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NPG.nature.vol.398.Issue.6729.Apr

NPG.nature.vol.398.Issue.6729.Apr

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22 April 1999 Volume 398 Issue no 6729
GM foods debate needs arecipe for restoring trust
The soundest possible science must underlie any effort to regulate genetically modified foods. But regulationsmust also acknowledge uncertainty — and incorporate trust in the judgement of the consumer.
S
hould the rules for labelling genetically modified (GM) food bedetermined solely by technical considerations, based on scientific ‘facts’? Or should broader public concern be taken intoaccount? The issue will be high on the agenda of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the archaically named body that sets internationalfood standards, when it meets next week to discuss labelling principles. It is not just theoretical. If the current disagreement between theUnited States and Europe on this issue were eventually to provoke aformal dispute over trade practices to the World Trade Organization(see page 641), then, under new WTO rules, the Codex’s ruling wouldbe critical in determining the outcome.The dispute itself can be reduced to relatively simple terms. Members of the European Union, conscious of public pressure over GMfoods, argue that any food containing detectable GM ingredientsshould be labelled. In contrast, the United States, apparently concerned at the extra costs of disaggregating basic food componentsaccording to whether they have been produced with such techniques,and worried that a GM label could trigger what it considers unnecessary worries about safety, says that labelling should only be required if a product is substantially different from food already available.
Exaggerations
Two points about the scientific aspects of this dispute must be madeimmediately. The first is that much of the recent outcry about thepotential dangers of such foods, particularly in Britain, has been basedon exaggerated claims, often invoked deliberately by mass-market(and occasionally more responsible) newspapers as little more than adevice to increase sales. There is as yet no substantial evidence that GMfoods are inherently more dangerous than conventional foods justbecause they have been produced using novel techniques.The second point, however, as a series of articles in this week’s issuedemonstrates, is that a number of uncertainties about the full effects of such foods remain on the table (see Briefing, pages 651– 656). In thecase of human health, these include potential allergenic reactions togenetic changes that are not completely understood. As for the environmental impacts, many scientists feel that widely quoted ‘hazards’,such as the potential spread of herbicide-resistant ‘superweeds’, havebeen overemphasized by critics. But there is a broader consensus thatthe potential ecological disturbance caused by a growing dependenceon GM crops by modern farmers could be significant.Some argue that neither set of concerns is weighty enough to warrant the imposition of separate regulatory structures for GM foods ontop of those that already exist for conventional foodstuffs. Technically,perhaps, the argument is correct. And the food industry would certainly like that view to prevail. But it fails to take into account an additional factor that must be incorporated into any regulatory system if itis to achieve its goal — the need for public acceptance.The public is right to be concerned about the potential — andnovel — hazards of modern food-production techniques. In Europe,at least, the recent epidemic of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) among cattle, apparently the end-result of more cost-effectivefeeding processes introduced in the early 1980s, is a dramaticillustration of unanticipated dangers. And in both Europe and theUnited States, the steady reduction of biodiversity remains a silentwitness to the potential of modern agriculture to inflict damage onthe environment and the wildlife it supports.
