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EC-sponsored Research on Safety of Genetically Modified Organisms - A Review of Results
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J.E. Beringer,
School of Biological Sciences,
University of Bristol (UK)

“GMOs are unsafe and must never be released into the environment.” “We don’t know enough about GMOs to risk releasing them – what is being done about this?” “Why doesn’t someone do something to understand what the risks of GMOs are?” We have all heard these and related comments about GMOs, which have been used by people opposed to the commercialisation of GMOs to demand that “the precautionary principle” be used to halt their use in agriculture. They have encouraged and exploited public unease very effectively because most people are unaware that biosafety research is being done and, with the exception of GM vaccines and other medical uses, there has been very little direct public benefit to counteract perceived risks.

The success of the anti-GM lobby is clearly demonstrated by the fact that in much of Western Europe governments have appeared very ambivalent. They have invested in biotechnology and promoted its advantages, while at the same time they have tacitly accepted delays in the regulatory system for marketing GMOs to ensure that their commercialisation for agriculture has been impeded. The fact that this behaviour has been primarily directed towards satisfying perceived concerns of potential voters, as opposed to providing leadership, is an issue that needs to be debated elsewhere. European governments have most certainly not been helped to appear dispassionate because state-owned plant breeding institutions have been sold to the private sector, thereby strengthening the hold of multinational agrochemical companies over food production. One does not need to be a rabid eco-terrorist to have doubts about the wisdom of so much control of the food chain falling into the hands of multinationals whose financial strength is greater than that of many of the world’s developing countries. To make matters worse, a major public health scare (bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)) has been added to this mixture of distrust, confused leadership, and lack of knowledge. Such was the position in Europe as it approached the end of the 20th century. It is against this background that we need to consider the relevance of the research results published in this volume.

Throughout history ignorance has been a major driver for apparently irrational and backward looking behaviour, for the simple reason that most humans feel uncomfortable when confronted with things and issues they do not understand. It is so much simpler to condemn something than to attempt to understand it. We have a ‘fine tradition’ in Europe of burning those people we do not understand, whether they be witches or heretics, for it is much easier to do this than to try and understand them. It is important to recognise that not far below the surface of us all are emotions that have evolved over many millennia, which are ill adapted to managing the enormous technological changes of the 20th century. We have not had time to evolve brains that can easily handle the quantity or complexity of so many issues facing society today. Furthermore, our educational systems are struggling to come to terms with the need to link scientific and sociological education to provide future citizens with the ability to make knowledge-based risk assessments. Traditionally, strong leadership has provided people with assurance that changes are safe and desirable, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that as general levels of education improve the public becomes less willing to accept authority. I applaud the change, but it carries within it the problems we face in deciding how to communicate the risk/benefit analysis of the use of new technologies. Leaving industry to come forward only with new technologies that are perceived to be advantageous despite apparent risks, such as mobile telephones, is not the solution. It would preclude the introduction of technologies that are less harmful than present ones, but are not deemed to be of value to individuals.

Is it all doom and gloom? It most certainly is not, as this compilation of results from 80 EC-supported projects on GM safety research demonstrates. One of the ‘best kept secrets’ during the last few years of acrimonious discussion about GMOs has been the enormous body of research being conducted in Europe and elsewhere that is directly relevant to risk assessments. For those of us who have been involved in running GM safety committees in Member States there has been a steady stream of research results that have enabled our committees to improve their ability to make risk assessments and recommend safe conditions for the release of GMOs. Even a casual glance at the contents of this publication will confirm that over the last decade the EC has been very effective in identifying important issues and funding appropriate laboratories in which relevant and useful results can be obtained to enrich our understanding of the issues confronting us. A very valuable example has been the research projects on pollen flow and fertilisation in plants, which have greatly enhanced knowledge of the probabilities of cross-pollination of adjacent crops and wild relatives of crop plants. There should not be a GM regulatory system in an EU Member State that has not modified its activities to take into consideration the implications of research derived from EC programmes.

