Skip to content

Email exchange with between Martin Livermore and Peter Melchett, Policy Director of the Soil Association

See Newsletter: Science, safety and prejudice

From: Peter Melchett Sent: 23 May 2016 13:18 To: Scientific Alliance

Subject: An authoritative new report on GM crops is unlikely to change minds, argues The Scientific Alliance

Dear Martin Livermore,

You attack the Soil Association's response to a new report on GM crops from the US National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine as being ‘spurious’, but in doing so you come up with a couple of arguments which seem to fly in the face of the most basic scientific principles.

First, as you say, we raise the fact that there have been only a limited number of long-term animal studies looking at the impact of GM crops on health outcomes. In a review article, scientists looking at this evidence a few years ago suggested that roughly half of the studies showed there were grounds for concern and half did not. The scientists conducting the review noted that those studies which did not give rise to grounds for concern were all funded by or connected to the GM industry itself. (1)

Your response to a suggestion that there have not been long-term human health studies was to say that there has been a long-term study, namely the ‘20 years of consumption of GM soy in America’.  I have never heard of any scientific study being done on the impact on the general population of consuming GM soy in America or anywhere else.  As you know, such a study would need to look at the impact of GM soy compared to a control group not eating GM soy, and ideally look at the impact of the long-term consumption of GM soy, so the study allowed adequate time for the increasingly common diseases of old age to emerge in the population being studied.  Do you have a reference for any such study? I do not think this has happened, and I don't see that you strengthen the case for GM crops by pretending that it has. Are you not equating absence of evidence with evidence of absence?

Of course, if you're suggesting that we can draw on what we know about diet -related ill-health in the US during the period in which GM crops have been consumed, making what I would see as a basic scientific error of mistaking correlation with causation, we know that that related ill-health has massively worsened in this period, with rising rates of obesity, cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes.  If you really meant to link these very negative developments in American health with the consumption of GM soy, it would have been helpful for you to say so.

You then go on to say that there is ‘no credible scientific-based argument against genetic modification’, and you imply that opposition to GM crops, like opposition to climate change, has no scientific basis, and that there is an overwhelming scientific consensus in favour of GM. You will know from the peer-reviewed scientific literature that this is plain wrong. A document signed by hundreds of scientists worldwide shows that the so-called scientific consensus does not exist. (2)

It is this sort of misrepresentation of the truth, claiming scientific evidence of no harm where no research has actually been done, and claiming to be the only source of scientific truth in the face of disagreement from many scientists, which has so discredited the arguments for GM.

You attribute the failure of GM food in so many countries, not just in the EU, but in Japan, Russia, China and many others, to the power of NGOs like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association. Even a passing knowledge of what has actually happened with GM food would tell you that the main reason that GM crops have not taken off as was widely predicted in the 1990s, when many people, including the then US President and the UK Prime Minister thought that all of our food would be GM by 2000, is because citizens did not want this to happen. In the UK, supermarkets dropped GM food from their shelves, in the face of strong support for GM from Tony Blair and many of the supermarkets themselves, because they understood that their customers didn't want to buy these products. They said at the time that if there was clear demand for GM food from their customers, they would put it back on the shelf.  It is the fact that there has not been any such demand which has led to GM food remaining off the shelves in countries in Europe and elsewhere in the world.  

Although leading scientific bodies have been issuing reports since the 1990s saying that GM crops and food are completely safe, this report contained an interesting departure, in that it was the first one to be clear that there have been some significant failures with GM crops. The report is clear, for example, the GM has not increased yields despite that being the key promise from Monsanto and others back in the 1990s, and the key claim of all supporters of GM crops throughout the intervening period.

For supporters of science, and the Soil Association is certainly that, the most disappointing thing about bodies such as yours, which we assume also support the basic principles of scientific enquiry, is the extent to which you are prepared to completely ignore the evidence of what is happening with GM crops in countries like the USA.  There we have seen that the development of multiple resistance to a number of herbicides, long predicted by opponents, and always denied by GM proponents, has happened, often with devastating impacts on farmers. Insect resistance has taken longer to emerge, but the insect resistant crops have faced huge problems, not only being implicated in the dramatic decline of the Monarch butterfly in North America, but credited with encouraging the emergence of new insect pests on maize (corn), and just recently, having completely failed to counter a major pest of cotton in India, the pink bollworm, leading to massive losses for Indian cotton growers, and a sharp move away from GM cotton.

