PR operation on GM foods again exposes EFSA industry-bias
This is almost certainly no accident. The article describes the controversial ENTRANSFOOD project, which has now made way for a successor EU project, SAFEFOODS, which looks set to prove equally controversial.
The aim of ENTRANSFOOD has been agreeing safety assessment, risk management and risk communication procedures that would "facilitate market introduction of GMO's in Europe, and therefore bring the European industry in a competitive position."
Disturbingly, a recent report by Friends of the Earth on the work of the GMO Panel of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) showed that several members of this panel have been part of the ENTRANSFOOD project, including Mike Gasson the head of the UK's regulatory committee on GM food safety who also has personal financial links to the biotech industry. (see Throwing caution to the wind -http://www.foeeurope.org/GMOs/publications/EFSAreport.pdf )
The article below is headlined "Combining multiple viewpoints on genetically modified foods". This reflects the claim made for the ENTRANSFOOD project, that it has "brought together representatives from academia, regulatory agencies, food manufacturers, retailers and consumer groups from across Europe."
However, if you check out ENTRANSFOOD's "list of participants", you will find that on ENTRANSFOOD's various Working Parties there is just one solitary representative of Europe's "consumer groups" - Dr B. Kettlitz of the Bureau Europeen des Unions de Consommateurs (BEUC). Dr Kettlitz sits on "Working group 4b". This Working Party deals with "Social Science and Consumer Issues".
Now compare this minimal consumer representation with who gets to sit on "Working group 1", looking at the critical issue of "Safety Testing of Transgenic Foods". Here there are no consumer representatives but there are a number of experts who are employed by industry. They include:
Dr. A. Cockburn, Monsanto Service International
Dr. R. Crevel, Unilever Research
Dr. E. Debruyne, Bayer CropScience
Dr. H. Atkinson, BIBRA International Ltd
(BIBRA is "a leading provider of advice and consultany to industry in the area of toxicology" with particularly strong links to the food and pharma industries)
According to the FoE report, Syngenta has also had representation on this ENTRANSFOOD committee.
Also on the food safety Working Party is Dutch scientist, Dr. Harry Kuiper, and several of Kuiper's colleagues at the State Institute for Quality Control of Agricultural Products (RIKILT) in the Netherlands also turn up on the Working Parties.
Kuiper is both the Chair of the the European Food Safety Authority's GMO panel and the overall co-ordinator of ENTRANSFOOD. He also coordinates the successor project SAFEFOODS with his RIKILT colleague Dr Hans Marvin.
It may seem disturbing enough that the head of the key EU food safety panel on GMOs also coordinates a project aimed at facilitating their market introduction, but just as worrying is the fact that Kuiper has been to the fore in the attacks on Dr Arpad Pusztai and his GM research.
After one such attack on Pusztai's research was published by Kuiper in The Lancet, the Dutch campaigner, Bastian van Perlo, noted how Kuiper had earlier made a point of declining the opportunity to publicly debate the research with Dr Pusztai. "Kuiper had already dragged Pusztai through the dirt in a number of interviews. That's why we invited him. He had to go to Brussels that day, but even if he had not had a prior engagement, he would not have attended. He said that enough had already been said about the Pusztai affair. When I heard about Kuiper's contribution to The Lancet I raised my eyebrows. Obviously enough had not yet been said."
Another ENTRANSFOOD panelist is Dr Angharad Gatehouse, the wife of the biotechnologist who genetically engineered the lectins into Pusztai's potatoes and never forgave him for exposing the consequences. Angharad Gatehouse has compared scientists publishing research critical of GMOs to ambulance chasers!
The article on the ENTRSANSFOOD project below abounds in industry spin. For instance, instead of simply admitting the massive level of consumer opposition to GMOs, it frames such European resistance with the standard industry line that GM production and consumption "is rising rapidly". There's no mention of any resistance to GMOs outside Europe, no mention of Monsanto's historic abandonment of GM wheat, no mention of Monsanto's GM pull out in Indonesia, or of Bayer's GM pull out in India, nor of the stalling of GM food crop cultivation in Australia. European resistance, in other words, is presented as an aberration that ENTRANSFOOD is understandably seeking to address.
In a similar spirit the article informs us that, "There is no inherent risk in the transfer of DNA between organisms, since DNA is not toxic." This is an entirely vacuous statement. Who has suggested that DNA per se is toxic? On the other hand, GM supporters have sometimes made the ludicrous claim that the fact that we consume DNA all the time is an indication of the safety of genetic engineering!
As G.D.W. Smith, Professor of Materials at Oxford University, and a Fellow of the Royal Society, has pointed out, this is nonsense. These basic building blocks of life, arranged in different ways, "are contained in the smallpox virus, bubonic plague and influenza, deadly nightshade and other poisonous plants, creatures such as poisonous jellyfish, scorpions, deadly snakes, sharks - and people who talk absolute nonsense".
