The new Agricultural and Environment Biotechnology Commission in the UK has no intention of questioning the field trials or addressing any awkward questions over safety. It appears their job is to pacify public outrage, sweet talk organic farmers and effectively pour white wash over the whole affair. Angela Ryan reports on the Commission's first meeting with the public on December 7, 2000.
The room was packed with people all anticipating decisive action from the new Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, especially over the UK farm scale trials of genetically modified organisms. But they were disappointed, as it became clear that the new commission has no intention of questioning the field trials, nor the rigor of the scientific framework upon which they are based. Instead its policy is 'business as usual'.
The vast majority of people in Britain today do not want the trials to go ahead. Many important organisa-tions, such as the Soil Association have openly condemned them, fearful of GM contamination that even the Department of Environment Transport and the Regions (DETR) ack-nowledges as 'unavoidable'. Farmers are unwilling to participate and those who have been persuaded through financial payment now stand to lose value on their land. Supermarkets across Europe have withdrawn GM foods and the public are angry at being used as guinea pigs in a feeding experiment with no controls. The resistance to GM crops is widespread and runs deep, to the extent that many ordinarily law-abiding citizens have taken direct action and have defiantly dug up GM crops, a trend that is set to escalate this year.
The Commission is choosing to ignore all of this. Instead of facing the controversies head on, it intends only to analyze the trials, and to recommend to ministers improvements in strategic decision-making for the future. It will certainly not resolve any of the burning questions over safety.
Organic farmer Helen Browning pressed the Commission to "tackle the hot potato of segregation distances" and the problems associated with contamination of organic farms. But Dr Phil Dale of the John Innes Center, a well-known GM supporter, stated that the commission could only "gather evidence" on segregation distances and advise. The chairman, Professor Malcolm Grant, was very diplomatic and questioned whether the commission needed to "re-prioritize its work plan to tackle gene flow and cross contamination first". Dr. Matthew Freeman put forward the idea of a "crisis management strategy", after which Helen Browning pointed back to the facts: gene flow is an annual crisis, threatening the livelihood of organic farmers.
The members of the Commission skirted around the issue of contamination for some time, uttering words like "gene flow is a huge issue and not a simple one". They contemplated the notion of adding more topics to the work plan but eventually arrived back at the same position; "we're not really structured to react to things, we must take a more long-term view".
Helen Browning, by now exasperated, questioned whether they were all suffering from "too much too soon" and all that could be realistically done was to act as mediators, un-blocking channels of communication before the next growing season?
Although the government has set up this Commission to deal primarily with the farm scale trials, they are not allowed to interfere with the workings of the trials. Instead, it appears their job is to pacify public outrage, sweet talk organic farmers and effectively pour white wash over the whole affair. It later transpires that the commission has just spent £90,000 of taxpayers money with a PR agency, presumably to help it achieve those aims.
As the day wore on, the implications began to sink in. If the Commission is not going to tackle segregation distances, then where does that leave all the other important safety questions, like horizontal gene transfer and GM animal feed, for example?
During the deliberations, Deputy Chair Julie Hill proposed a 'state of the debate' paper, which was seconded by Dr. Sue Mayer of Genewatch. Barrister Justine Thornton reported that a background paper was being prepared and they are looking at liability and 'who's going to pay for the damages?'. She said "There is the possibility of a compensation fund for organic farmers, along with insurance schemes, and they are considering whether GMOs should be regulated separately."
One of the major safety concerns with GMOs is the fate of transgenic DNA released into the environment. Whilst the words 'horizontal gene transfer' are included in the work plan, they are followed by a definition which states, "by which we mean where a GM construct could be transferred to a wild relative of the licensed crop (or animal e.g. salmon)."
Not only is this inaccurate scientifically  but it suggests the Commission is adopting the same approach as the biotech industry and avoiding the issue of horizontal gene transfer altogether.
Strong objections were raised during the open session, which prompted a re-write. Justine Thornton announced they would delete the words 'horizontal gene transfer' and replace them with the words 'gene flow', which is a more generic term, covering both vertical and horizontal gene transfer. Additionally, they will specify "within species, between species and between distantly related species". However, this does not resolve the matter. 'Gene flow' is usually interpreted to mean 'cross-pollination' only, and is regularly used in this context by the biotech industry in applications for licence. The Commission should continue to use the words 'horizontal gene transfer' and simply remove the definition.
The trials are not designed to investigate horizontal gene transfer. The Royal Society, The British Medical Association and even US FDA scientists have all stated that the use of drug and antibiotic resistance genes coupled to the potential for horizontal gene transfer present unacceptable risks to human health. Despite these warnings, GM crops continue to contain such genes and those involved in the trials are no exception. In fact, several of the test crops are even worse, and contain genes and constructs intended to render harvested seeds sterile (see "Terminator Crops are here!", this issue).
To allow a major potential for harm to proceed unchecked is to exercise 'the anti-precautionary principle' . Robin Grove-White explained that although they would have liked to commission a full scientific study on horizontal gene transfer, they were unable to do so as the science behind the trials was framed by industry. In other words, their hands are effectively tied and no investigations will ensue.
Throughout the meeting, Dr Phil Dale continually asserted that they needed to question how to make the regulatory process better in terms of decision making. At one point he became rather frustrated and blurted out "we are not ARCE! We must give a little judgement and provide a scientific context. We don't want to be forced to expand the scope. We can't take on gene flow in parallel with the farm scale trials". He virtually ordered everyone to allow another year of farm trials to proceed unhindered, and to avoid all the awkward unanswered scientific questions over safety.
Dale also managed to deflect the most important point made throughout the whole day, which came from an ex-Monsanto employee. She told the meeting that "the future of biotechnology is genomics [rather than GM]. The scientists at Monsanto are all jumping up and down about genomics". She strongly advised the commission to go to industry scientists when seeking the best advice.
When the subject of genomics was broached again during the main meeting, Dr Phil Dale intervened quickly and stated "I don't see GM crops as different from conventional crops. GM is just an extension of traditional breeding programmes". He then questioned whether genomics and marker assisted breeding was still biotechnology. How was the Commission going to square what is biotechnology and what is not, in this respect? Anne Bradley clarified this point and said that GM technology is biotechnology and marker assisted breeding using genomics is biotechnology too. Dale then re-phrased the question and asked "if this be the case, then does the Commission reject conventional breeding as biotechnology?" The answer to which should have been a resounding "yes".
Unfortunately, at this point, the chair decided to close the discussion saying there was a "general pushing out of the term 'biotechnology'."
The Monsanto scientists are right, GM is an obsolete practice nowadays. It is evident that transgene silencing or instability is an insurmountable problem, as is well documented in the numerous scientific papers published on the subject during 2000, including some out of Dr Dale's own laboratory . Moreover, the health and safety risks associated with GM are great and far out weigh the benefits.
Genomics is much less risky. It is what the human species have been doing for thousands of years, only "with the lights on", to quote a Monsanto scientist (farmers weekly). By using marker-assisted breeding, genes of interest can be tracked as they are passed on in successive generations, speeding up breeding programmes considerably. New varieties can be obtained within 3- 5 years, as opposed to 10-15 years with traditional breeding practices, it is claimed.
This is, or should be, the state of the debate: there are strong indications that GMOs are dead. Genetic instability renders them too risky economically and it is time to back off and move on. Genomics is the only way forward for plant biotechnology. If the commission is to be of any value, then it must come to terms with this and stop the trials, which are a drain on public resources as well as hazardous. Among other things, it must arrange 'clean up' operations to decontaminate affected land.