Science in Society Archive

UK GMO Field Trials - A Tragi-Comedy of Errors

The 4th AEBC meeting on the UK GMO field trials exploded the ridiculous farce of the whole affair. The scientists behind the trials were ashamed as DETR and SCIMAC flung mud at each other and the environmentalists got the better of them all. Angela Ryan of I-SIS reports on this tragi- comedy of errors!

The Agriculture & Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC) gathered important evidence last month in Norwich about the UK farm scale trials (FSTs) of GM crops. Valuable insights came to light, but whether the government will take heed remains to be seen.

Four groups of witnesses were called to give evidence;

  • Les Firbank, the scientific co-ordinator of the FSTs
  • Linda Smith of Department for the Environment Transport & Regions (DETR) & Brian Johnson of English Nature
  • Doug Parr of Greenpeace and Pete Riley of Friends of the Earth
  • Steve Smith and Daniel Pearsell from SCIMAC, the biotech industry body responsible for the trials.

Two camps; Pro GM and Pro Precautionary Principle, have now formed within the commission and each sat to the left and right respectively of the chairman. Everyone present was acutely aware that it was time to get down to the ‘nitty gritty’.

Les Firbank was the first witness on the stand. He said the null-hypothesis of the FSTs is, "There are no differences between the effects of GM crops and non GM crops on biodiversity." He was immediately confronted with the fact that the trials are only looking at herbicide resistant GM crops and therefore the null-hypothesis is too broad for what the field trials were actually aiming for.

Robin Grove White, an experienced environmental scientist, took Firbank to task and asked, "at the end of the trials, how are you going to interpret the results? It is unlikely to be clear-cut. You are monitoring a selected range, over a limited period. What judgements can you make in terms of significance, and how are you going to reconcile your indicators in different directions? Using statistical analysis there will be variable soil types, variable weather conditions etc. How are you going to handle that? Ecologically, there are other random effects and what are the large-scale, long-term consequences for weed bio-mass and seed banks. What are the potential scenarios?”

Firbank was floored, and said there was "a need for transparency" and that “all processed information will be publicly available on a website”. Robin emphasized [for the record] that although the scientists conducting the FST will draw their own interpretations, the data will have to be subject to wider interpretation. Firbank agreed.

Sue Mayer flagged up the ‘bias of the trials’, pointing out that yield is not even being measured and that a sub-section of farms and farmers had been specially selected. She asked whether the trials could be easily audited for bias and whether anyone was monitoring how the farmer manages the two halves of the field; GM and non-GM? Firbank evaded this question too, and said the aim of the trials was to look solely at the most cost-effective weed management system.

The pro-GM camp, spearheaded by Phil Dale, asked "what if the FSTs find no difference between GM and non GM?". Firbank said the growing of GM crops would ultimately be a societal decision, proclaiming "these trials are the biggest studies so far conducted anywhere in the world!". But the fact that GM crops have been grown around the world without any environmental safety assessment is not a good selling point.

Organic farmer Helen Browning asked whether soil health was coming up the agenda and raised the issue of horizontal gene transfer and the fact that glyphosate kills soil microbes and fungus too. Firbank said soil research would be better done on a smaller scale. He did finally admit, "the trials are limited" and explained "we could not do it all and had to prioritize".

Firbank had to face the inescapable truth about the farm scale trials. His morale fell and Phil Dale tried to rescue him by asking "but non GM crops are just as bad for the environment, aren’t they?" Firbank replied "the evaluations are specific to GM products". He said he would welcome more research, especially research that takes into account organic farming, but the trials had to fit into a national context (except the national context is changing rapidly, with accelerated growth in the organic sector). He added, "in principle there are radical effects on biodiversity from the widespread practice of autumn sowing, now typical in all conventional regimes". He agreed "all management regimes should be biodiversity linked" and "soil studies should to be done before large scale field releases of GM crops go ahead".

Next on the witness stand was Linda Smith of DETR & Brian Johnson of English Nature.

