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.