PR 03/12 ENSSER calls for scientific debate of potential health risks of GM wheat instead of ad hominem attacks on researchers
19 Sep 2012 – On 11 September 2012, the Science Media Centre (SMC) published response comments (by Prof. Rick Roush, Assoc. Prof. Peter Dearden, Prof. Peter Langridge and Dr. Ian Edwards) in reply to expert scientific opinions about the safety of GM wheat varieties that have been developed by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) of Australia. The expert opinions were written by three risk assessment researchers, molecular biologist Prof. Jack Heinemann of Canterbury University (New Zealand), biochemist and epidemiologist Assoc. Prof. Judy Carman of Flinders University (Australia), and molecular geneticist Dr. Michael Antoniou of Kings College London (UK). The expert opinions were written in the form of reports and were prepared at the request of the Safe Food Institute of Australia, and communicated by the associated Safe Food Foundation.
After reviewing the response comments, ENSSER is disappointed by the Science Media Centre’s decision to post personal attacks by the commentators on the authors of the original reports, rather than engage in a scientific debate that might have been useful to journalists, its stated audience.
ENSSER encourages the three commentators posting to the Australian SMC website to take future opportunities to address the science rather than usethese platforms to engage in ad hominem argumentation. The CSIRO, the Australian regulator (the OGTR), and each of these commentators could, and still can, put forth their own risk assessments to the public at any time. This is what we would have expected if the SMC were intending to provide clarity to the media.
In their post to the SMC, the commentators challenge the reports produced by Carman and Heinemann based on normative judgements, unsubstantiated assumptions, an apparently poor understanding risk assessment processes, and undignified name-calling.
Roush and Langridge begin their comments with an attempt to discredit the scientists by calling them “anti-GM campaigners” and “ideologically opposed to GM crops”. Roush accuses the scientists of “deliberately bypass[ing] independent scientific assessment” and of practising “anti-GM so-called ‘science'”, while Edwards accuses them of “grossly premature alarmism”. Langridge claims that the authors of the expert opinions “studiously ignore[d] the majority of the scientific literature and data”. He further accuses them of deliberately avoiding “the normal process of peer review” and seeking “the appearance of credibility” for “scientifically flawed articles” by putting out a statement by someone with “no real knowledge” of the relevant science and pretending it is “proper science”. In other words, Langridge is accusing the authors of perpetrating a kind of scientific fraud. None of these claims can be substantiated, and the commentators do nothing to substantiate them.
Roush and Dearden call Heinemann’s report ‘speculative’. All risk assessments are speculative because they are performed before the release of the product, whether for a field trial, for animal or human testing, or for a full release. The process requires considering exposure pathways that would exist, adverse effects that could arise, and hypotheses about how to detect any adverse effect if it were to occur and finally to determine if the effect was caused by the genetic modification and how this would be detected. Only after such experimentation is completed would the assessment not be speculative, but then there would be no point to risk assessment!
And we note that when CSIRO in its response says, “High amylose wheat has increased levels of resistant starch, which could have positive benefits for bowel health and people with diabetes” [emphasis added], this is also ‘speculative’.
Roush claims erroneously that the authors “bypassed independent scientific assessment.” when they did not. Like many government and other reports, they had their findings critically reviewed by fellow scientists (in addition to Dr. Antoniou). They did not send their report to a journal in this instance or seek blind review. However, neither has Roush for his claims (made to ABC radio that the “likelihood that this would happen in humans is very very small”). This conclusion is the outcome of a risk assessment and therefore, by Roush’s standard, should have been subjected to “independent scientific assessment”. At this time, we are not aware of any blind peer-reviewed journal articles that demonstrate the absence of the potential adverse effects outlined by Drs. Heinemann and Carman, who have publicly requested the evidence. Nor have we seen any blind peer-review of the Australian regulator’s risk assessment.
Langridge accuses the report authors of ignoring “the majority of the scientific literature and data” on the safety of GM crops. Is Langridge aware that proper risk assessment is performed on a case-by-case basis? The safety of this particular form of GM wheat cannot be extrapolated from risk assessments of other kinds of plants, other kinds of modifications and modifications for other intended purposes, nor could the OGTR accept such an extrapolation.
Meanwhile, industry representative Edwards quizzically imposes an expiration date on risk assessments. If a risk was not raised at one time, he seems to believe that it cannot be raised later, even if it is a valid risk. We are not aware of any competent authority that would exclude new information at any time. Contrary to Edwards’ highly personal views, CSIRO says ‘the claims [by Heinemann, Carman and Antoniou] will be considered by CSIRO and the regulatory bodies in the context of all other relevant research in this area.’ This is what the report authors were seeking and ENSSER welcomes that response by CSIRO.
ENSSER believes that the public, and science, are done a disservice when debate is reduced to ad hominem attack. Further, we believe that both science and the public can be harmed if research is impeded by the ‘chilling effect’ of such attacks. The public is entitled to a full and informed debate; scientific disagreement should result in further research, not dismissal through personal attack. Drs. Antoniou, Carman and Heinemann have engaged in proper scientific debate. Their expert opinions are based on evidence; their methodology, assumptions, reasoning and data have been provided for all to evaluate. SMC and other such outlets as well as fellow scientists should ensure that responses to their work do the same.
Dr. Angelika Hilbeck, ETH Zürich, (E) firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Hartmut Meyer, ENSSER, (E) email@example.com
11.09.2012: Media release of the Safe Food Foundation & Institute
11.09.2012: Expert opinions and appraisal published by the Safe Food Foundation & Institut, files as download:
11.09.2012: Rapid action at SMC web page, “Safety of CSIRO GM wheat – experts respond” as download