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9-Misc: Naive, narrow and biased...



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TITLE:  Naive, narrow and biased...
        Carlo Leifert explains why he resigned from the government's GM
        science review panel
SOURCE: The Guardian, UK, Interview by Ian Sample
        http://www.guardian.co.uk/life/opinion/story/
        0,12981,1004400,00.html
DATE:   Jul 24, 2003

---------------- archive: www.genet-info.org/services.html ---------------


Naive, narrow and biased...
Carlo Leifert explains why he resigned from the government's GM science
review panel

When I joined the GM science review panel, I thought that we would be
doing a detailed risk assessment. We would work out where there might be
problems with GM, what the nature of the problems might be and what
research had to be done to prove whether or not they were significant.

>From the very start, we should have looked at whether something could go
wrong with the technology itself. If you add an alien gene to a plant,
how do you know what side effects you will get? We know that if we add
genes to bacteria, it can change things unintentionally, and studies show
this can happen in plants as well. How good are our methods to detect
these unintentional changes?

But it soon became clear we wouldn't be doing a detailed risk assessment.
Part of the problem came down to how scientific results are reported. If
anyone had found that the GM process caused unwanted side effects in
plants, it probably wouldn't make it into the scientific journals. Side
effects would be viewed as negative results and scientists tend not to
publish those. They often only get mentioned in PhD theses and reports to
sponsors, because in those you have to explain why you've taken so long
to do something. I made the point that to do a proper risk assessment, we
needed to try and obtain that original data to get an idea of how often
such side effects happen. This request was ignored. The panel felt we
should focus mainly on peer-reviewed work and that going into that much
detail would take too long. I completely disagreed with this approach.

It quickly became apparent that the panel wasn't balanced enough to
produce an objective report. Most of the biologists who really understood
the technical details of some of the arguments were strongly pro-GM. I
felt that there should have been more specialists on board who weren't so
indiscriminantly positive about the technology. There should have been
more of an attempt to recruit scientists with good molecular biology
knowledge and a more critical approach to the technology.

For me, the last straw came when someone from the biotech industry was
asked to write the chapter on food safety. It seemed incredibly naive to
me to have someone whose interest is in selling GM to do the risk
assessment chapter. They were already convinced of its safety. I tried to
resign quietly, because I was warned that it was not a good idea
criticising your peers on scientific panels. But once everyone knew I had
resigned and I was asked about my reasons, I felt that I had to explain
why. Especially because what we have now from the panel is a report that
is essentially pro-GM. It means the government decision makers may have
to react to this scientific advice by allowing imports of GM crops and
the growing of GM crops in the UK.

In my opinion, this report is not carefully enough researched to give the
green light to GM and doesn't identify the uncertainties well enough.

The report mentions that Americans have eaten GM food for about seven
years now and they haven't suffered. But nobody has actually investigated
the effect of GM consumption on public health in the US. The argument
doesn't make sense, and to have it coming from a scientific panel is
really quite sad.

I don't believe the government has tried to force the science review in
any particular direction to push an agenda. My feeling is they are
concerned that GM technology could be risky to human health and the
environment. I feel that the bias came from the strong lobby of pro-GM
scientists and biotechnology representatives on the panel. They seem to
be much more prepared to take little or no evidence as meaning no
problem. I felt we should be more careful than that and say, let's get
more information and then judge it.

There are already signs that Europe is being more cautious about GM
technologies. The European Union is now seeking to fund research into
ways of improving our ability to check GM plants for unwanted side
effects. They have also put out a tender for testing the difficulties of
co-existence between GM crops and non-GM crops). We should wait until we
have better techniques and more information on the questions that are
still open. As soon as improved methods for safety assessments are
available we should insist they become part of the routine risk
assessments of the GM companies.

One of the conclusions of the report is that we have to look at GM crops
on a case-by-case basis. I wouldn't agree with that. Right now we still
have to check that there isn't some inherent problem with the technology.

Professor Carlo Leifert, an expert in organic farming at the University
of Newcastle, resigned from the government's GM science panel last week.
The panel's final report was published on Monday.




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