Benefits
There is, of course, an upside as well. Certain consumer demands willbecome easier, and possibly cheaper, to meet with the new GM crops(as they are already in the case of soy protein). Agriculture willundoubtedly become more efficient as genetic modification givesfarmers greater control over the range of crops that can be grown costeffectively; in some cases, this could well allow farming communitiesto survive that might otherwise disappear. And it can certainly beargued that, at least in the short term, herbicide-resistant crops may lead to a reduction in the amount of herbicide used.But neither the upside (as the industry would like) nor the downside (as environmentalists argue) should dominate the debate. Arational strategy requires an approach that respects and embracesboth sets of arguments. There is no simple, institutional formula forachieving this. But some principles can be suggested.First, both sides should accept the need to ensure that the regulation of GM foods — including the conditions under which they aremarketed — is based on the soundest possible science. Basing regulations on scientific conclusions that later turn out to be false is in noone’s interests; hence the need for continued research, whether thisinvolves monitoring for long-term health effects, or field trials tostudy the impact of GM crops on local biodiversity. Disrupting suchtrials only serves the interests of those who seek gratuitous publicity.Second, both sides should acknowledge the current limits to scientific certainty. The failure to ‘prove’ scientifically that a new food isdangerous is not the same as to have ‘proved’ that it is safe — a lessonlearnt from the BSE affair. The best that research can do is to narrowthe limits on uncertainties, not eradicate them.The third need is to find ways of facilitating public access to credible scientific information — and of communicating in a responsibleform both its significance and its limitations. Too much such information is tainted by its deliberate use by both sides in what can be littlemore than a propaganda war. As some delegates at the recent Biovision conference in Lyons pointed out, the need for ‘honest brokers’ isof paramount importance (see
Nature 
398,
360; 1999).Finally, broad public concerns, however ‘irrational’ they may appear to some, must be taken into account in food safety regulationsif they are to maintain their credibility. Industry complains that thepublic has lost trust in its scientific experts, but it will only make matters worse by declaring its own loss of trust in the judgement of theconsumer. If labelling all foods produced by GM techniques, as many argue, turns out to be a necessary step in regaining trust on both sides,it could be a small price to pay.
 © 1999 Macmillan Magazines Ltd
NATURE
|
VOL 398
|
22 APRIL 1999
|
www.nature.com
639
 
news
Europe and US in confrontationover GM food labelling criteria
[
LONDON
]
The United States and the Euro-
Battle field: opposition to GM
pean Union are poised for a major
crops by environmental groups
confrontation over the regulation of genetic
has stimulated public fears
modification (GM) technology during
about their safety and demands
international negotiations next week on the
that all GM food should be
labelling of GM foods.
clearly labelled. But the United
At a meeting of the United Nations food
States, backed by several
standards body, the Codex Alimentarius
countries, continues to argue
Commission, the European Union (EU) is
that there is no scientific basis
expected to argue in support of a draft pro
for this.
posal that says all foods with a detectable GMingredient should carry a mandatory label.This proposal includes the labelling of GM foods whose composition, nutritionalvalue and intended use are different fromexisting foods, even if a GM protein or DNA is
   A   D   R   I   A   N    A   R   B   I   B   /   S   T   I   L   L
no longer detectable in the finished product. al value and intended use (see Briefing
 ,
pageBut the United States, along with Canada, 652). Countries such as India, Norway andMexico, Peru and Brazil, is likely to insist thatDenmark, together with consumer groups,labelling should be compulsory only for foods argue that substantial equivalence has yet towith detectable GM ingredients, and which be proven scientifically.“differ significantly from a corresponding These countries have joined Consumersexisting food”. These countries oppose com-International (CI), a worldwide federationprehensive labelling because there is no evi-of 246 consumer groups, in calling for alldence of specific health hazards. foods produced with GM techniques to beA likely focus of debate at the meeting will labelled as such, regardless of the presence of be the issue of ‘substantial equivalence’— theGM ingredients in the final product.concept that GM food can be considered The disagreement hinges on whetherequivalent to non-GM food providing there consumers have a right to know whether aare no changes to its composition, nutrition-product has been manufactured using GM
US sets up ‘round-table’ talks with scientists
[
WASHINGTON
] The US State his department handlesorganisms, “particularlyDepartment has invitedscientific and technical genetically modifiedscientists to organize a issues.“We’re very sensitive agricultural products”.round-table conference onto your concerns,” he toldHe said that trade in suchgenetically modified (GM)those at the meeting. products “will pose majorfoods. The meeting would be Loy said the new scienceissues for US policy-makersthe first of a series of adviser should serve thein the years to come”.discussions with researchers secretary of state and be Loy proposed moreintended to strengthensupported by a small science training forofficials’ grasp of keynumber of staff. He hopes to department staff, initiatives totechnical issues. have the adviser in place bybring more scientificallyFrank Loy, under-next autumn.qualified staff into thesecretary of state for global The adviser should department, and greateraffairs, also says the organize “round-tableeffort to “use science as adepartment should appoint adiscussions” involving tool for diplomacy”.science adviser with direct “recognized experts on a Robert Stern, a consultantaccess to the secretary ofparticular issue”, said Loy.who chairs the industrialstate, Madeleine Albright.Rather than waiting for the science section at AAAS andSpeaking last week at the adviser’s appointment, hehas worked on the Stateannual science policy proposed that theDepartment issue, says thatsymposium of the American department, the National Loy’s offer to consult with theAssociation for theAcademy of Sciences and community through theAdvancement of Sciencethe AAAS should “work AAAS represents a challenge(AAAS) in Washington, Loy together right now to organizefor the organization. “Nowannounced a five-point planthe first of these discussions”.we’ve got to organize ato address criticism of how The topic would be GM response.”
