Letter to Prime Minister re: 114 Biotechnology Scientists

Text of an SGR letter sent to the Prime Minister, The Right Honourable Tony Blair, MP, on 6 November 2003

[* These comments also form the basis of an article by Dr Eva Novotny in the Guardian newspaper of the same date.]

cc: The Right Honourable Margaret Beckett MP
DEFRA, Nobel House, 17 Smith Square, London SW1P 3JR

The Right Honourable Patricia Hewitt MP
DTI, 1 Victoria Street, London SW1H 0ET

Mr Nigel Griffiths MP
DTI, 1 Victoria Street, London SW1H 0ET

Dear Prime Minister,

Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) is an organisation of some 600 UK scientists concerned by the use and misuse of science and technology, and we would like to comment* on some of the points made by the 114 biotechnology scientists in their letter to you, dated 30th October, with which we disagree.

Genetic modification of crops was introduced by multinational companies as an initiative for making potentially huge profits, leading ultimately to the control of the food chain. It has been seized upon by the Government as a significant contributor to the British economy. Unfortunately, the products were developed and then sold to American farmers and put upon the plates of the American public without making clear the nature of the technology that had been used. By the time these companies were ready to repeat their marketing operations in Europe, many of the scientists and the general public in Europe were already informed about the technology. They had also gathered information about the uncertainty, unreliability and the many failures of the modification process itself and of the performance of genetically-modified crops in the field. Europeans said ‘No’ to allowing such crops to be grown here. Free-marketeers might ask why a new kind of food should be inflicted on a population if some 90% does not want to buy it.

Scientists who have spent the last several years pointing out the dangers of genetic engineering, only to have their warnings dismissed by Government advisory bodies, will be surprised that the signatories to the letter feel that the Government has not been doing enough to support them. The Government has, in fact, been keen to promote genetic modification, even appointing a Science Minister who has made great contributions to the industry and who has himself a large vested interest (in a blind trust) in its success. Advisory and regulatory bodies are weighted with pro-GM members with close connections to the GM industry and, as recently seen with the GM Science Review Panel, members sympathetic to arguments against GM crops may be subjected to harassment.

It is understandable that scientists who have for several years enjoyed a bonanza of funding for research on genetic engineering should be dismayed when a threat to the continuation of their good fortune suddenly emerges. In response to public disquiet about the entire issue of GM crops and foods, the Government that was their patron and which provided enormous sums of money for their work, commissioned studies designed to allay the fears of the public and to convince them of the benefits of accepting GM technology. Unfortunately for the pro-GM scientists, and to the surprise and embarrassment of the Government, the studies have provided evidence supporting many of the arguments made by anti-GM campaigners. The letter from the 114 scientists is a plea to the Government to save them, in spite of ever more evidence of the damage resulting from their research.

Science has reached a point where the imagination and technical capabilities of scientists are running ahead faster than society can evaluate and control the outcome of their achievements. The perception of many scientists is that all that can be done in science should be done – and if we do not do it, a competitor will. But their theoretical models of the natural world do not encompass the complexities of the real natural world. Nature works in profoundly subtle, intricately balanced and interconnected ways that the human race does not yet fully appreciate. It is for this reason that independent scientists urge caution before we release into the environment and into our own bodies, crops and foods that have been developed by crossing not only dissimilar species but even kingdoms. The long-term consequences cannot be predicted.

We have already begun to see some of the adverse effects of genetic engineering, such as the creation of several kinds of superweeds with multiple herbicide-resistance in Canada (a fact, not a ‘claim’); spread of GM genes to wild plants in the United Kingdom; damage to organs and the immune system of experimental animals given GM feed; transfer of GM DNA to bacteria in the human gut. Experiments showing harm to animals and transfer of GM material in human gut have not been repeated or carried further. This is not surprising, as scientists who present evidence of harm of a controversial process have been pilloried in the past. This has been true not only in the case of GM crops but also in the crises of BSE and foot-and-mouth disease, for example.

The obligation of the Government must not be to protect the interests of the 114 (and other) scientists who have unfortunately been led up an unfruitful path but rather to look beyond and to step back from a rush to engage fully in a technology that already shows signs of threatening human health and the environment. Let the molecular biologists turn their attention to genuinely advantageous uses of their knowledge and abilities in ways that do not invade the genome. Scientists must work in partnership with nature, avoiding further stress and disruption of life and the environment on which life depends. Only under such conditions can we be confident that science will lead us to a better future.

Yours sincerely

Dr Eva Novotny (Co-ordinator on GM issues), Dr Stuart Parkinson (Director) and Dr Philip Webber (Chair) Scientists for Global Responsibility

* These comments also form the basis of an article by Dr Eva Novotny in the Guardian newspaper.

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