Mr Juncker, do not scrap science!

Disclaimer: all opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of PLC.

We should be worried that the European Commission’s chief scientific adviser position is under attack as an incoming EU president prepares to review legislation on GMOs, write Marcel Kuntz and John Davison  

Marcel Kuntz is the research director at CNRS, Laboratoire de Physiologie Cellulaire Végétale, Grenoble, France. John Davison is a retired research director at INRA Versailles, France.

Political ecologists like science…when it confirms their views. When it contradicts them, rather than changing their minds they often attempt to change the science. As a typical example of such an attitude towards science, nine prominent political green organizations, including Greenpeace, recently wrote an open letter to the new European Commission (EC) President Jean-Claude Juncker asking him to “scrap” the post of EC Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA), alleging that this post "is fundamentally problematic as it concentrates too much influence in one person, and undermines in-depth scientific research".

The post is actually held by Professor Anne Glover who is unafraid to speak out in defense of scientific facts. Obviously the green organizations do not appreciate scientists who speak the truth. In contrast the UK government website on scientific advisors begins with the phrase "Every government department has a chief scientific adviser (CSA)". Why then should the EC be deprived of scientific advice?

In reply to this letter, Sir Paul Nurse, the President of the Royal Society said that "There will always be those who attack the messenger because they do not like the message but when that message is backed up by the scientific evidence, politicians should be smart enough to listen to the independent scientific experts." The organization Sense about science, and the European Plant Science Organisation which represents plant scientists at 227 publicly funded research institutes and Universities, and a consortium of medical research organizations also wrote to ask Mr Juncker to keep and strengthen the CSA role.

That the political ecologists wrote this letter indicates that they see a chance to have a favorable response to their request. From 1995 to December 2013, Mr Juncker was Prime Minister of Luxembourg, a country which has adopted an anti-GMO stance. Worse, it has filed fallacious “scientific” justifications for a political ban of GMO cultivation. In July 2011, Luxembourg notified the EC of its ‘scientific argumentation’ justifying the implementation of a national safeguard measure prohibiting the cultivation of GM potato EH92-527-1. These arguments were rejected by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Again, on 29 June 2012, Luxembourg requested the EC to introduce an emergency measure on maize MON 810 cultivation. These arguments were again rejected by EFSA.

Mr Juncker thus begins his presidency with prior conflicts with EFSA and it came of little surprise that in a speech setting out the political guidelines for his term as President he said: “I also intend to review the legislation applicable to the authorisation of Genetically Modified Organisms”.

Similarly, Juncker declared: “To me, it is simply not right that under the current rules, the Commission is legally forced to authorise new organisms for import and processing even though a clear majority of Member States is against. The Commission should be in a position to give the majority view of democratically elected governments at least the same weight as scientific advice...”

Mr Junker is opposing what should not be opposed: science and democracy. His presentation gave the impression that science was ruling the decision concerning authorisation, as a consequence of some kind of scientific power. This is untrue since the principle of seeking scientific advice before decisions regarding GMO authorisations was decided by the political authority, as was the creation of EFSA in 2002. EFSA was meant to shed light for politicians on real risks, not to impose science on decision making processes. If the authorisation procedure became politically deadlocked, it was due to political, not scientific, considerations.

One of the bases of Directive 2001/18/EC (on the Deliberate Release into the Environment of GMOs) was the mandatory consultation of EFSA and establishment of common principles for risk assessments (i.e. the “science-based” approach proudly highlighted by the EC itself in the early 2000s). But the separation of expert assessment from risk management also led to political decisions on GMO authorisations. This 2001 directive and its associated regulations were meant to restore public confidence. Further clouding scientific knowledge, and making false claims about GMO environmental impacts (as Juncker’s Luxembourg government did (along with Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary and Italy), is more likely to comfort public distrust. The path taken on GMOs is clearly not in line with “A creative and knowledge-based society”. 

In May 2014, EU Environmental Ministers voted to allow individual countries to ban the growing of GMOs in their countries on non-scientific grounds. This was clearly in contradiction with the idea established in 1990 of taking a common decision at the European level on GMOs. It was the first example of a European deconstruction event in the EU’s history. The EU has thus also taken a retrograde step in relegating science to an insignificant position, and not giving it the “same weight” as the new EU president seems to wish.

Juncker’s declaration goes still further, since it concerns “import and processing”. Banning imports would contradict Europe’s commitment to free trade and re-ignite a senseless confrontation at the WTO level between Europe and major GMO producing countries. It would also create difficulties for European meat and poultry producers in feeding their animals, as a consequence of increased feedstock prices.



