GM food: putting fear before facts

The Royal Society, the UK's premier scientific body, thinks GM food is safe. So why did its report spin such scary headlines?

Tony Gilland

Topics Politics

The Royal Society, the UK’s premier scientific body, last week launched a report pointing out the total lack of evidence that genetically modified (GM) crops cause harm to humans (1). But you’d never have guessed that from the media coverage.

My investigation into the report, and how it was released to the media, found that the Royal Society gave great prominence to ‘new’ hypothetical concerns, not because it had changed its opinion about the safety of GM, but in an attempt to improve its standing in the eyes of the public.

Launched on 4 February 2002, the report generated some startling headlines: ‘Fears for babies from GM milk’ in the Daily Telegraph, ‘British scientists turn on GM food’ in the Guardian, and ‘Call for more curbs and improved safety tests for eating genetically modified foods’ in the Financial Times.

Some of the media noted the report’s finding that ‘there is no reason to doubt the safety of foods made from GM ingredients that are currently available’. But the main focus was on two concerns raised by the report’s press release – the threat of new foods triggering unexpected allergies and the potential harmful impacts of using GM foods in infant formula – and on the Royal Society’s concerns about existing regulations governing GM products.

The Royal Society is an independent body, made up of some of the UK’s most highly respected scientific experts. Its advice on all matters scientific is valued by the UK government and taken seriously by the media. In the late 1990s, when GM crops and GM food were big news in the UK, the Royal Society was seen by many as a voice of calm and reason. Its 1998 report on GM (2) recommended improving the regulatory system, but was widely seen as providing reassurance that GM products are generally safe.

In 1999, when Dr Arpad Pusztai was at the centre of a 10-day media frenzy about the threats posed by GM, the Royal Society helped to clarify the controversy. Pusztai, a research scientist at the Rowett Research Institute in Scotland, had gone to the media with his concerns about the dangers of GM, based on his unpublished study of the effects of feeding rats GM potatoes. A number of scientists signed an ambiguously worded petition supporting Pusztai – though, after the event, some claimed that they thought the petition was in support of Pusztai himself, who had been forced to leave the Rowett Institute, rather than in support of his findings.

The Royal Society’s review of Pusztai’s research, published in June 1999, concluded that his research was ‘flawed in many aspects of design, execution and analysis’ and ‘no conclusions should be drawn from it’ (3). This was pretty much the end of the Pusztai story.

So maybe it is not surprising that when the same Royal Society now raises concerns about the potential threats posed by GM crops and foods, it becomes big news – leading to speculation that the Royal Society has become more hesitant about GM safety. The Society’s press release is headlined ‘Safety checks for GM foods must be better’, and its opening sentence says, ‘Safety assessments should be improved before a greater variety of foods made from genetically modified plants are declared fit for human consumption, a Royal Society report warns today’ (4).

While the release immediately goes on to state that ‘there is no reason to doubt the safety of foods made from GM ingredients that are currently available, nor to believe that genetic modification makes food inherently less safe than their conventional counterparts’, it highlights concerns about the potential risks of allergic reactions to all new foodstuffs and the possibility of ‘unintended adverse impacts on nutrition’, particularly ‘if GM ingredients are one day considered for use in infant formula’. In addition, Professor Jim Smith, chair of the working group that prepared the report, is quoted in the press release as saying, ‘The rather piecemeal approach to the regulation of GM foods in the UK, and the EU in general, means that there may be some important gaps and inconsistencies’.

When society is increasingly anxious about the food that people eat and fearful of potential threats to children’s health and safety, the Royal Society must surely have known that flagging up ‘allergic reactions’ and ‘unintended adverse impacts’ for babies through GM in ‘infant formula’ would get the media going. So did an inept press officer write the press release, or was it intended to have this impact?

The media coverage of the report – and certain aspects of the press release itself -have disturbed some of the UK’s plant geneticists. Professor Douglas Fearon, from the Wellcome Trust Immunology Unit at the University of Cambridge, a Fellow of the Royal Society and a member of the working group that produced the report, thought that the media’s coverage was ‘extraordinarily selective’ and ‘didn’t capture its general tone’. Professor Chris Leaver, head of plant science at Oxford University, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and a member of the working group that produced the report, was also very concerned about the content of the Royal Society’s press release and told me that he was ‘very surprised’ that the first sentence of the press release ‘was derived from the report’, as ‘it is not my understanding of what the report said’.

Professor Mike Gale, also a Fellow of the Royal Society, was a member of the working group that produced the Royal Society’s 1998 report on GM and gave evidence to the working group behind the new report. He too was concerned about the press release’s opening salvo and by the press coverage it received. ‘I don’t think it reflects the balanced view made in the body of the report or even in the summary.’

