Science in Society Archive

Science Advisors Abusing Public Trust

Scientific Committees advising the UK government are playing fast and loose with scientific evidence, abusing public trust, and in blatant violation of both good science and the precautionary principle, says Dr. Mae-Wan Ho.

The UK government’s science advisors have effectively given the green light to commercial growing of GM crops, ahead of the great ‘national GM debate’, in a summary dismissal of mounting evidence that GM crops are hazardous to health and the environment.

The Advisory Committee for Releases to the Environment (ACRE) and the Advisory Committee for Novel Food Products (ACNFP) are still insisting there is "no evidence" GM crops pose greater risks than non-GM counterparts in their response ( to a public hearing that was triggered by wide-spread opposition to the government’s proposal to put the GM maize Chardon LL on the national seed list which began more than two years ago.

Over 15 box-files of written material were submitted and months of oral presentations heard, much of which consisting of scientific evidence of GM hazards as well as challenges to the poor, substandard and incomplete scientific research accepted by the committees for approving GM crops and products.

This latest reassurance from our government’s science advisors is no news to anyone. No mainstream media bothered to report it. The public is right to suspect the worst as less than a month before, the British Medical Association (BMA), not known for adopting radical positions in scientific matters, has repeated its call for a moratorium on GM crop trials, expressing concerns over the impact of GM foods on long-term health. The BMA has a membership of over 120,000 representing more than 80% of doctors in Britain.

Existing scientific evidence amply supports the BMA’s call for a moratorium and other critics who want GM crops stopped altogether. There is, at the very least, reasonable suspicion that GM crops and many of the products are harmful. Even mainstream pro-biotech journals cannot avoid printing articles saying as much, if only so they can throw the honest scientist to the pro-biotech wolf pack afterwards (see accompanying article "Science advisors abusing science").

ACRE and ACNFP have dismissed practically all the evidence by evasive tactics that add up to a serious abuse of science. We at ISIS should know, having wasted countless hours preparing written submissions and presenting oral evidence to these Committees.

Let me briefly summarise the main evidence.

  • Transgenic DNA, often containing antibiotic resistance genes, can be taken up by bacteria in the human gut, with the potential to make bacterial infections untreatable. Transgenic DNA can insert into the genome of human cells, with the potential to cause cancer. Transgenic DNA can pass to soil bacteria, among which are potential pathogens. (Much of the evidence for the above comes from research that the UK government has commissioned, which I have presented to ACRE and ACNFP, but they have simply failed to acknowledge the findings or to reply to the challenges [1].)
  • Bt-toxins from soil bacteria, incorporated into many crops as ‘biopesticide’ are known to be allergenic and strongly immunogenic to mammals, and harmful to a wide range of non-target endangered and beneficial species [2].
  • Herbicide-resistant GM volunteers (including the multi-herbicide resistant) and GM weeds are fast becoming serious problems in the United States and Canada [3-6].
  • GM contamination of convention and organic crops is widely acknowledged to be unavoidable, and the extensive contamination of Mexican maize landraces [7] shows that indigenous species in centres of biodiversity are seriously at risk from extinction [8].
  • GM vaccines, drugs and industrial chemicals are being incorporated into our food crops and the first cases of cross-contamination have already come to light. The contamination of our water, soil and air has yet to be assessed [9].

The situation clearly calls for preventative action, even on the most conservative version of the precautionary principle, which requires action that’s ‘cost-effective’. It costs nothing to stop GM crops, and we have everything to lose if we don’t stop.

There is no need for GM crops; no one wants them, not famine-stricken African nations, and very possibly, not even the biotech corporations themselves, judging from the spectacular cutbacks and spin-outs of agricultural biotechnology and major retreats from funding academic research over the past year [10, 11].

Aventis was taken over by Bayer, which spun it out to Bayer CropScience. But Bayer had announced repeated job cuts in crop science in 2002 amounting to a total of 15 000 over the next four years. Monsanto suffered a series of setbacks in write-offs and lost profits after being taken over and spun off by Pharmacia. Pharmacia was taken over by Pfizer on condition that it shed Monsanto. Just before Christmas, Monsanto’s chief executive and president resigned, citing poor financial performance. In September last year, Syngenta ended a three-year collaboration with UK’s John Innes Institute that has hardly begun, abandoning the Syngenta Laboratory, part of a new Genome Centre complex completed eight months previously at the tax-payer’s expense. Then, less than three months later, the corporation stunned the academic world by announcing the closure of its Torrey Mesa Research Institute (TMRI) by the end of January. TMRI, barely four years old, has led Syngenta’s efforts to sequence the rice genome. That’s not all; word is out that the controversial partnership between Syngenta and UC Berkeley will probably not be renewed in 2003 when the $25 million deal expires.

The corporations have invested and lost billions and are desperate to recoup some of the losses by forcing GM crops on the unsuspecting public, and at the same time, withdrawing support from the genetic engineering scientists who have led them to this scientific and financial dead end.

So now the truth is out. The genetic engineering scientists, many serving as our government’s science advisors, are really the only people who could possibly want to support GM and GM research. There are both financial and non-financial interests at stake: spin-off companies, stocks and shares, high pay, power, prestige, career prospects.

It would be much safer and more cost-effective to retire them all, if necessary, with suitable honours (many already bestowed in any case) and let the rest of us get on with our lives.

ACRE, ACNFP and the Food Standards Agency should all be disbanded. They have betrayed public trust, and are serving no useful function whatsoever.

Article first published 14/01/03

  1. "I-SIS' challenge unanswered", SiS 17
  2. "Health and environmental impacts of Bt" by Lim Li Ching, ISIS report, ISIS Members’ website.
  3. "Glyphosate-resistant waterhemp moves into the corn belt. Plant Health Progress, Dec.12, 2002.
  4. "Roundup-resistant weeds are cropping up: the herbicide is so popular it may not be as effective as it was initially" by Philip Brasher, Des Moines Register, Washington Bureau, Jan. 10, 2003.
  5. Hall L, Topinka K, Huffman J, Davis L and Good A. Pollen flow between herbicide-resistant Brassic napus is the cause of multiple-resistant B. napus volunteers. Weed Science 2000, 48, 688-94.
  6. Orson J. Gene stacking in berbicide tolerant oilseed rape: lessons from the North American experience. English Nature Research Reports no. 443, English Naure, Jan. 2002, ISSN 0967-876X.
  7. Quist D and Chapela IM. Transgenic DNA introgressed into traditional maize landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico. Nature 2001, 414, 541-3.
  8. See "GM maize wars" series, SiS 15 .
  9. See "Pharmageddon", SiS 17 .
  10. "Biotech debacle in four parts. ISIS briefing paper for Prime Minister’s GM Strateby Unit, 24 October, 2002.
  11. "GM debacle continues" ISIS Report Jan. 2003

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