I know, if you're a pro-GM ideologue, what's actually happening out on the farm and in the fields, whether it's in the USA or India, is an inconvenient distraction, but as a farmer, I am more interested in the evidence of what has actually happened in the 20 odd years since some countries started growing GM crops. I do not see anything in that experience which would suggest that countries, like those with most of the farmland in the EU, several African countries, Russia and elsewhere, have got it wrong in deciding not to use this technology in their agriculture - indeed, those countries that have decided to ban GM crops now out-number those growing GM.  As you know, no doubt in the light of the experience I've mentioned, the area of GM crops fell last year, it looks like falling again this year as well. 

I hope, as part of your support for scientific principles, you welcome open debate, and will publish this response alongside your article?

Yours sincerely,

Peter Melchett

Policy Director, Soil Association

  1. A literature review on the safety assessment of genetically modified plants; Domingo and Bordonaba; Environment International 37 (2011) 734–742
  2. Hilbeck et al. Environmental Sciences Europe (2015) 27:4

 

From: Scientific Alliance Sent: 24 May 2016 10:06

To: Peter Melchett Subject: Re: An authoritative new report on GM crops is unlikely to change minds, argues The Scientific Alliance

Dear Peter,

Thanks for your comments. Since I think that we are unlikely to change each other's minds on this issue, I'll be quite brief. 

In essence, you are arguing against a specific technology, while I am supporting its appropriate and properly regulated application. To suggest that it is possible to conduct any meaningful long term study on the health effects of eating GM foods is misleading. It is difficult enough to draw meaningful conclusions for the effects of really significant differences in diets; what you are suggesting is akin to finding differences between two groups of people eating different varieties of the same vegetable or meat from different breeds of animals. 

GM crops are not a panacea, and it was foolish of anyone to suggest they ever would be. Nevertheless, the technology allows targeted (but limited) changes to be made to traits and it is these traits that we need to evaluate. The development of resistance to glyphosate or Bt toxins is hardly a new phenomenon in agriculture and is not due to GM per se. Increasing yields and reducing losses as such resistance evolves is an ongoing challenge, whatever we grow.

The present generation of GM crops has been very successful, despite comprising a handful of crops and effectively two traits. That the acreage is now plateauing (at a very significant level) is hardly surprising: in many regions the market is effectively saturated. 

Considerable progress can still be made via 'conventional' crop breeding and better management of crops. GM technology can provide additional benefits, just as I'm sure gene editing will do in the future. And, unfortunately, I assume the Soil Association will also oppose this technology rather than embracing its potential. 

With best regards from one ideologue to another, 

Martin Livermore

 

From: Peter Melchett Sent: 24 May 2016 12:14 To: Scientific Alliance

Subject: Re: An authoritative new report on GM crops is unlikely to change minds, argues The Scientific Alliance

Dear Martin,

Well – there’s brief, and there is refusal to justify anything you said!  Worse, having originally said GM food is safe, in part because of a long-term study, namely (in your words) the ‘20 years of consumption of GM soy in America’, you now say ‘To suggest that it is possible to conduct any meaningful long term study on the health effects of eating GM foods is misleading’.  You make it sound as if this was my suggestion, but it was you who claimed it has been done.  Misleading indeed.

As a matter of fact, resistance to glyphosate, and Bt insecticides, were almost unknown in agriculture before the arrival of GM crops, and have become a major problem where GM crops are grown – not, for example, in EU countries including the UK.

You didn’t say if you would be willing to publish by response to your article attacking the Soil Association.  Will you do so?

If I were an ideologue, I think I should be opposing GM medicines, which I do not, nor do any of the major groups opposing GM crops.  I am opposed to GM crops, on scientific (the inherent uncertainty and unpredictability of the technology), environmental, human health and agricultural policy grounds, and have been opposed for over 20 years.  Nevertheless I continue to be shocked by the willingness of scientists, or those cloaking themselves in science like the ‘Scientific Alliance’ or ‘Science Media Centre’ to happily abuse fundamental principles of science in their support for this one application of GM. 

So, from one who cares about science, evidence, and open debate to one who clearly does not,

Peter Melchett