Colin Macilwain
technology. The United States is opposed tothis, arguing that such labelling implies thatGM technology is inherently unsafe, a conclusion for which it says there is no evidence.The United States says that such labellingwill be costly and complicated where food ismanufactured from ingredients taken from anumber of sources. It does not see a need tolabel food containing novel genes if its nutritional content, for example, is unchanged.Stuart Eizenstat, US under-secretary of state for economic, business and agriculturalaffairs, wrote in the
Financial Times
last week that the United States will not accept“labelling that is misleading and [which]implies GM products are somehow dangerous or of lesser quality, when scientific evidence, testing and approvals show no risk tohuman health”.In a strongly worded attack on the EU,Eizenstat alleged that its procedures for testing and approving biotechnology productswere “not transparent, not predictable, andnot based on scientific principles”. He addedthat EU calls for more research on the safetyof GM products were a smokescreen “to justify keeping its trade restrictions in place”.But CI says that labelling is not just anissue of health and safety. Julian Edwards, itsdirector-general, said in a statement that“there is no difference in the ‘safety’ of 
halal
ororganic foods, for example, but they are, nevertheless, labelled to enable consumer choice”.CI says that surveys from many countriesindicate widespread public support for comprehensive labelling of GM foods. For example, 92 per cent of respondents to a survey bythe UK Consumers’ Association wanted GMfood to be labelled, regardless of the presenceof a GM ingredient in the final product.The outcome of the debate could be significant if the United States makes a complaint about European procedures to theWorld Trade Organization.
Ehsan Masood
NATURE
|
VOL 398
|
22 APRIL 1999
|
www.nature.com
 © 1999 Macmillan Magazines Ltd
641
 
news
Europe will fly animals on space station
   N   A   S   A
[
WASHINGTON
]
European researchers will beallowed to propose experiments usinglaboratory animals for the InternationalSpace Station, following an 11 to 1 vote lastmonth by European Space Agency (ESA)partners in the project.The move follows acceptance by Ger-many, the largest European contributor tothe space station, that animals are essentialfor certain experiments in space. Work withhigher mammals such as dogs and primateswill still be forbidden. But researchers will beable to experiment with rodents, which ESAhad prohibited in the past.Many European scientists had seen thespace agency’s unwritten rule against rat andmice studies as a competitive disadvantagewhen proposing experiments in develop-mental biology, muscle deterioration andother areas of space research (see
Nature 
391,
733; 1998). The other major station partners— the United States, Japan, Canada and Rus-sia — have no such prohibition.Germany’s long opposition to animalstudies has been the main factor behind ESApolicy. But the agency’s life science workinggroup, which gives advice on space biology research, lobbied over the past two years tohave the ban removed.“The real work was done country by country,” says Didier Schmitt, head of lifescience research at ESA’s ESTEC researchcentre in the Netherlands.The German space agency DLR con-cluded in February that “animal experi-ments are unavoidable” for certain kinds of space research, says Günter Ruyters, head of the agency’s life and microgravity sciencesprogramme.The German science ministry agreed, but
Learning experience: a Neurolab crew member isshown how to operate one of its rodent habitats.