Gerry's picture

Right from the beginning have green and environmental groups taken the position that with with engineering genes, science had gone a step too far and had become an instrument of evil. Life as it exists is the natural order, if not the way God made it, and making changes on the genetic level was the road to destruction of the living world.
For most people the shock factors of the original achievements have already passed, and genetic modification of plant genes is seen for what it is; as a practice that although not without dangers, radically expands the possibilities of plant breeding.
The green groups however have committed themselves to the position that there is something intrinsically wrong with the modification process, such that it must be opposed in all ways and means as aggressively as possible. In this they attack and oppose the wide evidence obtained by the scientific community, that the technology is safe and the modifications that are used pose no threat to human or animal.
Their position has nothing to do with the truth, but everything with an inability to recognize that their initial judgement was wrong. Only by continuing their blind attack on the technology, the companies and the scientists, can they save themselves from the disgrace of being proven a bunch of ideologically driven liars. If they lose this fight, their credentials will be destroyed. They will rather destroy the scientists credibility and reputations, together with all the possibilities that this technology offers, then let this happen.

Eurochild's picture

Whenever I read these arrogant articles from "scientists" (i.e. people who think they know the truth and everyone else should just shut up and eat whatever crap they want to feed us) I become even more determined never to eat GMO garbage, or at least to avoid it as much as I can, considering how they want to infect all food chains with that crap.

"Scientists" always go on about truth and evidence and facts, yet they don't want the consumer to have these facts. If "scientists" believe GMO garbage should be freely available in the supermarkets and grocers, then they should support it being labelled so that those of us who don't want to consume it can avoid it and those, like Gerry, who do want to eat it can choose to do so.

Except, GMO advocates (propagandists) are AGAINST the labelling of foods with GMO in them. Why? If GMO is so fine and wonderful, why not have it labelled? The fact they so vociferously oppose labelling only raises suspicions and makes those of us who don't want to eat that garbage even more opposed to it.

Gerry also attempts to slander those of us who don't want to eat GMO crap by dismissing us as "green groups", some loons on the fringe. When, in fact, it is the great majority of the citizens of Europe who don't want to have that stuff in our food chains, as has been shown time and again in democratic elections.

Gerry's picture

What should be pointed out is the difference between what is science and what is industry.
The sad part is that despite its huge potential, thanks to the vilification efforts that took place, the only way industry could exploit GM technology is by building monolithic companies like Monsanto. Their contribution to the technology was limited to developing a product that is resistant to a pesticide. That's it. Despite this pathetic effort this company is now the world's largest, the area of crop used for its product runs into the millions of hectares, their crop worldwide penetration.
You could already be wearing a shirt made with GM cotton, or be eating a cereal fortified with GM soy. However most scientists would be more then happy to label products as such, but that is not their decision, this is a regulatory issue between producers and regulators and they are caught in a political struggle. All the scientist can do is assure you that if you were to consume the products, your health would not be affected. They know this for sure but here it's what in the mind that's important, not what's in the stomach.
Feel free to consume GM foods or avoid them, it will make no difference but is a matter of personal choice. This however has long turned into an ideological fight, where parties have become blind to any form of reason. Fight against Monsanto, but there are much more important issues, like the patenting of human genes. Fight against GM, but their products could produce a huge shift in Asia and Africa, when taken out of corporate hands and products developed to serve people's needs. Crops to remedy nutritional shortcomings, crops to tolerate salinity and drought, crops that produce their own fertiliser, produce nutritional seed, fuel, it just goes on.
Science developed the technology, the genie is out of the bottle and won't go back in. What we have to deal with is the application of that technology, and for that we need people working with normal logic not blind dogma.
Unfortunately when Europeans can't distinguish and deal with their fears, Asia and Africa won't either, and it is them who would reap the real benefits here. Europe is short on nothing but sure could use a more prosperous and stable Africa, and food security is a big part of that. They are the ones who are being shortchanged here. If people can't come to terms with the scientific developments, it will fall to fortress companies with large legal teams. And then all influence is gone.
Being against GM science is a bit like being against space flight, which is not a natural thing either, or like being against nuclear power, for the same reason. Science is blind to politics, they just develop what they can, it is up to society to do something with it. The current situation is not the result of that process but the result of the failure of that process. It should be time to set it right.

A Londoner's picture

An interesting discussion. Normally I would consider the US more religious and Europe more rational and scientific but not on this topic.

The best way of viewing the subject is one of religious sensitivity, Many people believe that GMO are evil - their faith tells them that. To be true to their faith they want to avoid eating GMO and to do that they need labelling. Jews eat kosher and Moslems eat hallal; the food is labelled as such. There are precedents .

The scientific evidence persuades me that GMO are safe but it is not about science.

Kathleen Garnett's picture

The EFSA recently approved isoglucose or high fructose corn syryp as "healthier" than sucrose when there are some very credible scientists proposing the exact opposite. Scientists also assured consumers that mad-cow disease was all a fantasy - until they changed their minds. Scientists told consumers for years that vegetable margarine and trans-fats were perfectly safe to consume. Now transfats are banned in pretty much every country in recognition of the harm they do. Scientific truth flows and ebbs like the tide - it is just as much prone to fads and trends as is the fashion industry. Sorry guys I'm just not buying the argument that policies should be decided on science and science alone. Scientific argument should help inform decision makers but it should not be the linch-pin upon which decisions are adopted.