Open Letter: Sense About Science and the "science response" to Scotland's GMO ban
As expected, the Scottish ban on GMO plantings has received a lot of media coverage. Also as expected, and bang on schedule, there is a rather silly response purporting to come from "the science establishment" and designed to put the fear of God into the Minister, Richard Lochhead. Some may have seen the media reports (in the Guardian and Times) about the protests from "learned scientific organizations" re the Scottish Government's ban on GMOs. These reports are typically biased and misleading, and deserve to be treated with contempt:
This grubby little campaign was of course initiated and coordinated by Sense About Science:
We have seen the letter sent to scientists on their list as they seek to canvass support. It was written by somebody called Dr Chris Peters, who refers to himself as "Scientific Liaison" at SAS.
It turns out that the Letter sent to the Minister is so badly written as to be ludicrous, just as the claim that the letter comes from "28 research organizations" is also ludicrous. We have responded as below.
While this is a entertaining at one level, please note that the GMO industry still uses the tactic, at every opportunity, of pretending that there is a scientific consensus on GMO safety, and that "the science establishment" has already decided that GMOs are completely harmless. The apologists for the industry will push that line at every opportunity, especially with politicians who can always conveniently be accused of placing politics above "sound science."
In this case, we happen to think that Mr Lochhead and his colleagues have demonstrated a rather sophisticated appreciation of the science surrounding GMOs, and that Dr Peters and his cronies are stuck in a time-warp, pushing a pro-GMO agenda which is more and more out of tune with the scientific evidence.
To the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment,
18th August 2015
Dear Mr Lochhead,
Letter from Sense About Science regarding Scotland's GMO ban
I have seen a copy of the absurd letter sent to you by the organization called Sense About Science, purporting to come from 28 learned institutions.
I urge you to pay no attention to it whatsoever, since Sense About Science has a very murky reputation. It is pro-GM and pro-industry lobby group that has been funded by corporations whose interests it defends against critics. It has worked in cooperation with people from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Royal Society, the John Innes Centre, and CropGen to promote GM crops. For years this organization has ignored the scientific evidence of harm associated with GMO crops and the associated agrichemicals, and it appears to have no concern for public health. It claims that the letter comes from "28 research organizations" -- but that claim is nonsensical. It is laughable for the writer of this letter to pretend that it has been signed or endorsed by the Universities of Bangor, Dundee and Edinburgh or by the Science Council or the Royal Society of Edinburgh, amongst others. These are large organizations in which nobody is empowered to sign on behalf of the organization as a whole; probably in each case one of Dr Chris Peters's cronies has signed on a piece of headed notepaper.
In any case, given the highly questionable nature of the statements contained in the letter, I cannot imagine any senior academic agreeing to the use of his / her signature. I should like to highlight just a few points:
1. The claim that the Scottish ban has been brought in "regardless of current or future scientific evidence..." is without foundation. The ban is entirely in tune with current scientific evidence demonstrating both health and environmental harm associated with GMOs and the chemicals that go with them, and the Scottish Government is to be congratulated on the appropriate use of the Precautionary Principle in these circumstances.
2. The writer claims that "......this decision is political and not based on any informed scientific assessment of risk". That statement is arrogant and ill-informed, since there are abundant scientific assessments of risk which bring with them dire warnings of what will happen to public health and the environment if GMO crop planting proceeds in an uncontrolled manner. From where I stand, your decision relating to a ban is underpinned by quite a sophisticated appreciation of the science, and a recognition that there is no consensus.
3. You are accused of having "...... an approach to evidence that surprises and disappoints many scientists and non-scientists alike." This statement is based upon the assumption (perpetrated by Ann Glover at every opportunity) that there is no evidence in the literature of any harm associated with GMO crops and foods. That is a lie, as we have constantly pointed out to her -- and yet she still repeats it at every opportunity. Sadly, she is not a good scientist, although she might well be a good technologist.
