What is a legitimate environmental target?

5 Dec 2013

Professor Seralini is not a household name but he has been in the limelight in the ‘GMO world’ for a few years. He is Professor of Molecular Biology at the University of Caen in France and has been known to be against genetic modification. I’m not sure whether he held such views before he started to carry out studies on feeding GMOs to rats or only after he perceived the conclusions of such studies.

In September 2012, his group published a peer reviewed paper titled "Long-term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize". It concluded that feeding studies proved that GM maize caused more tumours to occur in rats than from feeding conventional maize. There are various rumours on who funded the study, but they are all anti-GM organisations.

What was unusual was that steps appear to have been taken to ensure that the first news stories published about the study would not be critical of its methods or results. Science journalists were briefed prior to its official publication only on condition that they did not mention the paper to any independent researchers or outside experts. By the day of its publication, anti-GM activists were all briefed for interviews with the wider media and there was even a beautifully crafted video available on websites. 

However, the cunning plan did not quite work. A copy of the paper was circulated to independent researchers just prior to publication.  This enabled the Science Media Centre to produce a document on the day of publication in which leading scientists commented on the validity of the conclusions made by Professor Seralini and his colleagues. This resulted in most of the national media not mentioning the paper at all. This all suggested that there was a mood change in the media both towards GM and also to the methods being adopted by anti-GM groups.

That mood change has continued. Articles that support the cultivation of GM crops have started to appear in the national press. In addition, politicians, notably Owen Paterson, have spoken forcefully on the subject and various other governments are also taking a more pro-GM stance.  

After a year-long analysis, the peer review journal has now retracted Seralini’s paper on the basis of interpretation of the data generated by the feeding studies. However, Professor Seralini is not taking this lying down and is contesting the decision. He is even threatening legal action, mentioning that a member of the editorial board of the journal once carried out a piece of research for Monsanto. In the anti-GM world this is equivalent to supping with the devil. This view is now becoming outdated as many in society are as suspicious of research funded by an anti-GM group(s) as they are of research funded by commercial companies.

However, I hope that the alleged ‘getting rid of green crap’ remark made by our Prime Minister does not allow the pendulum to swing too far towards ignoring legitimate concerns over the environment. Reducing environmental damage can be an expensive process but may have larger longer-term commercial and societal gains. The issue is defining a legitimate concern.

I was reminded of this during a lecture I recently attended. Arable weeds have prospered only since the adoption of cultivated crops. Prior to that they were restricted to small areas where the soil was regularly moved by natural processes, for example by soil erosion. Hence, the introduction of arable cropping gave them the ideal opportunity to thrive, particularly before the introduction of effective herbicides. During this period, many farmland bird species also thrived because these arable weeds supported their insect food.

GM herbicide tolerant crops have been questioned because their adoption could reduce the numbers of arable weed seeds in soils. However, fundamentalist ecologists would say that arable cropping is, by definition, damaging to a totally natural environment. This suggests that they are not over-concerned about arable weed seed levels in the soil. With such contrasting views, no wonder we’re all struggling to get a clear view on just what are the legitimate targets for environmental policy.