But some of those who helped to write and launch the report seem less worried by the media coverage. Professor Jim Smith of the Wellcome/CRC Institute in Cambridge, who chaired the working group that produced the report and approved the press release, seemed sanguine about the media reaction – though he thought the headlines had ‘tended to concentrate on the scarier aspects of the report and not on the message that existing GM foods appear to be safe’, and admitted to being inexperienced in dealing with the media.

But when I asked Bob Ward, the Royal Society press officer responsible for the media launch of the report, about the wording of the press release, he explained that ‘there is a tendency in the GM debate to try to portray people as being pro- or anti-GM, and in the past the Royal Society has been incorrectly portrayed as being pro’. The Royal Society, says Ward, is keen to correct this impression and to demonstrate that it takes public concerns seriously, and is keen to flag up potential risks. So was he surprised that the media chose to focus on these potential risks? ‘That is exactly what we expected to happen’, said Ward, explaining again that the Royal Society is ‘seeking a change of policy’.

As to whether the press coverage the report received was a fair reflection of its content, Ward said ‘Our feelings are mixed. Some of the main points come across, but we are concerned about the underlying impression given that the Royal Society has conducted a U-turn – that somehow we are now hostile to the technology whereas previously we were out-and-out advocates’. Ward claims that the Royal Society’s position has been consistent throughout – namely that ‘GM has great benefits to offer’, but ‘some risks need to be kept in mind and monitored’.

It seems that some of those involved in writing and launching the report have divergent views about the report’s key messages and whether the media reflected them or not. But before drawing conclusions from this, it is important to examine what the report actually says.

The first thing you notice about the report, which restricts itself to ‘the scientific issues involved in genetic modification’ in relation to human safety, is its hesitancy. The report points to the general safety of GM, but it also makes the case for tightening regulations still further. Reading the report, you get the impression that GM is, in general, safe – but all the potential problems and qualifications raised are confusing, and can only provide grist to the mill of those who object to GM for being ‘unnatural’.

So is GM safe for human health or not?

On the key question of whether the GM process is inherently risky, the report seems to want to have it both ways. So it states categorically that there is no reason to think that GM is unsafe, while at the same time raising all sorts of ways for the regulations that treat the process as inherently risky to be strengthened. This is, in fact, the same approach that has underpinned Europe’s regulatory response to GM for some time – in stark contrast to the approach taken in the USA.

In the USA, what is important for scientists and regulatory bodies is not the process by which a food is produced, but the end product itself – its composition in terms of proteins and nutrients. So if a novel or GM food can be shown to be essentially equivalent in composition to an existing food, then it can be considered as safe as its conventional equivalent – known as ‘substantial equivalence’. If there are differences in composition, an assessment of the product’s safety can be limited to examining the implications of those differences. This is a far cry from Europe’s precautionary attitude to GM products, where fear is focused on the GM process itself, leading to worries over unanticipated harmful effects or previously unknown toxins, anti-nutrients or allergens that the process might, hypothetically, throw up.

The Royal Society report supports the use of ‘some form of substantial equivalence’ as ‘the only practical solution’ for the general evaluation of GM foods – but emphasises that this is only the starting point of a safety assessment, and when differences occur they must be further investigated. It also agrees with the 2000 report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and the World Health Organisation that ‘the criteria for safety assessments should be made explicit and objective and that differences in the application of substantial equivalence, for example in different member states of the European Union, need to be resolved’.

However, the report goes on to state that safety assessments ‘should continue to consider potential effects of the transformation process’ and to consider ways in which this can be done – endorsing European regulators’ and governments’ ambiguous approach to GM.

Take the new ‘profiling techniques’, which the report claims could be used to ‘characterise differences between the GM crop and the appropriate comparator’, helping to ‘provide a rigorous scientific basis for hazard identification’. This proposal is immediately followed by the qualification that ‘much development work remains to be done’ to determine the utility of this approach, given the wide variation in the composition of crops that occurs naturally as a result of differences in their growing environment. In other words, it is unclear just how helpful the profiling techniques would be.

The report also notes that conventional plant breeding technology ‘might cause the activation of previously unknown toxins, anti-nutrients or allergens’, raising the question of whether the same safety assessment criteria should be applied to conventionally modified foods as well as GM foods.

What about the prominence given to the threat of allergies and GM in infant formula? Have new dangers been identified? Not quite.

On the question of potential allergies, the report’s main focus is on allergic reactions that can sometimes result from inhaling pollen or dust created during milling. The report notes that ‘one shortcoming in current screening methods, which applies to conventional foods as well as to GM foods, is that there is no formal assessment of the allergic risks posed by inhalation of pollen and dusts’, recommending that such assessments be made. ‘Baker’s asthma, which results from inhalation of flour particles’, and ‘latex allergy, which is thought to arise from inhalation of the powder used to coat latex gloves’, are cited as examples of allergic diseases that can result from inhaling particles. So this is neither a new problem, nor one peculiar to GM.

