Naive, narrow and biased... Carlo Leifert explains why he resigned from the government's GM science review panel
Naive, narrow and biased...
Carlo Leifert explains why he resigned from the government's GM science review panel
Thursday July 24, 2003
When I joined the GM science review panel, I thought that we would be doing a detailed risk assessment. We would work out where there might be problems with GM, what the nature of the problems might be and what research had to be done to prove whether or not they were significant.
From the very start, we should have looked at whether something could go wrong with the technology itself. If you add an alien gene to a plant, how do you know what side effects you will get? We know that if we add genes to bacteria, it can change things unintentionally, and studies show this can happen in plants as well. How good are our methods to detect these unintentional changes?
But it soon became clear we wouldn't be doing a detailed risk assessment. Part of the problem came down to how scientific results are reported. If anyone had found that the GM process caused unwanted side effects in plants, it probably wouldn't make it into the scientific journals. Side effects would be viewed as negative results and scientists tend not to publish those. They often only get mentioned in PhD theses and reports to sponsors, because in those you have to explain why you've taken so long to do something. I made the point that to do a proper risk assessment, we needed to try and obtain that original data to get an idea of how often such side effects happen. This request was ignored. The panel felt we should focus mainly on peer-reviewed work and that going into that much detail would take too long. I completely disagreed with this approach.
It quickly became apparent that the panel wasn't balanced enough to produce an objective report. Most of the biologists who really understood the technical details of some of the arguments were strongly pro-GM. I felt that there should have been more specialists on board who weren't so indiscriminantly positive about the technology. There should have been more of an attempt to recruit scientists with good molecular biology knowledge and a more critical approach to the technology.
For me, the last straw came when someone from the biotech industry was asked to write the chapter on food safety. It seemed incredibly naive to me to have someone whose interest is in selling GM to do the risk assessment chapter. They were already convinced of its safety. I tried to resign quietly, because I was warned that it was not a good idea criticising your peers on scientific panels. But once everyone knew I had resigned and I was asked about my reasons, I felt that I had to explain why. Especially because what we have now from the panel is a report that is essentially pro-GM. It means the government decision makers may have to react to this scientific advice by allowing imports of GM crops and the growing of GM crops in the UK.
In my opinion, this report is not carefully enough researched to give the green light to GM and doesn't identify the uncertainties well enough.
The report mentions that Americans have eaten GM food for about seven years now and they haven't suffered. But nobody has actually investigated the effect of GM consumption on public health in the US. The argument doesn't make sense, and to have it coming from a scientific panel is really quite sad.
I don't believe the government has tried to force the science review in any particular direction to push an agenda. My feeling is they are concerned that GM technology could be risky to human health and the environment. I feel that the bias came from the strong lobby of pro-GM scientists and biotechnology representatives on the panel. They seem to be much more prepared to take little or no evidence as meaning no problem. I felt we should be more careful than that and say, let's get more information and then judge it.
There are already signs that Europe is being more cautious about GM technologies. The European Union is now seeking to fund research into ways of improving our ability to check GM plants for unwanted side effects. They have also put out a tender for testing the difficulties of co-existence between GM crops and non-GM crops). We should wait until we have better techniques and more information on the questions that are still open. As soon as improved methods for safety assessments are available we should insist they become part of the routine risk assessments of the GM companies.
One of the conclusions of the report is that we have to look at GM crops on a case-by-case basis. I wouldn't agree with that. Right now we still have to check that there isn't some inherent problem with the technology.
Professor Carlo Leifert, an expert in organic farming at the University of Newcastle, resigned from the government's GM science panel last week. The panel's final report was published on Monday.
Interview by Ian Sample.