Anne Glover is a Scottish scientist who is a professor of molecular biology and cell biology at the University of Aberdeen. She was appointed as Chief Scientific Adviser to European Commission President José Manuel Barroso in 2012. She answered the questions below in writing.
The European Academies of Science Advisory Council (EASAC) issued a damning report last June recommending that European countries reconsider their bans on GMOs. Do you endorse the conclusions of this report?
Let me start with a general statement: The "Planting the future" report of the European Academies of Science Advisory Council (EASAC) is an authoritative, joint statement of the national science academies in the EU Member States.
As Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission I am delighted that EASAC has made the effort to produce such a report, which provides invaluable input to the discussion around novel plant breeding technologies.
The conclusions of the report are based on the best possible evidence and I endorse its conclusions whole-heartedly.
The EASAC report says controversies about the impact of GM crops have too often been based on contested science. Do you subscribe to this view?
When GM technology was in its infancy, many people were concerned about the technology and in particular the fact that we were now able to manipulate plants in a targeted manner compared to the trial and error approach we used with conventional plant breeding.
Nowadays the situation has changed dramatically. People are still concerned about GM, but most of them are not uneasy with the technology per se, but rather with the business practice in the agrifood sector, which is dominated by multinational companies. Unfortunately, this market situation is also an unintended consequence of the regulatory burden in the EU which makes it almost impossible for SMEs to enter the GM business.
It is fair to say that also the companies themselves must be criticised for having failed to engage in an honest dialogue with the public to convince them of the benefits of this technology. It is perfectly reasonable for the citizen to ask "what's in it for me?".
The EASAC report says that there is no compelling scientific evidence to associate GM crops with risks to the environment or safety hazards for food. Do you agree?
I fully endorse this statement. There is no evidence that GM technologies are any riskier than conventional breeding technologies and this has been confirmed by thousands of research projects. Food produced with GM technology is very common in other parts of the world, without any evidence that this has been harmful to the people that consumed it or to the environment at large.
It is an inconvenient truth that we have a major challenge to feed a world of 7 billion, soon 9 billion people. GM is a valuable technology to have to help in addressing this. Moreover, GM provides solutions to famine and malnutrition in less developed parts of the world – such as Vitamin-A enhanced golden rice – so in my view, it is unethical not to use the technology when other approaches have failed. Let's not forget also that the world cotton market is nowadays dominated by 80% GM – actually, most clothes we are wearing and even our bank notes are made with GM cotton.
The report also claims that critics have falsely attributed an increase in herbicide resistance to GMOs. Do you agree with this statement?
I agree with this statement completely. We need a rational debate about GM in all EU Member States and I am ready to engage in it. Industry also has an obligation here to use new technologies responsibly.
Finally, we shouldn't forget that there are also other promising novel plant breeding technologies, post-GM, and we shouldn't make the mistake of regulating them to death as we have done with GM.
EASAC claims that 90% of the literature on which its conclusions are based is on non-industry funded, peer-reviewed research. Previous criticism of GMOs have focused on the fact that safety studies submitted to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) were financed by industry. So who should consumers believe?
As long as it is sound, transparent and peer-reviewed, there isn't any difference between publicly funded and privately funded research.
In my view consumers can believe in the overwhelming amount of evidence demonstrating that GM technology is not any riskier than conventional plant breeding technology. The EASAC Report is a major contribution to this debate as it reflects the view of Europe's most eminent scientists.
A recent study led by Gilles-Eric Séralini of the university of Caen highlighted the long-term health effects of GMOs on rats, which developed cancers when fed with Monsanto's NK603 GM maize over their lifetime. Does it raise valid scientific points in your view?
Dozens of independent reviews, including by Europe's most prestigious science academies, have shown that the Séralini study is hopelessly flawed. It's simply bad science and the reputation of the journal that published it has suffered as a result.
Still, I would always be in favour of examining the thinking around the Séralini paper to see if there is anything of value. We should also ask that those such as Séralini are transparent about who funds their research as transparency isn't just for one side of the argument.