The ENTRANSFOOD approach supports its claim that there is "no inherent risk in the transfer of DNA between organisms" by pointing out that, "Gene transfer between organisms is common in nature and has been a driving force in evolution." What it fails to add, however, is that the kind of gene transfer that occurs in nature does not involve the techniques of genetic engineering, such as ballistic particle bombardment.
There is a total failure by ENTRANSFOOD - and this is hardly surprising given the involvemnent of Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta etc. - to acknowledge the potential risks arising from the techniques used to introduce recombinant DNA. As a recent report, based on the peer-reviewed scientific literature and USDA documents, has shown, the genetic engineering of crops already approved and in the food chain, has caused large scale genetic rearrangements of host DNA at transgene insertion sites as well as "many hundreds to thousands of individual mutations scattered throughout the genome of each new transgenic plant".
The significance of this huge scale of genetic damage is that food safety of edible crops relies crucially on genetic stability, not least because, "Most crop plants are a complex mixture of biologically active chemicals with both positive and negative health effects, they may be bred from inedible ancestors and many have poisonous tissues or organs."
If the industry-aligned ENTRANSFOOD project offers little more than a PR gloss on GM foods, disturbingly the Friends of the Earth report shows how some of the statements of the the European Food Safety Authority's GMO panel, regurgitate almost word for word ENTRANSFOOD position statements - statements arrived at with the help of employees of corporations such as Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer.
Combining multiple viewpoints on genetically modified foods
[EUFIC is based in Brussels and "is supported by leading food and beverage companies".]
Worldwide, the production and consumption of foods derived from genetically modified crops (GM crops) is rising rapidly. However, in Europe only 58.000 hectares are planted with one GM crop (insect-protected maize in Spain).
The public debate in Europe demonstrates that rigorous safety assessment is necessary but not sufficient for gaining societal acceptance of agricultural biotechnology. Many natural scientists agree that currently available GM crops are as safe as conventional food crops. Some critics on the other hand point to possible adverse unintended effects; others hold more fundamental concerns about mankind messing with hereditary material. The challenge is to identify prerequisites for introducing products of agricultural biotechnology in a manner that is broadly accepted in societies with wide ranging viewpoints.
To address this challenge, the European Commission-sponsored research consortium ENTRANSFOOD brought together representatives from academia, regulatory agencies, food manufacturers, retailers and consumer groups from across Europe. The consortium's main conclusions are discussed below.
The consortium developed a systematic approach to tailoring the safety assessment of foods derived from GM crops to the specific characteristics of the modified crop and the introduced trait. It also concluded that uncertainties relating to GM foods are similar to the questions which remain with regard to health impact of other plant-derived foods. New molecular tools will help scientists better understand potential health impacts of all foods we consume.
ENTRANSFOOD recommended that assessments of gene transfer should compare the risk of transfer of modified genes from GM crops to microbes or human cells to the risk of a similar event occurring in nature. Gene transfer between organisms is common in nature and has been a driving force in evolution. There is no inherent risk in the transfer of DNA between organisms, since DNA is not toxic. The risk assessment should therefore focus on two factors: first, on the function of the transferred DNA in the recipient cell; and secondly on whether the recipient cell may have acquired the same gene from a source other than the GM crop.
Regulatory and societal aspects
Consumer trust is key and social scientists in the consortium highlighted that process-based labelling of all foods containing GM crops is one prerequisite to allay the fears of EU citizens. However, the consortium also identified difficulties in the implementation of the EU's labelling requirements. For example, one challenge will be achieving international agreement on standards for the labelling and traceability of foods originating from or containing GM crops, as food is transferred between businesses and countries.
In conclusion, the balanced outcomes from ENTRANSFOOD reiterated the merit of platforms for deliberations, combining a range of diverse perspectives on new food technologies. The project also helped to prioritize a range of questions fundamental to comparing the merits and draw-backs of alternative food production methods.
SAFEFOODS, the successor project of ENTRANSFOOD, had its first meeting in May 2004 and aims to address these larger issues in order to facilitate the comparative evaluation of alternative ways of agro-food production. Placing the GM crop debate in the broader context of alternative ways for food production is required so that individuals and societies to make more informed choices.
Kuiper, H. A., Kleter, G. A., Konig, A., Hammes, W. P., Knudsen, I. (Eds.). 2004. Safety Assessment, Detection and Traceability, and Societal Aspects of Genetically Modified Foods. European Network on Safety Assessment of Genetically Modified Food Crops (ENTRANSFOOD). Food and Chemical Toxicology 42(7, special issue): 1043-1202.