Danish Ethics Report GMO Conflict of Interest

Council was advised – and misled – by scientists whose links to the GMO industry were not disclosed to the public

The Danish Council on Ethics has published a report recommending that the EU's GMO legislation be changed to facilitate the introduction of gene-edited plants on the grounds that they could help achieve sustainability objectives. The report calls for the current process-based regulation to be abolished in favour of much weaker product-based regulation.

However, GMWatch has discovered that two external advisors on the report have links to the GMO industry, which were not disclosed to the public.

Process-based regulation is triggered on the basis that genetic modification (GM) is used to develop the product. It recognises the inherent risks and uncertainties of GM methods. The GMO industry and its lobbyists want to replace it with product-based regulation, which only looks at the intended change of the GM process – for example, disease resistance, and doesn’t concern itself with any risks involved in creating the product with GM.

Groups and scientists advocating precaution oppose the use of product-based regulation because it misses the many unintended effects of GM processes, including gene-editing techniques.

The Danish Council on Ethics offers as the rationale for its conclusion its belief that gene-edited crops will help combat the effects of climate change, as well as make plants resistant to disease and pests and use water and nutrients more efficiently. They deny that there is any evidence that GM crops fed to animals in feeding trials have caused any ill effects.

However, they are wrong on both counts. There is no evidence that any gene-edited crop will help with these climate change challenges – only speculation and hype that has not been verified in real farming conditions. On the other hand, there is plenty of peer-reviewed evidence that some GM crops cause harmful effects in animals, and thus, by extrapolation, in humans too.

Who misled the Council?

Clearly, the Council has been badly misled. But by whom?

The Council's report names several external advisors who provided information for the report.

The most prominent is Andreas Christiansen, a Danish philosopher, communications expert, and postdoc researcher at the University of Copenhagen. Christiansen promoted the Council's report in an article in the online magazine Food Navigator, entitled, "‘It is time for a new position’: Denmark’s Ethics Council calls for updated GMO law". Food Navigator said Christiansen "contributed background material to the Ethics Council". And Christiansen told the magazine that the Council's report is "potentially... a big deal" since it marks a turnaround from what he sees as Denmark's previous opposition to GM foods. However, presenting a pro-GMO report from the Ethics Council as a turnaround in the whole nation’s views on GM foods seems something of a stretch.

Peer-reviewed article

The PR onslaught doesn't stop with the food industry press. Christiansen and another advisor to the Ethics Council, University of Copenhagen philosopher, Klemens Kappel, together with Martin Marchman Andersen, have published an opinion piece in the journal Transgenic Research called "Are current EU policies on GMOs justified?"

In line with the Danish Council on Ethics report, the Transgenic Research opinion piece attacks the EU's GMO regulations. In the firing line are both mandatory pre-release safety checks and GMO labelling, as well as the ability of member states to opt out of GMO cultivation authorisations granted at the EU level. The opinion piece argues that none of these elements "can be justified by reference to common arguments concerning naturalness, agricultural policy (in particular the promotion of organic farming), socio-economic effects, or consumers’ right to choose".

The opinion piece is in turn featured in an article for Food Ingredients First, provocatively titled, "GMO superior to organic? Researchers assert that strict EU policy hinders agricultural innovation" and subtitled, "Restrictive rules render authorizations to cultivate GMO crops 'virtually impossible,' the study notes".

Christiansen is quoted by Food Ingredients First as saying, "the fact that a crop has been genetically modified does not in itself pose a risk", which echoes industry's argument for weak product-based GMO regulation.

Christiansen's and Kappel’s industry conflicts of interest

Neither Food Navigator, Food Ingredients First, nor the Danish Council on Ethics mentions that Christiansen's, Kappel's, and Andersen's research was funded by the Novo Nordisk Foundation. The Novo Nordisk Foundation owns the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk A/S and the biotech company NovoZymes, which develops industrial enzymes, microorganisms, and "sustainable solutions for the agricultural biological industry". It has partnered with Monsanto to market microbial products for agriculture. According to one article, "Novozymes sees agricultural applications as a growth opportunity".

