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expert reaction to Mark Walport’s evidence to parliament on GM and the precautionary principle

The government’s chief scientific adviser Professor Sir Mark Walport has given evidence to the House of Common’s Science and Technology Select Committee regarding the use of the precautionary principle in regulations surrounding genetically modified organisms.

 

Prof Joe Perry, Chair of the EFSA GMO Panel, said:

“The EU has a stringent regulatory system for GM safety assessment.  But it is not overly stringent – the data requested are proportionate to the risk.

“Approvals for GMOs are based on evidence and data. They are transmitted via publically available scientific opinions published by the European Food Safety Authority.  These opinions are written by a panel of 20 independent academic experts.  As a result, half a billion European consumers can be assured that when an opinion declares food from a GM crop plant to be safe, it can be consumed with confidence.

“The current delay in approvals to cultivate GM crops within the EU is not due to delays in scientific assessments, but is instead due to political deadlock between Member States that wish to allow cultivation and those that are vehemently opposed to it.”

 

Prof Dale Sanders FRS, Director of the John Innes Centre, said:

“It really is time that the EU re-evaluated its regulatory approach to GM crops.  The foundations to that approach were laid down many years ago when we could not be absolutely certain that GM technology posed no health risk to humans and no environmental risk either.

“The evidence is now clear that the technology per se is not harmful.  The sensible approach would be to frame regulations according to the trait that is being introduced into a crop – just as in the case of conventionally-bred crops.”

 

Prof Jonathan Jones, Plant Molecular Biologist at The Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich, said:

“I very much welcome the CSA’s comments that the science on the GM method is clear, and that the debate is about values. I also welcome the statement that any judgement about technology deployment must factor in benefits as well as hypothetical risks.

“There is widespread dismay, which the CSA and I share, at the termination of independent science advice in Brussels.  A problem with the precautionary principle, which has indeed been used to slow innovation, is that it lacks an expiration date. We should ensure that it is only ever deployed again alongside a ‘post-cautionary’ principle, with a specified time after which there should be a science-based review of whether excessive caution based on possible ‘unknown unknowns’ is still warranted.”

 

Declared interests

Professor Dale Sanders is the Director of the John Innes Centre, which receives strategic funding from the BBSRC. Prof Sanders is a member of the Synthetic Biology Leadership Council.

Professor Jonathan Jones did his PhD at the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge, and then worked on symbiotic nitrogen fixation at Harvard. He began making GM plants in 1983 at a startup agbiotech company, Advanced Genetic Sciences (now defunct) in Oakland California, where he worked for 5 years.  He used the GM method to make discoveries about what regulates gene expression in GM plants, and about plant transposable DNA.

Since 1988, Jones has been a researcher at the Sainsbury Lab in Norwich (www.tsl.ac.uk), funded largely by David Sainsbury’s private charity the Gatsby Foundation. He has led a well-regarded basic research program into mechanisms of plant disease and plant disease resistance, for which he was elected EMBO member in 1999 and FRS in 2003. He is one of the highest cited plant scientists in Europe ((http://www.labtimes.org/labtimes/ranking/2013_04/index2.lasso).

Jones is cofounder of (in 1997) and science advisor to the biotech company Mendel Biotechnology. Monsanto was a major client, but no longer is. As of July 2010, Mendel had been granted over 20 biotechnology and GM patents. In its 2008 Annual Report it listed as one of two lines of business that were central to its growth a collaborative project with Monsanto on soybean yield, “the basis of which is a Mendel technology”.  However it is not clear if this trait will be brought to market. Mendel’s 2009 Annual Report noted two collaborative partnerships: one with Monsanto and the other with Bayer CropScience.

Jones also co-founded Norfolk Plant Sciences in 2007 with Prof Cathie Martin of JIC, with the goal of bringing flavonoid-enriched tomatoes to market (www.norfolkplantsciences.com).  Regulatory constraints in Europe mean that the benefits of this product are likely to brought to market in Canada before this happens in Europe.

He is also on the Science advisory board of Nomad Biosciences in Halle, Germany, which aims to produce human pharmaceutical and other valuable proteins using plant viruses rather than GM plants.

He recently became a science advisor to start-up Scottish biotech company Synpromics (http://www.synpromics.com).

Jones is on the board of www.isaaa.org and the science advisory board of David Sainsbury’s 2Blades foundation (www.2blades.org).

In addition to his basic science programs, Jones has isolated and is isolating new resistance genes against potato late blight from wild relatives of potato, with the goal of using them to deliver market-favoured potato varieties that are protected from late blight by genes, rather than by chemistry.  Patents have been filed on the Rpi-vnt1 gene, which was trialed in Norfolk, and the gene is being commercialized in the US by Simplot (www.simplot.com).

Because of his 30+ years of experience with using the GM method, his distinguished academic career, his commitment to public engagement, his familiarity with the seeds and agbiotech industry, and his concern that the potential benefits of using GM methods be brought to public use and not carelessly spurned, he is sporadically called upon to provide advice to government.  He was a coauthor on http://royalsociety.org/policy/publications/2009/reaping-benefits/ and on the annexe to a recent report about GM requested by the Council on Science and Technology (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/genetic-modification-gm-technologies).

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