This article is part of our special report Food & Responsible Marketing.
EXCLUSIVE: Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are no riskier than their conventionally farmed equivalents, the European Commission’s Chief Scientific Advisor Anne Glover has told EurActiv in an exclusive interview, calling for countries impeding GMO use to be put to proof.
The endorsement of GMO safety will rattle member states where bans are in place (see background), and represents the CSA’s highest-profile policy intervention since Glover became Commission President José Manuel Barroso’s scientific advisor last December.
“There is no substantiated case of any adverse impact on human health, animal health or environmental health, so that’s pretty robust evidence, and I would be confident in saying that there is no more risk in eating GMO food than eating conventionally farmed food,” Glover told EurActiv, saying the precautionary principle no longer applies as a result.
Glover said she was not promoting GMOs, and added that “eating food is risky”, explaining: “Most of us forget that most plants are toxic, and it’s only because we cook them, or the quantity that we eat them in, that makes them suitable.”
But she said that scientific evidence needed to play a stronger role in policymaking, firing a warning shot at countries that have banned GMOs. “I think we could really get somewhere in Europe if when evidence is used partially, there were an obligation on people to say why they have rejected evidence,” she said.
GMOs and other scientific advances must be explored in order to head off the increasing scarcity of energy and other resources and competition for land use, Glover suggested.
“If we are using land to produce biofuels, we are not producing food, and that that means we have to intensify food production,” she said.
Glover, a former professor of biology at the University of Aberdeen, served as chief scientific advisor for Scotland before from 2006-2011. She joined the Commission on 1 January.
Her role is to bolster scientific evidence by saying things that politicians and officials are sometimes uncomfortable with, she said, adding: “The evidence with which I work is independent, the evidence with which I work does not change according to political philosophy. And that should give people a lot of confidence.”
Glover said that discomfort around the subject of GM crops in the 1980s and 1990s was “a generation ago, we’ve moved on and the challenges are completely different”.
She said that the precautionary principle was appropriate when applied properly, but added: “We should not … somehow tie our hands behind our back in such a way that we will be so precautionary that we will wait for everyone else to use our knowledge before we use it.”
"That would be my worry, because knowledge is an international currency, and we are amongst the slowest in taking advantage of the knowledge we create, and that cannot be right."
Grabbing the attention of teenage girls
Glover also defended the recent teaser video issued by the Commission in support of its 'Women in Science' campaign. The teaser – which depicted young women mixing chemicals morphing into cosmetics – was pulled by the Commission amidst complaints that it pandered to sexist stereotypes.
“I may not like the fact that young girls think about high heels and lipstick. Now, if that’s what young girls think about then you would be foolish if you were an advertiser to ignore that,” Glover said, expressing disappointment with the criticism from “many older scientists and women my age”.
She said: “They had perhaps not thought about who was the focus of the campaign. It was not them, but adolescents.”
Glover also said that she was examining the possibility of creating a network of individual chief scientific advisors within member states, to provide more clearly focused lines of communication on scientific evidence within EU policymaking.
The European Commission proposed allowing national cultivation bans for GMOs in July 2010, in a bid to break a deadlock in EU GM crop approvals which has seen few varieties approved for cultivation in more than 12 years.
The proposal, however, has been subject to bitter divisions in the Council since then, with recent attempts by the Danish presidency to find a compromise agreement making little headway.
To date, seven EU countries have introduced national "safeguard" bans on growing Monsanto's MON 810 insect-resistant maize: France, Germany, Austria, Greece, Hungary, Luxembourg and Bulgaria.
In January, German biotech firm BASF Plant Science announced that it was moving its plant biotech research activities from Germany to the United States and would cease all work to develop GM crops specifically for the EU market.
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