The Danish Council on Ethics acknowledged both men as advisors on its GMO report but failed to disclose their industry links in the report.

Danish Council on Ethics defends its report

In response to GMWatch's questions, the Council's chief project manager Anne Lykkeskov replied that it was aware of both Andreas Christiansen's and Klemens Kappel's links to the Novo Nordisk Foundation. However, she wrote, the Council has "worked with Klemens on this subject for many years and therefore know that his views on GMOs are the results of philosophical deliberations and has been hold [sic] by him long before the grant from the foundation for the present project".

Lykkeskov added, "Klemens was a member of the Danish Council on Ethics in 2006 when it released its first report on GMO... As you will see on page 114 Klemens then took the stand that 'If it can be substantiated that the application [of a GMO] implies a risk to humans or the environment, the release of a genetically modified plant should be ruled out. Failing this, its use and marketing should immediately be permitted.'"
Lykkeskov concluded, "His arguments today remain the same and we feel confident that his views have not been influenced by the grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation."

We are not reassured by this response. All it shows is that Kappel has long held industry-friendly views and that these have not changed. This may well be why he was deemed a "safe pair of hands" to receive a grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation.

And neither Kappel nor Lykkeskov appear to be aware of the contradiction inherent in arguing that the EU's GMO regulations should be relaxed yet at the same time demanding "substantiated" proof of harm before the release of a GMO can be banned. How will such "substantiated" proof be obtained without the kind of rigorous pre-market safety testing and risk assessment that the Council and its industry-linked advisors wish to abolish?

The Council should have disclosed the industry links of both men in its new report on GMOs so that the public can place their opinions in proper perspective.

Transgenic Research and conflicts of interest

Christiansen and colleagues' article in Transgenic Research does mention their Novo Nordisk Foundation funding, but only in the "Acknowledgements" section. The funding is not described, as it should be, as a conflicting or competing interest.

This is not surprising, as Transgenic Research and its editor-in-chief Paul Christou have long been enmeshed in conflicts of interest with the GMO industry. Christou is named as inventor on agricultural biotech patents, for most of which Monsanto owns the property rights. He worked as a researcher at Agracetus Inc. (later acquired by Monsanto) for 12 years. From 1994 to 2001, Christou worked at the John Innes Centre in the UK, which is heavily invested in GM crop technology.

Christou published an opinion piece in the journal he edits, defaming the study of Prof Gilles-Eric Séralini, which found that two Monsanto products, a GM maize and the Roundup herbicide it is grown with, harmed the health of rats. Christou used emotional and intemperate language in his article, implying that Prof Séralini and his team were guilty of "unethical" and "fraudulent" behaviour and of inhumane treatment of the animals in his experiment – accusations that were not supported in his article by convincing evidence.

Internal Monsanto documents released in the recent court cases in the US, in which juries found that Roundup herbicide was a cause of cancer in exposed people, revealed that the attacks on Séralini's paper were secretly orchestrated by Monsanto.

Do industry links matter?

Some may argue that an expert's industry links do not matter if he is giving scientifically sound advice. But in Christiansen's and Kappel's case, it's clear that they are not.

Christiansen and Kappel have no background in mammalian toxicology, epidemiology, public health, ecotoxicology, or even science. That may account for their ignorance about the risks and proven harms of GM crops.

For example, in their Transgenic Research article, they claim that the Bt toxin engineered into GM Bt crops is the same as that used as a spray in organic farming, when in fact the engineered version is very different and poses different, far more serious risks.

In fact, Monsanto itself said that one of its GM Bt toxins was engineered in a way that changed the natural Bt toxin into a "super toxin".

This is just one of many factual errors and omissions in the article. The inevitable conclusion is that neither Christiansen nor Kappel are qualified to advise the Danish Council on Ethics on the need or otherwise for precautionary regulations regarding GM crops. The Council needs to revisit the subject of GMOs on the basis of advice from objective, impartial, and suitably qualified advisors without conflicts of interest with the very industry whose regulation they are considering.