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GM Food Report Backlash: The Royal Society's Report on Genetically Modififed Foods has Drawn Harsh Criticism from the Scientific Community. Why Does the Society Remain Silent?

13.jun.01, Shane Morris and Douglas Powell, National Post C19

The Royal Society report -- a document that more resembled a Greenpeace hatchet job than a reasoned analysis of the science surrounding GM issues -- aroused understandable outrage from this country's scientists.

13.jun.01, Shane Morris and Douglas Powell, National Post C19
"Surprise!" So Conrad Brunk, co-chairman of the now disbanded Royal Society's expert panel on genetically modified food, described the intense backlash to its report, Elements of Precaution: Recommendations for the Regulation of Food Biotechnology in Canada, released last February. The Royal Society report -- a document that more resembled a Greenpeace hatchet job than a reasoned analysis of the science surrounding GM issues -- aroused understandable outrage from this country's scientists.
That Mr. Brunk should be surprised was in itself surprising, considering that the members of the Royal Society are intelligent people, and that its president, Bill Leiss, is an expert in risk communication. According to Professor Leiss's own writings, which identify five cardinal rules in good risk communication, Rule No. 2 is "risk issue forecasting." The Society's failure to forecast properly was the first in the Royal Society's catalogue of communication blunders.
After the release of the report, the expert panel proceeded to break three more rules of risk communication: The panel failed to "become fully¬ engaged," to "be proactive," and to "stay in for the long haul" when dealing with the public. Instead, the Royal Society has apparently made a conscious decision to not respond publicly to the questions concerning the significant gaps and shortcomings in their report, to not explain its decisions, and to actually dissolve the panel. On those few occasions when panel members spoke publicly, usually as part of controlled presentations, it was often to say they were "misquoted" in the media fury that immediately followed the report's release (in one of those "misquotes," Canadians who ate GM foods were called guinea pigs). Yet never once did the Royal Society offer a clarification -- at least, not publicly. Was the panel oblivious, or was it deliberately trying to avoid attempting to defend the undefendable?¬
Canadian and international scientists have raised many questions over the report, involving issues of serious scientific inaccuracies, incorrect citation of so-called facts, and a serious failure to understand systems and procedures used to regulate genetically modified foods in Canada. One letter to the Royal Society by six eminent scientists stated "The authors also clearly fail to understand the origins of the principles and procedures that are used to assess the safety of genetically modified foods. Pivotal scientific literature pertaining to this matter is either rejected out of hand or not quoted at all." The letter also outlined many of the scientific papers that were missing from the panel's report.
This lack of understanding and the feeble communications efforts were on display in an article in the University of British Columbia's official publication, UBC News, in which Royal Society expert panel co-chairman Brian Ellis, a professor of plant sciences at UBC, was interviewed. The story states that "Canada, the third largest producer of GM crops, has no law requiring labeling of GM foods." Canadian law, in fact, clearly states that any GM crop or novel food deemed to be harmful or less nutritious than its conventional counterpart, or created using a gene from a known allergen, such as a nut, must be clearly labeled.
The scientific inaccuracies contained within the report concerned many prominent scientists. For example, R.K. Downey's letter, reproduced nearby, was co-signed by 10 other leading plant scientists. It remains unanswered to date. This correspondence was released by Mr. Downey, not by the Royal Society, which has still failed to release any such correspondence, despite spending in excess of $300,000 in public funds, and despite repeated calls within its own report for openness, transparency and democratic decision-making.
The report was published in February, and is available at http://www.rsc.ca. But reports are not issued in a vacuum or without subsequent discussion. Because of the Royal Society's lack of engagement, we collected responses -- positive, negative or otherwise -- and published them on our Food Safety Network Web site at http://www.plant.uoguelph.ca/safefood/gmo/royalsoc.htm.
The Royal Society report makes some excellent recommendations to help Canadian society garner the benefits of genetically engineered crops while actively minimizing the risks. But the failure to properly explore many of the issues leaves the expert panel vulnerable to appropriation by a variety of groups, most with an interest in politics rather than in the production of safe, high quality food. As such, the Royal Society expert panel report has been making the global media rounds and is repeatedly invoked by activist groups around the world -- and in Canada -- as a reason to ban genetically engineered foods. Those stories can also be found on our Web site.
The Royal Society, meanwhile, does nothing to correct those groups' politicized views, or its own tattered reputation.