European science under siege

Anti-GM activists are demanding that the European Commission abolish the post of Chief Scientific Officer. Scientists John Davison and Marcel Kuntz lament the way science is losing out to politics. 

Members of the Greens and European Free Alliance group of the European Parliament protest against GM crops at the European Parliament in Strasbourg in 2010. – REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

Politics are winning at the expense of science in France and now the entire European Union faces a similar fate. On Tuesday 22 July 2014 nine “green” anti-GM organisations demanded that the incoming European Commission (EC) president abolish the position of Chief Scientific Officer, presently held by Professor Anne Glover.

“We hope that you as the incoming EC president will decide not to nominate a chief scientific adviser and that instead the EC will take its advice from a variety of independent, multi-disciplinary sources,” concludes the letter whose signatories include Greenpeace.

We fear not only for the progress of agriculture, but for all scientific enterprise in Europe.

While the world’s key food safety and scientific authorities have judged genetically modified (GM) crops to be as safe as conventional varieties, anti-GM NGOs and green politicians remain obsessed with opposing them because they do not comply with their predetermined political agenda.

In France they have already achieved their goal. Two successive governments have done backroom deals with green politicians and NGOs in order to improve their green images and make short-term electoral gains. The result is that French farmers, who had been increasing cultivation of GM maize up until 2007, now cannot grow it at all. With the latest move anti-GM politics threatens to derail proper scientific process across the continent.

Until recently EU law has permitted cultivation of approved GM crops but also allowed member states to request a ban, provided they had scientific justification. Bowing to populism and perceived political rewards Austria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Luxembourg and Italy all banned the cultivation of GM maize. But the science on which these bans were made is inadequate. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which was asked by the EC to evaluate the legality of the bans, dismissed the merit of the scientific arguments that had been presented.

In response anti-GM activists accused EFSA of “conflicts of interest” and in March invaded its headquarters, clashing with police.

Rather than defending EFSA the EU authorities forced it to allow a range of non-scientist stakeholders acceptable to the anti-GM lobbyists to be involved in its work. On 17 July EFSA published a discussion paper on how to open up its science. In our view this invites a dangerous relativism, placing expert scientific advice at risk of being distorted by non-scientific opinions.

On top of all this a 2010 proposition by the previous Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, allowing member states to prohibit GM crop cultivation for non-scientific reasons has now been approved. In doing this the EU has taken a seriously retrograde step, relegating science to a position of secondary importance.

We now fear that the Commission will collude with green organisations in the destruction of the European plant biotechnology industry altogether. Certainly these groups seem to be in the ascendant. As former UK Minister of the Environment, Owen Patterson, notes, “a staggering 150 million euros was paid to the top nine green NGOs from 2007-13”.

As a result of all these policy decisions the EU is now in the ridiculous situation that it imports 75% of its cattle feed – some of which contains GM maize in any case. Romania, for example, which was a major producer of GM soybeans before joining the EU is now not allowed to cultivate them and, as a result, imports them.

These blows are bad enough, but now the anti-GM lobby is revealed as having so little regard for science that it seriously proposes doing away with the position of Chief Scientific Officer.

European scientific institutions are fighting back vigorously. A group of 227 public research institutions across Europe has lobbied the recently elected Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker. “For European citizens to have confidence in the way our institutions evaluate and develop policy they need to be assured that there is access to independent scientific advice at the highest level and that this independence is not compromised,” they said in a letter.

How Juncker reacts will set the tone for Commission policy for many years to come. But the signs are not good. Juncker recently said that “the Commission should be in a position to give the majority view of democratically elected governments at least the same weight as scientific advice, notably when it comes to the safety of the food we eat and the environment in which we live”.

These recent events are highly troubling to the future of EU plant biotechnology and there seems, at present, little prospect of a return to a knowlege-based society as hoped for by the EC, many years ago.

Marcel Kuntz is Research Director at the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in the Laboratoire de Physiologie Cellulaire Végétale in Grenoble.
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