4. Then we find this: "Genetic modification of plants has become a well established method and has a 20-year track record of safe use worldwide." That is another blatant lie, as the writer of this letter must know. It is an oft-repeated lie, but repetition does not turn a lie into the truth.
5. And finally this with respect to GMOs: "By banning their use in Scotland, this country would be prevented from benefiting from future innovations in agriculture, fisheries and healthcare and consigned to continued use of the old." Again, the writer conflates the genetic manipulation of plants and the production of GMOs with biotechnology. As you have already pointed out, the ban will have no effect on biotechnology research and innovation, either within Scottish research establishments or elsewhere.
The writer and his friends bemoan "the potential negative effect on science in Scotland" and urge you to "protect the freedom and integrity of science." That's a bit rich, I must say, since those involved in the promotion of GMOs within the science community have been involved in ongoing desperate attempts to skew scientific data, to promote fraudulent research techniques, to attack scientists like Arpad Pusztai who happen to discover "inconvenient" things relating to GMOs, and to systematically ignore the flood of peer-reviewed literature demonstrating a range of negative health and other effects. Integrity in the GMO science community is a rare commodity indeed.
I hope you will ignore the SAS letter, which has all the hallmarks of something cobbled together in haste by a small group of individuals who have powerful vested interests in the GM industry. That industry makes a lot of noise, but it is actually very insignificant, and has very little to offer to a modern and successful Scotland.
Dr Brian John
COPY OF THE SAS LETTER
To the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment in the Scottish Government
Mr Richard Lochhead
17th August 2015
Dear Mr Lochhead
Your announcement that the Scottish Government proposes to ban cultivation of all genetically modified crops, regardless of current or future scientific evidence about the benefits of particular applications, risks constraining Scotland's contribution to research and leaving Scotland without access to agricultural innovations which are making farming more sustainable elsewhere in the world.
As you and others have indicated, this decision is political and not based on any informed scientific assessment of risk. This is of course your prerogative. It is an approach to evidence that surprises and disappoints many scientists and non-scientists alike. Scotland’s scientific leadership dates back to the Enlightenment of the 18th century and continues now with world-class universities and science institutes.
Genetic modification of plants has become a well established method and has a 20-year track record of safe use worldwide, as evidenced by the European Academies Science Advisory Council report, Planting the Future. Scientists are developing new plant breeding techniques that may be classified as GM in the future. Scottish researchers and agricultural challenges, such as potato blight and tree diseases, have informed that scientific development. Will they now be prevented from making further contributions in future?
Traits currently being investigated that might benefit Scotland's farmers, consumers and environment include potatoes that can reduce fungicide use and omega-3 enriched oilseeds that could provide a more sustainable source of feed for salmon farming. There are many other needs for the development of disease-resistant, pest-resistant and climate resilient crops, where a GM method has a contribution to make.
By banning their use in Scotland, this country would be prevented from benefiting from future innovations in agriculture, fisheries and healthcare and consigned to continued use of the old. We are thus extremely concerned about the potential negative effect on science in Scotland. We ask urgently for a meeting where researchers can discuss these concerns with you and consider ways to protect the freedom and integrity of science, and its use in policies, in Scotland in the future.
Academia Europaea Biochemical Society British Society of Plant Breeders Durham Crop Improvement Centre European Academies Science Advisory Council
Institute of Food Science and Technology John Innes Centre National Farmers Union National Institute of Agricultural Botany, Cambridge National Institutes of Bioscience
Public Research and Regulation Initiative Robert Gordon University Rothamsted Research Royal Society of Edinburgh
Society for Applied Microbiology Society for Experimental Biology School of Biosciences at the University of Kent Science Council Science Team, Eden Project Sense About Science The Roslin Institute The Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich UK Plant Science Federation University of Bangor University of Dundee University of Edinburgh University of Hertfordshire Wissenschafterkreis Grüne Gentechnik (WGG)