercial growing of GM crops.
The "case by case" approach already assumes that GM technology itself is safe. But many within the ISP disagree.
"Evidence that GM technology is inherently unsafe remains unanswered," says Mae-Wan Ho, director of the Institute of Science in Society who initiated the move to form the ISP. She points to the unreliable, unpredictable nature of GM technology, the instability of transgenic inserts, and horizontal transfer of transgenic DNA. "Incriminating evidence has simply been dismissed. And key experiments failed to be followed up."
Ho re-iterates a list of five key experiments yet to be performed that would address the major areas of uncertainty with regard to the safety of GM crops for health and the environment.
The ISPs response, to which seven individual members contributed, criticizes the Report more than once for "equivocation", "misrepresentation", "bland and false reassurances", "glaring inconsistencies", "half-truths not supported by evidence" and "worse".
Vyvyan Howard, toxico-pathologist from Liverpool University says, "There is precious little science there to be read."
"The strategy was clear; quite a lot of comments and papers by GM-sceptics or anti-GM people are referred to in the reference list," says Arpad Pusztai, only to be dismissed or ignored. The paper by Ewen and Pusztai, published in the Lancet, was not among the papers cited, however. The Report is "full of assertions unsupported by experimental evidence."
Eva Novotny and David Quist point out that the Report is "unrealistically optimistic about the potential to mitigate undesirable gene flow in agricultural systems." This charge has now been confirmed by research funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), which shows that pollen from GM oilseed rape can travel much further than previously documented and if not controlled can contaminate non-GM crops for generations.
David Quist also rebutted criticisms levied against the paper of Quist and Chapela (Nature 414, 541-3, 2001). The GM Science Review Report does not challenge the finding that transgenes had indeed contaminated local varieties. The point disputed was whether the transgenic insert had fragmented in the genome of the landraces. The paper was criticized for the methodology used in coming to such a conclusion.
But, the methodology was "never demonstrated as flawed, "says David Quist, "there was simply a disagreement in appropriate experimental design and valuation of the data presented. "From an ecological perspective, the findings of that paper are of acute interest for "understanding how transgenes behave in natural systems. "
Furthermore, the paper was not retracted by Nature, and "continues to be a valuable contribution within the citable scientific literature on transgenic gene flow." Quist insists.
The most serious shortcoming of the GM Science Review First Report is that it entirely ignores the substantial body of evidence on the proven successes and benefits of organic farming, agroecology and other forms of sustainable agriculture.
"Not even to consider these, while dealing at length with the projected potential benefits of GM is to restrict the scope of the debate from the very outset." Peter Saunders says.
Note: The Independent Science Panel (ISP) on GM was launched at a conference in London attended by ex-environment minister Michael Meacher and 200 other participants. It consists of two dozen scientists from seven countries spanning the relevant disciplines of agroecology, agronomy, biomathematic, biophyscis, botany, chemical medicine, ecology, histopathology, microbial ecology, molecular genetics, nutritional biochemistry, physiology, toxicology, virology and more. Their Report, The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World, is posted on the ISP website www.indsp.org and is available in hard copy from the I-SIS' online book store. The full response of the ISP is also available on the ISP website.
Article first published 20/10/03
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