from Sunday Herald, 02 June 2002
Environment minister Ross Finnie's senior adviser on GM crop safety faces calls to resign after being accused of overlooking major flaws in a study by GM company Aventis.
The revelation is bound to put more pressure on Finnie, who has been battling mounting opposition to GM crop trials. In his defence, the minister has repeatedly stressed his faith in the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (Acre), which has told him the trials pose no risk to health or the environment.
But the Sunday Herald can reveal that Acre's competence on GM safety has been seriously called into question by expert independent scientists. They now suggest that the committee's chairman, Professor Alan Gray, should consider his position.
The issue goes back to consent issued by Acre in the late 1990s for permission to grow a GM form of maize known as Chardon. This was legally challenged by the environmental group Friends of the Earth, which gained access to the original safety studies by Aventis.
In one key study, some chickens were fed GM maize and some were fed ordinary maize. Twice as many of the chickens fed GM maize died, yet it was declared safe as an animal feed.
Friends of the Earth commissioned two senior researchers from the School of Veterinary Sciences at the University of Bristol, Steve Kestin and Toby Knowles, to investigate the study. Their conclusions were damning.
"If a student had submitted this to me, he or she would have got very low marks or failed," said Kestin. "The study would certainly never have made it into a peer-reviewed journal. It's rubbish."
The experiment was poorly designed, badly executed and did not have enough statistical power to reveal anything, Kestin argued. The fact that the mortality rate of the chickens fed GM maize seemed higher should have prompted an in-depth investigation.
"There are fundamental flaws in the study which they should have spotted," said Kestin. "Is this a clean way of operating? No.
"What are they trying to achieve? Are they trying to rubber-stamp it or are they trying to get to the bottom of it? If they are trying to get to the bottom of it, this needs to be done in a more transparent, clean way."
Kestin said there were "good grounds" to challenge the way Acre had given the go-ahead to GM maize. He particularly criticised Alan Gray for overseeing the review of a consent which he had originally approved.
The Sunday Herald has obtained a copy of an Acre consent form for GM maize signed by Gray on June 26, 1996. Apart from the date and his name, it is blank. No comments are written under any of four headings: information relating to the GM product; conditions and scope of marketing the GM product; the GM product and the environment; and other. Gray has scored out "disagree" from the phrase "I agree/ disagree to the marketing of this GM product" and has signed the form.
Kestin's colleague Knowles now believes Gray should make way for someone else. "I would suggest that perhaps he shouldn't be chairing what's supposedly an independent inquiry," he said.
Gray, however, insisted he had no need to resign. "It was absolutely not a rubber- stamping exercise," he said - although he accepted that the chicken study was not powerful enough to come to any conclusions.
Acre had accepted advice from another committee of experts, the Advisory Committee on Animal Feeds, that the GM maize was as safe as conventional maize, he maintained. He said the comments from the Bristol scientists would be weighed by Acre along with other evidence in its continuing review of the issue.
The consent for the GM oilseed rape which is currently being grown in Scotland has not been subjected to the same independent scrutiny as the consent for GM maize. But the row over the maize has prompted anti-GM campaigners to accused Ross Finnie of misleading the public over Acre.
Last week Finnie told the Scottish parliament: "Is it unreasonable for a minister to approach an independent scientific body and ask it for its views on the evidence rather than play God and Mammon with science? Nobody has challenged the scientific ability, probity or integrity of Acre as it is currently composed."
But Kenny Taylor, chairman of Highlands and Islands GM Concern, said: "Ross Finnie appears to be misleading the Scottish parliament and the electorate on this. His partisan approach calls into question his suitability as judge and jury of GM crops in Scotland.
"We can't trust one of our most senior ministers to tell it like it is. What we know about the science behind GM maize raises very serious doubts. It suggests that we trust GM companies at our peril."
The SNP argued that, along with evidence from the European Environment Agency on GM oilseed rape, the problems with GM maize cast doubt on the advice the government was receiving. "There must be real questions asked about Acre's role," said Bruce Crawford, the SNP's shadow environment minister.
"Ross Finnie seems blind to the potential for Acre to make mistakes. It's this sort of decision-making by politicians that led us into the BSE crisis. We can't allow that to happen with GM."
The Scottish Executive said it could not comment on the maize study because it was a matter for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in London. "To challenge the professional integrity of renowned scientists from Acre there would need to be a very strong case," was all an Executive spokeswoman would say.