Guest editorial in Chemistry & Industry by Dr Arpad Pusztai.
EXCERPT: It is... not unreasonable to suggest that it is not only the biotech companies that should carry out the risk or safety assessments of GM crops/foods, but it must also be verified by independent scientists through an open and transparent funding system. The basic rule must be that, because we all eat GM foods, we are all entitled to scrutinise the evidence relating to their safety. Therefore, secrecy is against the public interest and unjustified. Similarly, all ethical concerns raised by GM organisms must be settled inclusively by society.
GM fears allayed with transparency
Chemistry & Industry
20 June 2005 - Issue No 12 - Page 15
'Openness, transparency and inclusiveness' were the catchwords of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) meeting in Edinburgh, UK, in 2000, with which the organisers hoped to start a dialogue between academic plant geneticists, industry scientists developing genetically modified (GM) plants, and the sceptics or downright opponents of the techniques and products of recombinant DNA technology. It is revealing that at the turn of the 21st century the scientific establishment apparently had to rediscover ideals that served scientific progress so well in the past. Indeed, science without an open exchange of results and ideas between scientists could not have taken us to where we are now. The current techniques of gene splicing, marker-assisted breeding and cloning, among others, are in fact all beneficiaries of the free scientific exchange without which biotech companies could not have developed GM crops.
Many consider that the technical ability of the biotech industry to make GM products has run ahead of our understanding of the underlying scientific principles. Some also feel that the possible consequences for health and the environment of the spread of GM crops are not properly understood and that, without sufficient research funding, we may never identify them. This concern is made more acute by not having generally agreed methodologies for assessing the risks inherent in GM crops, even though they are radically different from conventional crops. In view of previous food-related health disasters, it is not surprising that societal concerns about genetic modification of our food are high. And no amount of patronising platitudes by the scientific, political and industrial establishments will make these concerns go away. Thus, without truly putting into practice the OECD catchphrases of openness, transparency and inclusiveness, it is unlikely that the public's fears of possible irreversible health and environmental effects of GM crops/foods will be allayed.
In view of all this, the biotech industry's approach to the safety of its products, or their understanding of how society perceives these risks, is nothing less than bizarre and not in keeping with the principles announced in Edinburgh by Sir John Krebs, who was then head of the UK Food Standards Agency. The harsh treatment of sceptics and dissident scientists does not demonstrate the establishment's great willingness to adhere to the principle of inclusiveness either. Openness is not much helped by the fact that the high cost of biological testing means that biotech companies only do minimal and superficial risk assessment of GM crops. Cost is also a major factor in their reluctance to finance academic research to develop scientifically sound methodologies for this. Rather, they prefer to declare GM foods to be safe. This not only leads to a scientific cul-de-sac, but in the long run it is against their own self-interest. In the decade since the introduction of GM crops, only one human feeding study has been conducted,1 and basic academic animal nutritional/toxicology studies published in peer-reviewed journals are also few and far between.2 This gives plenty of ammunition to those who oppose GM crops.
Judging from recent biotech company submissions, however, such as the 1139 pages of a feeding study that accompanied the company's request to grow and commercialise MON863 in the EU, they appear to have embraced some of the biological testing protocols advocated in Edinburgh and published since.3 Unfortunately, the biotech industry finds it difficult to shed the habit of declaring everything as confidential business information, even when some information relates to safety, and therefore the potential credit for this advance is lost. By restricting access to their submissions, they also vainly hope to ride out the storm that this attitude will certainly create. In fact, due to the lack of openness, people will start looking for what it is that the company is trying to hide, thus magnifying the problems rather than diminishing them. It is therefore not unreasonable to suggest that it is not only the biotech companies that should carry out the risk or safety assessments of GM crops/foods, but it must also be verified by independent scientists through an open and transparent funding system. The basic rule must be that, because we all eat GM foods, we are all entitled to scrutinise the evidence relating to their safety. Therefore, secrecy is against the public interest and unjustified. Similarly, all ethical concerns raised by GM organisms must be settled inclusively by society.
1 Netherwood et al, 'Assessing the survival of transgenic plant DNA in the human gastrointestinal tract', Nature Biotech 2004, 22, 204
2 Pusztai et al, 'Genetically modified foods: potential human health effects', in 'Food safety: contaminants and toxins', (Ed J D’Mello), Wallingford, Oxon: CABI Publishing, 347
3 Pusztai, 'Can science give us the tools for recognising possible health risks of GM food?' Nutr Health 2002, 16, 7