Moreover, the report provides no information about the incidence or severity of problems caused by the inhalation of allergens. Surely, if you are going to recommend changes to regulation, and guard against alarm, such information is highly relevant. Professor Fearon, one of the immunologists on the working group, told me that ‘we had no information on the incidence of the problem’ and explained that allergen inhalation is something that society has had to deal with for a very long time – the first classical study was conducted into cotton workers inhaling cotton fibres in the early twentieth century. Given this, and the fact that there is no reason why GM crops are any more likely than conventional ones to give rise to such problems – as Professor Fearon explained, ‘at least with GM you know precisely what new gene you are introducing into a plant’ – this issue should provide no basis for alarm. But that was not made at all clear in the Royal Society’s press release. If anything, by flagging these concerns out of context, the press release invited coverage that was anything but reassuring.

On the question of infant formula, the report notes that these and ‘follow-on-foods’ are regulated by the Department of Health. While no GM foods for use in infant products have been submitted for approval, the report claims ‘there is a lack of clarity about the interaction of regulations on infant foods and GM products’. But the report does not cite any specific problems with the existing regulations, instead recommending ‘careful examination to ensure that these two sets of regulations are complementary’. This may be a sensible suggestion, but it is hardly cause for alarm.

Contributing to society’s anxiety about all things scientific is clearly not the report’s intention, but that seems to have been its effect. So what is going on?

According to Professor Mike Gale, a big problem is that research scientists ‘are trained to cover all the bases and that if a risk is there they have to mention it, however minimal’. As Gale points out, if you ask a scientist whether it is safe to cross a road you are likely to get a long answer taking into account all the factors. And since nothing can be proved to be 100 percent safe, scientists are reluctant to use the word without first making a range of qualifications – so, as Gale suggests, scientific discussions can result in others assuming that there is a higher level of risk implied than what the scientists meant to imply (5). But there is something else going on in the Royal Society’s report.

As Bob Ward’s answers to my questions made clear, the Royal Society press release gave prominence to hypothetical concerns about GM to demonstrate how seriously the Society takes public concerns, and to be seen to be calling for tighter regulations. Presumably, the Royal Society is trying to show that it is on the side of the ‘public’, and that it can be trusted to assess GM technology scientifically and objectively. As Professor Smith explained: ‘I think that the Royal Society is making attempts to acknowledge public anxiety on this matter. If we are going to get anything out of GM foods – and I hope that one day we might do, we have to reassure the public that the regulations are as tight as they could be – people are very worried.’

The most important part of the Royal Society’s report is the total absence of any evidence that GM crops or GM food cause harm to human health. But rather than upfronting this point, the Royal Society chose to ‘reassure’ the public by highlighting new hypothetical threats. This might be an understandable strategy in our fearful climate, but it is also dangerous.

If we want to live constructive and creative lives – free from paranoia, alert to genuine dangers, and open to trying out new things – then qualified expert opinion on matters that require specialist knowledge is essential. We need scientists to make judgements, rather than just ‘covering the bases’. We need political leaders who support scientific endeavour, instead of caving in at the first sign of controversy.

Coincidentally, at the same time as it released its report on GM, the Royal Society was accused by Dr Ian Gibson, chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, of having an elitist and anti-women appointment system. Royal Society president Sir Robert May responded vigorously, by pointing out that the low number of women members reflected the unfortunately low number of women within the senior scientific establishment, defending the position of experts, and insisting that the appointment system was, as it should be, based on merit.

Defending expertise based on merit is to be welcomed. But it is unfortunate that, in failing to pass a clear judgement on the safety of GM crops and food, and to properly distinguish between hypothetical concerns and concerns with a sound basis in reality, the Royal Society is effectively refusing to play the role of the expert body that it is. Reading its report carefully, it would appear that the Royal Society has not become more hesitant about the safety of GM crops and food – just more hesitant about saying so.

Tony Gilland is science and society director at the Institute of Ideas. He is the editor of Science: Can You Trust the Experts?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); Animal Experimentation: Good or Bad?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and Nature’s Revenge?: Hurricanes, Floods and Climate Change, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). He is also a contributor to Rethinking Risk and the Precautionary Principle, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

spiked-issue: Genetics

(1) Genetically modified plants for food use and human health – an update, Royal Society, February 2002

(2) Genetically Modified Plants for Food Use, Royal Society, September 1998

(3) Review of data on possible toxicity of GM potatoes, Royal Society, June 1999

(4) See the Royal Society press release, Safety checks for GM foods must be better, says Royal Society

(5) On this subject, see Chewing over GM food, by Professor Vivian Moses

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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