Where there is smoke, is there fire? Responding to the results of alarming studies on the safety of GMOs
Results of studies that cast doubt on the safety of genetically modified (GM) crops and products are published occasionally in the media; these are called ‘alarming studies’. The debates that arise as a result follow a familiar pattern and do not finally come to a resolution that commands broad support. Moreover, evaluations or reviews by scientific advisory bodies are often not sufficient to bring these debates about (the safety of) GM crops to a conclusion.
Alarming studies will always provide an excuse to reignite the national or international scientific and public debate, and therefore also the political debate. Because it is not possible to determine straight away whether the conclusions of an alarming study are correct or not, COGEM observes that it is always necessary to determine whether the new findings provide grounds for reviewing or revising the risk assessment that has already been carried out and/or follow-up research. However, debates about alarming studies bring to light several fundamental issues that cannot be dealt with in an ad hoc manner, but which need to be addressed as part of current policy. In this context, COGEM recommends the following:
- Encourage monitoring of scientific research (e.g. by advisory bodies) and where necessary encouraging further examination and review of alarming studies.
- Take a decision to include or exclude context-related arguments (such as wider issues about the relation between GMOs and sustainability or naturalness, and also the debate about the industrialisation of agriculture and the power of major companies) in discussions and policy decision making by:
- organising forums and ‘thinking laboratories’ or facilitating a broader and non-GMO-specific debate about food supplies,
- monitoring context-related arguments and identifying fundamental sticking points (e.g. arising from new technological developments),
- regularly re-examining and revising biotechnology policies based on monitoring scientific developments (possible policy tool: trend analyses).
- Carry out random repeat studies or supervised inspections of GMO safety studies by companies.
- Promote scientific research into the safety of GMOs by making it more attractive for researchers to carry out counter-studies and repeat studies (for example through the provision of funding and access to research materials).
- Ensure in-house knowledge and competences in specific areas of science and science communication within the ministries.
When an alarming study appears, the government should respond quickly and appropriately. In this regard, COGEM raises the following points for consideration:
- Make it clear to all concerned that the political decision will be based on the scientific assessment, but that the final decision and the responsibility for this decision will lie unreservedly with the government.
- Consider whether additional expertise should be obtained.
- Define and carefully observe the scope of consultations between national and European advisory bodies in order to ensure an independent judgement.
- Continue to actively communicate policy decisions about the authorisation of GMOs (such as the decision to guarantee individual consumers the right to choose by requiring GM food to be labelled as such).