2-Plants: Moment of truth for GM crops
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TITLE: Moment of truth for GM crops
SOURCE: The Guardian, UK, by Bob May
DATE: Apr 10, 2003
------------------ archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html ------------------
Moment of truth for GM crops
Bob May explains how the results of the first field trials will be
weighed up by scientists
GM crops will be back in the news with a vengeance later this year when
we learn whether the first results of Britain's three-year farm scale
evaluations are sound enough to appear in a scientific journal - and
after that, whether the government is going to allow these crops to be
One problem for the government is that few people outside the scientific
community seem to be fully aware of the process through which these
trials will be assessed, before those decisions are made.
Today, for that reason, the Royal Society - one of whose journals is
responsible for the initial process of scientific evaluation - will
publish full details of how it's all going to work.
GM technology offers us the opportunity to ramp up the intensification of
agriculture, with the benefit to humans of not sharing our crops with
weeds and pests. This also has the cost - already evident from
conventional intensification of agriculture in the UK - of diminishing
biological diversity and increasing the potential for ever more "silent
However, GM technology, if appropriately used, could offer the chance of
a doubly green revolution, in which we grow our food efficiently, but in
ways that work with the grain of nature rather than wrenching the
environment to our crops with fossil-fuel subsidised fertilisers,
herbicides and pesticides.
A moratorium on the commercial planting of GM crops is currently in
effect in the UK. In 2000, the UK Government announced, in conjunction
with commercial developers of GM crops, a three-year research programme -
the farm scale evaluations (FSEs) - to study the effects on some species
of wildlife of the way weed-killers are used on herbicide-resistant GM
maize, oilseed rape and beet. The government stated that the moratorium
would not be lifted until the results of the FSEs were known.
An area much greater than the total land area of Great Britain has been
under cultivation with GM crops in the United States, Canada, China and
elsewhere, for several years, with no adverse effects having yet been
identified, whereas benefits from reduced pesticide use have been
demonstrated. Even so, the special nature of the British countryside with
its intimate patchwork of woodland and hill farms, cropland and pasture,
meant most people agreed that the FSEs were necessary here.
The Government appointed an independent group, the scientific steering
committee, to oversee the conduct of the FSEs. The committee undertook to
have the results of the FSEs published in reputable peer-reviewed
scientific journals and decided to submit them in two tranches, the first
to include the maize, beet and spring-sown oilseed rape trials, the
second to include the autumn-sown oilseed rape trials. The first tranche
has already been submitted to Philosophical Transactions of the Royal
Society. This is the world's longest established scientific journal and
publishes sets of papers on single themes. The second tranche will be
submitted to a journal later this year.
It is normal practice that, when a scientist completes a piece of
research, he or she prepares a scientific paper describing how the work
was carried out, what results were obtained and what conclusions and
interpretations have been drawn. This paper is then submitted to a
journal in the hope that it will be accepted for publication.
For all Royal Society journals, an editor, acting independently from the
society's governing council and supported by an expert editorial board
and referees, is responsible for managing the process of deciding whether
a scientific paper should be published. The editor selects at least two
referees to carry out a review of the paper.
These unpaid referees are contemporaries, or peers, working in an area of
science relevant to the work described in the paper. In some cases, the
referees could be be potential competitors or collaborators to the
scientists being assessed. In this case, it is up to the editor to judge
whether there could be any potential conflict of interest.
This process of peer review is the primary quality control mechanism
applied to the results of new scientific research.
Each referee prepares a report about the paper under review to answer
questions such as whether the appropriate methods were used (and are
written up in a way that they could be replicated) and whether the
results are accurate. The referees submit a report to the editor who then
takes the decision about whether to accept the paper for publication,
with or without changes and, if necessary, another round of refereeing.
Once a paper is published, the wider scientific community and other
interested parties can consider whether alternative conclusions and
interpretations are possible from the results described. To paraphrase
Damon Runyon, rejection does not necessarily mean that a paper is wrong,
and acceptance does not necessarily mean that it is right, but that is
the way to bet.
Any individuals or organisations that have comments about the conclusions
or interpretations of a published paper normally contact the authors, or
their sponsors. Alternatively they can submit a new paper for publication
in the same or another journal in that field.
In this way, the work presented in a published paper can be tested and
challenged. This period when the scientific content of a paper can be
considered also allows an opportunity for an open discussion about its
further implications not only in science but also, for example, in
Over the next few months, the main challenge to the stakeholders in the
GM debate is whether they are willing to consider and exchange views
about the results of the farm scale evaluations, if published in a journal.
Will the companies that have sponsored the research objectively take note
of any negative results? Will groups like Greenpeace, the members of
which actively set about destroying the plants involved in the farm scale
evaluations, impartially assess any positive results? And will the
Government allow a full and proper debate about the results among all
stakeholders, before making decisions about the future commercial
planting of GM crops? For the answers to these questions, we can only
wait and hope.
Lord May of Oxford is president of the Royal Society, the UK national
academy of science. Full details about the process for assessing the
results of the FSEs are published on the web today at http://