Concentration of power in one person does a disservice to science
Comment by Claire Robinson
The pro-corporate lobby group Sense About Science has defended the position of chief scientific advisor to the EU Commission in the face of criticism from NGOs, including GMWatch, who asked for the position to be scrapped.
SAS has written to the new EU Commissioner, Jean-Claude Juncker, to ask him not to abolish the post.
SAS's defence of the position isn't surprising, as it claims credit for initiating discussions about setting up the position in the first place.
Unfortunately, however, SAS's defence of the position is misleading in the extreme. SAS heads its article, "Scientific scrutiny in Europe is essential". It is a sentiment with which the signatory NGOs wholeheartedly agree.
However, speaking for GMWatch, one of the NGOs that asked for the position to be scrapped, our concern is that the first and current occupier of the post, Anne Glover, has used her position not to provide independent "scientific scrutiny" but to misrepresent the state of scientific knowledge and to support the interests of corporations, even when this endangers public health and the environment. For example, she has repeated claims that GMOs are safe but failed to respond to a statement signed by 297 qualified scientists and experts that there was no consensus on GMO safety.
As evidence of GMO safety, Glover referred in a media interview to the fact that Americans had been growing and eating GM crops "for the last 15 years… and I don't see over that period of time what negative impact it has had". Glover refers to this as "an experiment on our behalf". This is of course ludicrously unscientific. American consumption of GMOs is not an "experiment", since GMOs are not labelled in the US so consumption cannot be tracked. There no control group and no one is monitoring the effects. Even if problems were noted, there would be no way of tying them to GMO consumption in the absence of labelling and monitoring of consumption.
As for the effects of growing GM crops, only someone who had their head firmly buried in the sand for the past couple of decades could fail to notice the terrible effects of glyphosate-resistant superweeds on US farmers. A the last count, these superweeds had taken over 61 million acres of farmland.
GMOs not the only concern
SAS claims that the NGOs opposing the role of chief scientific advisor are doing so "specifically because they disagree with Professor Glover's advice" on GMOs. But this is incorrect. Glover's performance on GMOs is only cited in the NGOs' letter as one example of her lamentable record.
Several of the signatory NGOs who asked for the post of chief scientific advisor to be scrapped are not concerned primarily with GMOs but with chemicals toxicity, especially endocrine disruption. There is concern among NGOs that when it comes to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), the EU Commission is ignoring scientific research in order to protect industry's interests, not those of the public.
For example, Pesticide Action Network found that the Commission had been plotting a route for EDCs to escape regulation.
We don't know what role, if any, Glover's advice played in this ruse, as requests for information regarding which advice she has given to the Commission were refused. Transparency and accountability, it seems, are not part of the remit of the chief scientific advisor.
If Glover and the Commission wish to restore public trust in the role of chief scientific advisor, they should begin by issuing a statement that shows they are aware of the vast body of scientific studies on EDCs and that they understand the magnitude of the threat that they pose. This includes serious diseases like cancer and birth defects, which can arise even from very low exposures that are currently not tested in regulatory safety assessments.
Glover could then progress to issuing a science-based response to the 297 scientists who voiced concern over GMO safety, and a response to the many scientific studies summarised in the report GMO Myths and Truths. So far, Glover has failed to respond to either.
To be fair to Glover, she has no relevant research background that would enable her to comprehend the findings of studies on GMO safety or on EDC toxicity. Indeed it is unreasonable to expect any one person to be an expert on – or even competent in – all the areas of scientific expertise relevant to the European Commission's decision-making. The fundamental problem is not with Glover but with the pretence that a single person has the knowledge and understanding to represent the state of the science in the many areas that affect public and environmental health.
It's time to end the pretence and scrap this dishonest and dangerous role.