Smith told the commission that DETR needed the evaluations and were on target. They had 60-75 independent sites offered to them by SCIMAC. She stressed that as far as the DETR is concerned, the trials are only looking at the impact of herbicide resistant GM crops on biodiversity. Effects to human health are not included. She explained SCIMAC had determined the segregation distance, not DETR. DETR had reviewed the situation and new measures would be announced later that day, which they were. She stressed "if GM crops are ever to be grown commercially, it is very important to put in place considerable regulation in order to protect the integrity of nearby crops". She brought up the new EU Directive 990/20 on deliberate releases and said that this would set out the conditions for release to the environment.

Brian Johnson agreed assessment was necessary and there is a major gap in safety assessment regarding human health. He said gene flow is not a big issue for English Nature as they don't use any herbicides. He said, "the trials are not going to tell much", especially regarding other types of GM crops, but they do fill a gap in regulation, for nothing is known about the effects of any GM crop on biodiversity. English Nature fear more intensive weed control will simply make matters worse for farmland biodiversity, which are the most at risk. The only way English Nature can see any benefit in the trials is to see them as just one part of a fuller assessment of intensive agriculture.

DETR was then questioned as to why it had ignored beekeepers and organic farmers? Smith talked about how very difficult it is to reach consensus with diverse groups. The government are "holding back on commercialization" until the trials are over. She admitted, “things should have been more properly assessed, reviewing all the issues in respect to safety". She then added, "The Chardon LL hearing has raised several safety concerns for government regarding human health".

Helen Browning asked for studies on soil health. Smith said "the issues of horizontal gene transfer and soil health are being put to ACRE, we are asking them [.....] do you understand the risks?". Smith said that soil health is under review in DETR, "considering additional research more effectively done in different ways”, adding "the issue of gene flow is not easy to resolve, it is a very difficult question".

Ironically, she went on to claim that the aim of DETR is to "do as little damage to the environment as possible and meet the biodiversity targets for Britain". And many others issues have to be resolved, especially regarding human health. There are "a large number of unknowns yet and we'll have to wait and see" she said. She admitted "the government's got into a very bad position due of bad decisions taken early in the process". Is she implying the government has been impaled on the FSTs and it is all industry’s fault?

Pete Riley of Friends of the Earth and Doug Parr of Greenpeace were next on the witness stand and the chairman asked them what they "thought of the discussions so far?".

Pete Riley was incensed. He said "the comments from Linda Smith go to prove our political analysis is correct!"

He stressed the importance of 'biodiversity systems' and how the government should be funding more basic research. "We must reflect on the process that lead to the FSTs and see what we can do with it". The political process must put science into context and "we need a more advanced debate about what sort of food people want to eat". He said the government is "completely out of touch with public opinion on these issues". In public meetings across the country, "the overriding emotion is anger!". BSE will shape the way we regulate food from now on. Gone are the days when government "decides, announces and defends". The public must be consulted early on and we must have a broad discussion as to whether we even need GMOs or not. Doug Parr strongly supported this view, adding "we need to look at the trajectories; where are GM crops taking us."

Devil’s advocate Phil Dale, asked, "if we allow consultation with the public, how can we protect our ability to innovate?". Doug Parr said science and technology shape all our lives, therefore it is wrong to leave it all up to science and technology committees. There is "a diversity of options and alternatives to GM crops", for instance, Greenpeace is positive about marker assisted breeding, and regards organic farming also as a highly innovative science. Riley pointed out that the government would have gone ahead and proposed Chardon LL for spring planting this year, which was "totally illogical and not credible in the eyes of the public". The government is seen to be "motoring ahead, preparing the grounds for commercialization".

Matthew Freeman asked them what their specific concerns were.

