The Ecologist, May 2009, VOLUME 39, ISSUE 4
A row has broken out over the failure of a new guide to GM food to disclose the industry affiliations of many of its authors.
Making Sense of GM, which claims to provide the public with all it needs to know on the topic, enjoyed a high profile launch with coverage on Radio 4's Today programme and in the Telegraph newspaper, and declarations of support from heads of research institutes, like the John Innes Centre, and other prominent GM supporters.
Lord May of Oxford, for instance, was quoted as saying, "This important guide addresses the doctrinaire, and largely fact-free, objections to so-called GM crops”¦ The guide aims to refocus the debate on the really important question of who sets the agenda for the use of these techniques."
But no sooner was it published than Making Sense of GM came under fire. An article in Times Higher Education (THE) reported the failure of the guide's biography of contributor Prof. Vivian Moses, to mention that he headed the industry-funded GM lobby group, CropGen. Also under attack was its failure to mention that the John Innes Centre, where eight of the guide's 28 contributors are based, receives funding from the GM industry.
Michael Antoniou, a geneticist at King's College London, described the omissions as "outrageous". Guy Cook, a professor at The Open University who conducted two research studies into the language and arguments of the GM debate, agreed that the contributors' interests should have been declared.
"If not, they deal a severe blow to their own cause, the authority of science, which rests upon rationality, objectivity, evidence and disinterest," he said. "The problem with GM advocacy is that it has compromised these principles, and in so doing has dangerously undermined public trust in scientists."
But Tracey Brown of Sense About Science (SAS), the guide's publishers, hit back, calling the THE article "mischievous" and "rude", and claiming it relied on "tenuous" and "tortuously indirect links" between the authors of the guide and the GM industry. However, letters to THE disputed the "tenuous" nature of the links, noting that the John Innes Centre had done deals with the GM industry worth tens of millions of pounds.
The row continued on the THE website, where one of the guide’s contributors, Prof Anthony Trewavas FRS, declared the THE article "a disreputable use of space" and accused the guide's critics of being "ideologically corrupt". This drew the response that when it came to ideological corruption, defenders of the guide should take a closer look at the directors of Sense About Science, who are part of the so-called LM, or Living Marxism, group behind Spiked and the Institute of Ideas, who promote climate change denial, eulogise GMOs, human cloning and nuclear power, and portray environmentalists as Nazis.
And a letter to THE from David Miller, professor of sociology at the University of Strathclyde, also noted that while SAS describes itself as a "charity", "a quick glance at the last accounts it lodged with the Charity Commission shows all the substantial sums from its named donors came from life science, chemical, pharma, big oil and mobile phone companies -- funnily enough, the very industries whose interests it defends against their critics."
Prof. Miller has dismissed Making Sense of GM as merely "a PR exercise", and the guide certainly deals almost exclusively in reassurance. This can be seen, for instance, in the section, Eating GM foods, where we're told, "In the US, foods containing GM ingredients have been eaten for over a decade”¦ and over a trillion meals containing GM ingredients have been consumed without revealing any adverse health effects." It is not explained that at a similar point in the history of many health-damaging substances (trans-fats, for instance) almost identical claims could have been made about widespread consumption and the lack of evidence of harm.
The guide then quotes from a review of research on animals fed on GM which claimed that "recombinant DNA fragments or proteins derived from GM plants have not been detected in tissues, fluids or edible products of farm animals." But that completely ignores a series of peer-reviewed papers that have shown such recombinant DNA fragments are traceable in farm animals fed on GM, and that small amounts even appear in the milk and meat that people eat. These studies - 'Detection of genetically modified DNA sequences in milk from the Italian market', 'Assessing the transfer of genetically modified DNA from feed to animal tissues', 'Detection of Transgenic and Endogenous Plant DNA in Digesta and Tissues of Sheep and Pigs Fed Roundup-Ready Canola Meal'* - should all be known to those with expertise in this area of toxicology, so why aren't they mentioned?
In this context, it may be worth noting that the controversy over the guide took a dramatic further twist when Private Eye reported that it had obtained a copy of an unpublished draft of the guide which showed that more than just the industry connections of contributors had been omitted. One of the contributors listed in the draft version had been removed from the published version entirely.
This ghost contributor was none other than toxicologist Andrew Cockburn, Monsanto's former director of scientific affairs, and a figure so controversial that when he was invited to author part of the government's official GM Science Review, it led to questions being raised in parliament and the resignation of one of his fellow Science Review panelists.
Private Eye concluded, "No wonder Sense About Science felt erasure was the better form of valour."**
Additional information from GMWatch
*Detection of genetically modified DNA sequences in milk from the Italian market. Agodi A. et al. Int J Hyg Environ Health, 209: 81-88, 2006; Assessing the transfer of genetically modified DNA from feed to animal tissues. Mazza R. et al. Transgenic Res., 14: 775-784, 2005; Detection of Transgenic and Endogenous Plant DNA in Digesta and Tissues of Sheep and Pigs Fed Roundup Ready Canola Meal. Mazza R. et al. J Agric Food Chem. 54: 1699-1709, 2006
**Sense About Science has subsequently issued a statement saying they removed Cockburn's name because he failed to contribute.