Victoria’s ban on genetically modified (GM) food crops ends tomorrow — and following widespread media exposure of the putative health and environmental hazards of GM food, chief scientist Gustav Nossal will be joined by three scientists for a media conference to brief journalists on “Which concerns [about GM food crops] are the most justified? Which risks can be managed and which can’t?”.
Yet tomorrow’s briefing is “vested interests masquerading as public interest science,” claims Greenpeace spokesperson Louise Sales. Comprising scientists who campaigned in support of lifting the bans, it was organised by the Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC), which claims itself “free of bias”. But absent are any independent scientists who warn of dangers of GM food, like biochemist and nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton OAM, or medical scientist Professor Stephen Leeder, or epidemiologist Dr Judy Carman, or crop research scientist Dr Maartan Stapper. There are many others.
Media Manager Lyndal Gully told Crikey in an email:
There was no attempt to line up a panel with a particular GM viewpoint … [but] if scientists on the panel are more likely to end up arguing with each other rather than answering journalists’ questions, then there is a good chance that the science (that either side is trying to communicate) will be lost in the story.
Gene Ethics director Bob Phelps said the selected scientists “are speaking way outside their area of scientific expertise.” But AusSMC CEO Susannah Eliot said the panel was chosen because “they have done the research and have the knowledge-base, and they are happy to be grilled by the media.”
One panellist, Dr TJ Higgins, is CSIRO’s co-inventor of the ill-fated GM field pea, abandoned because it caused lung-damage when fed to mice. His published claims that “there isn’t a single piece of evidence that [GM food is] any less safe than conventional food” reportedly prompted the ire of environmental scientist Dr Brian John, who branded these claims “a lie.” Experimental biologist Dr Arpad Puzstai also said “Most of Dr Higgins’ comments are factually incorrect … the final refuge of the incompetent.”
Critics of second panelist Dr Chris Preston claim his published reviews ignore negative studies. Professor Rainer Mosenthin reportedly said Preston’s methods should be disregarded as they “have limited scientific value”.
And third panelist Professor Rick Roush reportedly failed to disclose his research funding by GM companies. Allegedly as a result, Science journal revised its disclosure policy, as it is recognised that industry-funded research tends to be much more industry-favourable than independent research.
Accusations don’t amount to guilt — and many anti-GM-food scientists also face public mud-slinging (including from some on this panel). This is the problem, says AusSMC’s CEO Susannah Eliot. “The issue is so polarised it gets tricky to select a panel. Many scientists are happy to discuss the issues privately but aren’t willing to speak publicly because they don’t want to be labelled as pro- or anti-GM.”
Disclosure: Katherine Wilson’s family owns biotechnology shares, but she wrote a submission in support of a moratorium on GM food crops.