Parr replied "the unpredictable nature of GMOs" and "the mixing of genetic material across wide species barriers". Greenpeace want sustainable agriculture. Riley said the trials are asking the wrong question, they are comparing two intensive systems. There are bigger ethical issues too, that have not been debated at all; this is unacceptable. He said the issue of patents is a major concern that "should have been debated along side the FSTs". Food safety is another, "is it safe to eat?" In the past "we've launched into technology without testing it properly" and we should not make the same mistake with GMOs. We must have a strict regulatory regime that includes liability and "ensures industry takes responsibility" when things go wrong. People nowadays want quality assurances, genetic ID testing of GM free food "is very difficult and messy".

Freeman was unsatisfied and pressed for "specific examples of risk, published in scientific journals"?.

The two witnesses cited a couple of examples: Monsanto's GM soya with stem cracked open, the unpredictability of GM, and studies on Bt crops showing active Bt toxin leaks into soil. Both published in Nature.

At this point, I couldn't figure out whether Freeman was calling their bluff or was genuinely ignorant of GM safety concerns. Freeman is the only molecular biologist on the commission, coming from a background in drosphophila research, but there is no reason to suppose he is familiar with GMO risk assessment.

After the meeting and in front of another member of the commission, I asked him "you're not really that unaware of the safety concerns are you?". His reply was "I do not believe there are any safety concerns". I had to remind him that as a scientist he must be impartial and take account of evidence. He repeated, "I do not believe genetic engineering is dangerous but in some cases the effects may have harmful consequences." I replied "yes, like insertion mutagenesis or insertion carcinogenesis for instance?" He agreed.

I then raised the safety issue of the CaMV promoter and the fact that it has a recombination hotspot and is a very strong universal promoter, having functional activity in human cell lines, yeast, E.coli, xenopus, as well as all plants. He asked "are you sure your are not getting it mixed up with the CMV promoter?". I said "No, not the cytomegalovirus promoter, I'm talking about the cauliflower mosaic virus promoter, used in practically all GM crops". He looked surprised and said, "I didn't know it was active in human cells".

Next on the witness stand was SCIMAC, who were made to eat humble pie. They were very unclear and scared. They said they had ignored organic farmers and beekeepers because they only “respond to new evidence" but they "do want a continuing dialogue”, although "this technology has to co-exist with other agriculture". The importance of "openness and transparency" was offered repeatedly in defense and statements like "SCIMAC published full details of all the sites, exceeding regulatory requirements”.

Sue Mayer asked what SCIMAC consider to be 'valid objections'? Steve Smith launched into a rambling diatribe about how "we are all in a changing environment" and "many changes are taking place in society, economics and the environment". He has been reading books on the environment and even mentioned the importance of our "ecological footprint".

Apparently SCIMAC have "graphically demonstrated consideration for the views of the public". But the two men then went on to confirm the fears of the public by saying "the FSTs are not a safety trial nor an impact assessment, they are just looking at the impact of GM herbicide resistance crops on biodiversity, as this was missing from the regulations".

They offered plenty of excuses like "industry had done nothing wrong" for "it only has to satisfy regulators" and "remain competitive". Steve Smith said, "SCIMAC is acutely aware that we are in a changing environment", he then passed the buck back to DETR by suggesting “regulators should do the same”. He took some credit, "these FSTs have opened the debate up to the public and this must continue". On liability, he threatened "we need to think about the liability of these products to other industries, not just environmental liability".

Having pushed the idea that the FSTs are an example of how industry "is prepared to be proactive", Steve Smith admitted, "we haven't reached our conclusions yet." Industry only has to meet the requirements of the new EU Directive but "safety concerns still remain" and "SCIMAC is involved in looking at impacts outside the bounds of regulations". SCIMAC's framework is under development and "there is a range of concerns" [what does that mean?!]. He would not elaborate further, deferring questioning to his unidentified "technical provider".

Pearsell said industry "can't get away with anything nowadays" reiterating Steve Smith, "we haven't reached any conclusions" and "everything is not wonderful". The two men, when finally cornered, both agreed there is a need to "reduce risks to human health and safety" and "return to sound science". But that can only mean no Field Trials should go ahead!

Article first published 15/03/01

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