stipulated that such experiments should beconducted only when there is no alternative,and when the scientific return is high. Thatcleared the way for Germany to vote ‘yes’ at ameeting last month of ESA space stationpartners to consider allowing animal studies.Sweden cast the only ‘no’ vote, out of con-cern over possible political damage to thespace station project. Per Magnusson of theSwedish National Space Board says Euro-pean partners are taking a risk by approvingexperiments that a large fraction of the pop-ulation opposes. Ruyters acknowledges thatanimal experiments are still “a very touchy issue” in Germany, where an already stronganimal rights movement is gaining ground(see
Nature 
397,
461; 1999).ESA’s Schmitt says there is now an “urgentneed” for an international committee to setethical guidelines for animal experiments inspace. That topic will be on the agenda at aninternational space life science workinggroup meeting in Italy next week, which willalso include a workshop on habitat designfor rodents in microgravity.Biologists learned hard lessons about hownot to design such a habitat after dozens of newborn rats — more than half of those onboard — died on last year’s Neurolab SpaceShuttle mission (see
Nature 
393,
4; 1998).Before the flight, a plan to build a specialcage for Neurolab was scrapped, and engi-neers modified an earlier design that hadsuccessfully housed adult rats, but not new-borns. Problems with the young rats movingaround on smooth (as opposed to mesh)surfaces in the cage in weightlessness may have contributed to the high death rate.Visibility into the cage was also limited,which made it difficult to monitor the ani-mals. A panel set up by the US space agency NASA and the National Institutes of Healthto consider developmental biology researchin space recommends that communicationsbe improved among cage designers, scien-tists, astronauts and NASA managers toavoid such mishaps. And animals may needto be monitored more closely in orbit —either by astronauts or by ground investiga-tors through a video system — to ensuretheir health.But such problems should be surmount-able, according to the panel. Despite the lossof the Neurolab rats, the panel concludesthat scientific results from the flight clearly demonstrate that complex animal studiesare possible in space.
Tony Reichhardt
UK’s royal societies oppose new research council for Scotland
[
LONDON
]
Research in Scottish institutionsshould continue to be funded through theUK research councils once Scotland gets itsown parliament and executive after electionsnext month, recommends a report by theRoyal Societies of London and Edinburgh.The report, published today (22 April),argues that any fragmentation of funding  would harm Scottish science, for example if Scottish researchers were prevented fromcompeting for UK-wide funds.It adds that a larger overall science baseis better equipped than a smaller one to weather changes to national researchpriorities. And it argues that a separateScottish science base could harm thegovernment’s plans to develop Britain’sknowledge industries, potentially impeding the flow of economic benefits from basicresearch to Scotland.A large-scale research system has agreater capacity to maintain researchdiversity, and thereby the flexibility topursue new directions,” say the twosocieties. “It is therefore important thatdevolution does not lead to fragmentationof basic science, engineering and technology (SET) in the United Kingdom, and thatScotland remains integrated within the UKsystem as part of the European SET base.”These conclusions are unlikely to be welcomed by the pro-independence ScottishNational Party (SNP), which is running aclose second to the Labour Party in opinionpolls for the 6 May elections. The SNP wouldlike the new parliament to be as powerful aspossible.The Labour government, on the otherhand, may be more supportive. Labour hasplaced education and the knowledge
 © 1999 Macmillan Magazines Ltd
economy at the heart of its Scottish electionmanifesto, promising to invest £100 million(US$161 million) in research infrastructureover the next three years.The report’s other recommendationsinclude the appointment of a “seniorminister” for science, and the creation of ascience policy advisory board for theScottish executive. Chaired by a seniorscientist, this board would compriserepresentatives from research and industry.Another senior scientist should be givenresponsibility for science advice toministers, for the implementation of sciencepolicy, and for liaison with British sciencebodies, says the report.The report adds that members of theScottish parliament in Edinburgh willneed their own source of independentscientific advice.
Ehsan Masood
NATURE
|
VOL 398
|
22 APRIL 1999
|
www.nature.com
642

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