October 8, 2012
François Houllier, INRA President and CEO, presents the Institute's position on the current GMO debate and research in the public sector.
Some say that public sector research on GMOs is absent, and that this encouraged Gilles-Eric Seralini to conduct a secret study to demonstrate that the use of NK603 maize from Monsanto, genetically modified to tolerate the herbicide Roundup, causes rat mammary tumours and organic disorders of kidney and liver leading inevitably to increased mortality.
Yet, a few days have sufficed for the French and international scientific community, as well as the most enlightened media and social networks, to reveal the ambiguities of this work. The reliability and consequences of this study are being evaluated by ANSES(1) at the request of the French government, and by EFSA(2) at the request of the European Commission. Will the sensational conclusion concerning the poisonous effect of GMOs be confirmed after these tests? The results will soon come to the surface in the case of maize NK603.
A few days have also helped take the measure of the underlying communications strategy: the exclusivity of the study’s conclusions given to a single popular magazine, parallel to the promotion of books and films developing theories based on results that had not yet been subjected to any scientific criticism. Is such a campaign consistent with the standard deontological practices of scientific publications? The scientific community is stunned, and the international journal Nature has shown great concern.
The poison of fear and doubt is now in the air, with fear among consumers. The impact of this study, even if its conclusions are not yet confirmed, has led to a recent survey stating that eight out of ten French people are concerned about the possible presence of GMOs in their food. Doubts also abound vis-à-vis publicly funded research not fulfilling its function or deliberately ignoring this issue because of its relationships with firms in the agro-chemistry industry. Following such reasoning, those who criticize this study would thus be suspected of conflicts of interest or collusion with these firms, in addition to being held guilty of abandoning consumers at risk. The effect is immediate: increased distrust toward "the system" as a whole.
The harm is done. It is unfair, but not irreparable. Some examples, known to those who challenge the supposed inertia of State and research organizations, show that public research is indeed conducted on GMOs, and often in difficult conditions. Some activists aim to prevent experimental work in a real environment despite the fact that this is necessary in order to provide valid answers regarding legitimate questions from our citizens.
Example number one: GMOs and their impact on the environment. In Alsace (France), within the framework of a programme against fanleaf, a disease that is ravaging vineyards worldwide, the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) attempted to explore a scientific track, among many others, to fight against the disease while studying its possible environmental impact by using test rootstock vines genetically modified to resist the virus transmitted by tiny earthworms. Despite an intense dialogue with the wine sector, environmental NGOs, consumer associations, and local communities, aiming to clarify the terms of the experiment, the test crops were destroyed in August 2010 by volunteer reapers even though it was not meant to serve any commercial purpose and was funded solely by public subsidy.
Example number two: The possible toxicity of another GM maize developed by Monsanto, Mon810, currently subject to a moratorium on its cultivation in France. On 28 November 2011, the State Council, in the wake of the European Court of Justice, ruled in favor of Monsanto against France and canceled directives that prohibited cultivation in the country, having failed "to demonstrate the existence of a particularly high level of risk to human health or the environment." On 16 March 2012, France issued a new decree banning GM cultivation after making its arguments to the European Commission, and asked for a reassessment. Taking this into account, the European Commission launched a call for research proposals on the toxicity of this genetically modified maize meant to resist some pests, as well as on the assessment of the overall impact of this GMO. Along with other European partners, INRA has been selected to lead this project; results will be available in three years. This project is actually not the first of its kind – other studies have already been carried out on the subject of GM food toxicity. This new research, which is more comprehensive and uses newer methods, will complement current findings and will, we hope, bring definitive results.
What should we take from this? In the end, Mr. Seralini’s work satisfies those who want to believe in his assertions, but it probably doesn’t meet the necessary criteria to draw strong scientific conclusions. At the same time, publicly funded research continues to conduct research on GMOs with little media coverage and under more difficult conditions. This research is all the more necessary given that we must maintain a high level of scientific expertise independent from individual interests in regards to these sensitive issues. Requesting publicly funded research – and why not from INRA – to get more involved than it already has, requires resources that have been subject to budget cuts (why fund research on topics that the public rejects out of hand and which some individuals go so far as to destroy?) and a collective confidence in the impartiality of its results. With this publication and the shockwave that has followed, we can only hope for the reappearance of the resources needed for research carried out prior to the development and monitoring of assessment and certification procedures conducted by the appropriate agencies.
As for restoring confidence, let’s not forget it is often public research that sounds the alarm, as INRA recently did regarding the decline of bees or the dangers of Bisphenol A, an endocrine disruptor. It is on the basis of these scientific results that risk assessment agencies were called into action and that measures have been or will be taken by the competent authorities. This is the way forward, but our society needs to avoid these schizophrenic reactions to publicly funded research, so that it might continue its work according to indisputable protocols without constantly being suspected of the worst, and even in some cases, having its trials destroyed.
Inaction in the sphere of publicly funded research is not a reality when it comes to topics that are of such great concern to the French. At least this episode was an opportunity to remind us of this and to think of the conditions necessary to reach our goals.
(1) French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety www.anses.fr
(2) European Food Safety Authority www.efsa.europa.eu