Anne Glover - BBC Hard Talk

Glover’s claims of scientific consensus on GMO safety collapse in face of statement signed by over 300 scientists. Claire Robinson reports

The former EU chief scientific adviser (CSA) Anne Glover has been all over the media in the past couple of days. She is accusing environmental groups, including GMWatch, of “fabricating” claims in order to get the post of CSA scrapped and of ignoring scientific evidence in pursuit of ideology.

But an interview with BBC’s Hard Talk, Glover is skewered over her claim that there is a scientific consensus on the safety of GM foods and crops (which she takes the opportunity to repeat). The interviewer, Zeinab Badawi, comes back at Glover by citing the statement, “No consensus on GMO safety”, signed by over 300 scientists and recently published by a peer-reviewed journal. Badawi quotes Dr Belinda Martineau, one of the signatories and a developer of the GM Flavr Savr tomato, as saying, “I wholeheartedly support this thorough, thoughtful and professional statement describing the lack of scientific consensus on the safety of genetically engineered crops and organisms.” Badawi says, “There is clearly not a scientific consensus in the scientific community.”

Novel definition of consensus

In her attempt to reply, Glover, clearly on the back foot (around 14 minutes into the interview), gets herself into even more trouble by coming up with a novel definition of “consensus”, saying it means “the general perceived view is that the technology is safe”. In fact Glover would have a hard job finding very many scientists who would be prepared to make such an unscientific generalisation about “the technology”. Given that GM crops can be engineered to express lethal toxins, that each GMO is different, that even a slight change in a plant genome can result in unexpected toxicity or allergenicity, that experiments have found that some GMOs are toxic, that more experiments have found many off-target and unintended effects even from supposedly precise “gene editing” technologies, and that regulatory regimes worldwide are based on all this knowledge – it would be truly extraordinary for any scientist to make a blanket claim that “the technology is safe”.

GMOs/climate change distraction tactic

Glover then tries a distraction technique by changing the subject to climate change, a favourite tactic of the GMO lobby. She says that there is a letter signed by over 30,000 people saying humans are not having a negative impact on the planet’s climate but even so there is a scientific consensus that manmade climate change is real. Badawi won’t be diverted and reminds Glover that they are talking about GM, pointing out that the absence of scientific consensus explains why NGOs say Glover presents a one-sided and partial view of GMO safety. After more unconvincing stumbling from Glover, Badawi puts her out of her misery by moving on to another topic.

While Glover accuses NGOs of being driven by ideology and not evidence, in fact her pronouncements on GM are pure ideology. It’s what we’ve come to expect from government chief scientific advisers. David King, the former UK CSA, repeatedly made false and misleading claims in attempts to hype GM crops. The journalist George Monbiot wrote an exposé of CSAs in which he asked, “What happens to people when they become government science advisers? Are their children taken hostage? Is a dossier of compromising photographs kept, ready to send to the Sun if they step out of line? I ask because, in too many cases, they soon begin to sound less like scientists than industrial lobbyists.”

And one of the reasons she upset NGOs is her determination to ignore evidence that does not fit her ideology. Earth Open Source sent her their compilation of evidence on GMO risks, GMO Myths and Truths, inviting her to respond to the scientific elements. She never replied.

Glover not welcomed by many scientists in the Commission

The rest of the BBC’s interview with Glover is also revealing. It makes clear that far from NGOs getting Glover fired over her pro-GMO views, many of the scientific organisations within the Commission didn’t welcome her, as they felt that they were already providing plenty of scientific advice (there are 3000 scientists on the staff of the Commission’s Joint Research Centre). Even the director of the European Food Safety Agency has said that the European Commission does not need a chief scientific adviser.

Glover also kept using the word “independent” to describe her role, which is odd considering that Glover herself has previously admitted that her post was a "constant target for lobbying”.  And there is persuasive evidence that Glover was manipulated in 2013 into forwarding key industry-friendly messages to the top of the Commission on the sensitive issue of endocrine disrupting chemicals, a move that reportedly helped derail precautionary policy-making in this area.

In fact it’s worth asking whether the latest Glover media blitz is intended by her industry supporters as a distraction from the recent Guardian article about the suppressed EU report that, if acted upon, would have resulted in many endocrine disrupting chemicals being banned. Though Glover is not mentioned in the article, she reportedly played an important role in the industry-orchestrated row over endocrine disruptors, which will result in delaying regulation until an “impact assessment” is finalized in 2016.