Science in Society Archive

Parliamentary Briefing to UK Government
(Feb. 10-11, 2000)

Arranged by I-SIS through Alan Simpson MP and Presented by Professor Terje Traavik - senior scientific advisor to the Norwegian government and Steven Druker – lawyer spearheading the civil law suit against the US FDA.

By special arrangement, two expert witnesses were brought before the UK government to warn of the hazards of GM food and crops, and of the bureaucratic cover up that occurred early in the 90’s when GM foods were first approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

In a private meeting between Environment Minister Michael Meacher and his staff at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR), Prof. Traavik did not mince his words and warned that the first generation of GM crops and food are undoubtedly dangerous for human health and the environment and must be banned. The second generation of GM crops may offer the way forward. The first generation carry huge risks such as cancer and the emergence of new pathogens that may result in uncontrollable pandemics, adding that these are just some of the risks we know about. Adequate risk assessment was impossible to do because so little research had been done to even characterise the potential risks involved. He emphasized that the precautionary principle must be used to deal with the terrible mess that biotech companies had made by forcing such a potentially hazardous new food science onto the world.

Steven Druker told of how the US FDA had misrepresented the scientific facts about GM foods to the public. Internal documents, obtained through the civil law suit, show that the US FDA ignored repeated warnings from its own scientists that GM foods are different from conventional foods, require special safety testing and should not be presumed substantially equivalent to conventional foods. He explained that the first GM food approved in the USA – the ‘Flavr Savr’ tomato, failed to pass the FDA’s own toxicological feeding trail and this matter was never resolved by the agency. Instead the FDA eliminated feeding trails from the GM food safety assessment protocol and proceeded to approve them on the principle of substantial equivalence and GRAS (meaning generally recognised as safe). Furthermore, FDA scientists also warned that the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes in GM foods and animal feeds pose significant risks to human and animal health and should not be allowed. The agency ignored this advice as well, in a deliberate action that put public health and safety at risk. The meeting was then given copies of FDA letters and memos from their own scientists complaining to this effect.

The Minister and his staff were very interested in the presentations and ‘alarmed’ by the legal challenge which is now underway in the US. The meeting ran over time by half an hour as they questioned the speakers in more detail. The Minister spoke extensively with Prof. Terje Traavik and requested copies of all his reports to the Norwegian government.

The next day at the parliamentary briefing in the House of Commons, Steven Druker repeated his message and informed MPs and the press about the findings of the civil lawsuit. He said the FDA have wholly misrepresented the scientific facts about GM foods. They are in direct violation of US law, which clearly states the precautionary principle and mandates in the US Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act that new food additives be demonstrated safe through testing before they are marketed.

He quoted several FDA scientists, who strongly protested against the whole approach of the agency. "The agency is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole by trying to force an ultimate conclusion that there is no difference between foods modified by genetic engineering and foods modified by traditional breeding practices’ - Dr Linda Kahl, an FDA compliance officer. Dr Kahl summarised the input from the FDA’s scientists by stating: "The processes of genetic engineering and traditional breeding are different, and according to the technical experts in the agency, they lead to different risks." Dr James Maryanski, the FDA’s biotechnology co-ordinator wrote in a letter to a Canadian official that ‘there is no consensus about the safety of GM food in the scientific community at large, and FDA scientists advised they should undergo special testing, including toxicological tests’.

Steven said "The FDA have totally misrepresented the scientific facts in order to promote the US biotech industry. The claim that its policy is science-based is completely contradicted by its own scientific experts and is therefore false and amounts to a major deception".

Prof. Terje Traavik began by saying that he is a professional genetic engineer and has been for the past 20 years. At first, he was a total ‘believer’ in thinking that there were only benefits. But he changed his mind as the result of discoveries made in his own laboratory. "We have no gene technology!" he said categorically, basically because the so-called technology is uncontrollable and unpredictable, so much so that there is no basis at all for risk assessment. Perhaps the next generation of technology may deserve the label. He emphasized that the gene constructs are the same, and offer the same risks, whether they are used in agriculture or in medicine, such as gene therapy vectors and vaccines. Nature has never seen those sorts of genetic constructs before. They pose huge risks as they can become mixed up with normal viruses and other invasive elements and transfer their traits elsewhere. The potential hazards of artificial constructs are much greater than chemicals. Because, instead of breaking down or diluting out, they are taken up by cells to multiply, mutate and recombine indefinitely. It may be ‘BSE [mad cow disease] in technicolor’

The foreign genes and constructs cannot be targeted and are inserted at random, causing all sorts of genetic disruptions known as epigenetic effects. These can give rise to the production of new toxins and allergens. All plants contain toxins and allergens but the toxins are produced at very low levels and are therefore not harmful. GM can result in the over production of toxins and allergens in the GM plants and present a serious health risk. He repeated his call for banning the first generation of GMOs.

Traavik stressed the desperate need for public funding of risk associated research based on the holistic and ecological paradigm rather than the reductionist paradigm we now have.

During the discussion that followed, Prof. Arpad Pusztai formerly from the Rowett Institute added that in his experiments (published in ‘The Lancet’ last year), positional effects due to random gene insertion were clearly observed. He worked on two lines of transgenic potato that were deemed to be substantially equivalent. However, after stringent analysis it was shown that they contained very different levels of protein and were certainly not substantially equivalent. The two lines came from one transformation experiment but they had two very different compositional profiles explained by epigenetic effects – disruption of the normal gene expression of the cells.

One journalist questioned; ‘Surely not all scientists who support GM have got it so badly wrong?’ Dr Mae-wan Ho replied from the floor and said that science was in crisis and funding in science is such that scientists are consciously or unconsciously adopting the corporate agenda, which is not the same as the public good.

Dr Ian Gibbson, from the government’s Science and Technology select committee, added that in his view the whole process of safety assessment for all foods needed to be reviewed and updated.

The meeting was alive with questions from the floor and also ran over time. Reports have appeared in The Express and The Daily Mail newspapers and Steven Druker gave two radio interviews to the BBC on the following day.

Steven Druker will attend the OECD meeting in Edinburgh on 2nd March 2000 - The intergovernmental organisations on safety in biotechnology, which will specifically address the safety of GM food and animal feed.

Article first published 20/02/00

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