A decade of research has been done and millions of euros have been spent, but the anti-GM lobby’s agenda has hardly changed at all. They profess still to be concerned that we have insufficient knowledge and that no GMO should be released until we can predict with certainty what it, and the cloned genes within it, will do in the environment. Does this demonstrate a failure of the EC programmes? Were the programmes poorly targeted? Was the work unsatisfactory, or is far more work needed? The programmes most certainly have not failed scientifically. In retrospect, one could argue that sociological issues should have been included. For example, how many of us believe that “if only the public knew the issues they would surely understand why we believe that properly tested GM crops and food are safe”. I certainly did. Unfortunately, this belief is almost totally wrong – if indeed a belief can be wrong. The reason why it is wrong is that we confuse knowledge with understanding. Full knowledge of the genetic and biochemical changes arising from a gene-cloning event is useful and certainly helps risk assessments for food safety. However, our understanding at the molecular level (and indeed biological) of the factors that will change the ecology of an organism are very poor indeed. If one assumes that existing crops and foods derived from them are safe, as most people do, GM crops and foods will, for a long time to come, have an aura of uncertainty associated with them. The fact that we do not understand why the enormous changes to genomes that occur during traditional plant breeding do not lead to health or environmental problems with new crops, is neither known by the general public nor taken into consideration by opponents of GMO release. Indeed, if we responded to demands to avoid unpredictable risks to the environment we would have to stop traditional plant breeding and the introduction of different varieties and species of crop plants.

With respect to my comments above about sociological issues, it is here that I would criticise our funding of research over the last decade, but do so with the benefit of hindsight! The programmes have been about biosafety and have concentrated rightly on obtaining scientific understanding, which has benefited risk assessment and furthered our knowledge of basic science. However, in technological societies an assessment of risk needs to include public responses and should take into consideration possible long-term issues that may arise as a result of the commercialisation of new technologies. For GMOs we have concentrated almost solely on risks to human safety and harm to the environment arising from the GMO itself. However, the much-derided problem of secondary impacts that may result from the displacement of existing, and particularly traditional, practices has been largely ignored. There have been few voices louder than my own in criticising the demands for a “Fourth Hurdle” for GMOs, but where was the research to support or overturn criticism of it? It is surely time that we paid more attention to the impact of technology on societies, because if we do not the rate of progress of technology will greatly outstrip our ability to handle its impacts. We benefit from change, but is every safe development to be accepted regardless of how it might change our perception of ourselves and the world around us? (1)

The problem of how to proceed with the development and commercialisation of GMOs confronts us with very difficult policy decisions. Should we conduct research to facilitate marketing, or to develop understanding? If the first is our priority, the projects to fund would be those that identify risks and uncertainties associated with conventional plant breeding and different agricultural practices. The public might find it easier to understand relative risks if there was a greater understanding of the enormous unpredictability of conventional plant breeding, but would they benefit from the increased uncertainty about food safety? The EC research programmes have taken the correct course of funding high-quality basic science and we should not be deflected from our objective to develop increased understanding. Our role as scientists is to obtain and interpret information so that governments and their advisors are in the best possible position to identify the best route forward. It is important to remember that EU countries are part of a larger world in which the major trading partner is the USA – a country in which concerns about the safety of GM crops are so much less that various categories have been deregulated. World trade rules require governments wishing to control the movement of products to provide appropriate scientifically-based reasons for interfering in free trade. Whether one agrees with outspoken opposition to GMOs within Europe or not, we can hardly expect farmers elsewhere in the world to segregate crops that are not subject to regulatory control in their own country without providing very compelling reasons for so doing.

The EC programmes have provided a very good basis for moving ahead in the 21st century with an increased awareness of possible problems and knowledge of relevant science. I have concentrated my comments on GMOs because concerns about their safety have provided the impetus for funding the research. We should realise that environmental harm is not something that will happen only if we use GMOs, but is something that is happening all around us as a consequence of human activities that predate GMOs. Our exploitation of natural resources and the increasing intensification of agriculture cause great harm to the environment and biodiversity. If we are to halt and redress this harm should we not concentrate research on how to satisfy the needs of humans, while at the same time respecting and protecting wildlife and the environment? Almost all such research would be directly applicable to the need to assess the safety of GMOs. It would also have the enormous benefit of leading to regulatory systems in which all activities would be subject to appropriate risk assessment. Such funding would be entirely relevant to the needs of regulatory bodies and those making GM products. It would also tackle the real causes of environmental harm and should, in time, lead to a compilation of research results that are at least as useful as those published here.

From 1992 to 1999 Sir John Beringer was Chair of the UK Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE).

(1) Editors' note: Over the past decade EC research programmes have supported many studies, workshops and other actions addressing broader socio-economic aspects and implications of biotechnology. Currently, the Fifth Framework Programme's 'Key Action' approach explicitly seeks to link research projects to broader socio-economic missions of European relevance. For details see the "Biosociety" website at:

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