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July 21, 2000


McHughen's Address at the Symposium on the Biosafety of GMOs: The Road


Following is the concluding remarks from Alan McHughen
at the recently held 6th International Symposium on the Biosafety of
GMOs at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada. He has just recently
released a fabulous book on the biotech food debate "Pandora's Picnic
Basket" - a must reading for all of us!
- Prakash
The Road Ahead

Alan McHughen
University of Saskatchewan

Society historically has not paid much attention to research
scientists. More recently, the public has become much more concerned
with what we're doing. This is not only out of genuine curiosity, but
also out of anxiety that the products of our work might be harmful to
the health of people, animals, or the environment, or that the mere
practice of technology might be unethical, unnatural, or otherwise
fearsome. This interest is not exclusive to genetic technologies, as
people are increasingly questioning many aspects of technology in modern
society. Unlike many scientists, I welcome the increased public
scrutiny. Whether we work for a private company, an educational
institute or the government, our ultimate boss is the consumer, the
public and the taxpayer. It is in our best interest to work in their
best interest. The current worldwide attention gives us a unique
opportunity to educate- not dictate to- the public to allow an informed,
scientifically sound public debate on both the hazards and the potential
of biotechnology. I encourage their interest and critical questioning.
I'm confident that, given the salient facts and a true informed choice,
the public will support, with some appropriate cautious reservations,
the continued development of many GMOs.

The OECD recently held a conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, inviting
400 delegates from around the word to discuss the health implications of
GM food. Prominent and leading representatives from industry,
government, environmental groups, academia, opposition activists, and
consumers met, likely for the first time, under one roof to discuss the
effect of GM food on health. Sir John Krebs, the Chair, in the closing
session asked the collected assembly if anyone from any group had any
scientific data indicating any harmful health effect from GM
foodstuffs. After all, humans have been consuming GM food since 1994.
With almost 50 approved GM foods in the marketplaces in several
countries, with GM crops grown on a hundred million acres in 1999, and
with 300 million humans consuming GM food in North America alone, if
there were any inherent danger with GM as a technology, it should be
apparent by now. In spite of years of experience and searching for
problems, no one could provide any verifiable data implicating GM
technology as a food or health hazard. It seems that, while individual
GM food products might prove hazardous, the technology or process itself
is not inherently harmful.

The environmental consequences of GMO release not as clear. The 2s
storage protein of Brazil nut is allergenic, whether naturally occurring
in the Brazil nut or, using GM, introduced into soybeans. Humans
allergic to Brazil nut respond to the allergen whether they live in
Brazil, the UK or India. Human immunophysiology is essentially similar
across race and location. However, environments vary considerable. A GMO
deemed environmentally innocuous in one country or region might be
devastating when released in another. We have identified potential
environmental hazards with certain GMOs. We know using the Bt gene to
control insects in crops will eventually lead to resistance within
insect populations. However, this is true whether the Bt is presented
inside a GM crop, or applied from an airplane by an organic farmer.
Management in both cases is required to minimize the risk and delay as
long as possible the appearance of the resistance insect pests. Are
there potentially hazardous situations unique to, or more likely from,
GM technology?

What has become clear in the quarter century of GMOs is that, although
certain GMOs might present various risks, the process itself,
recombinant DNA, is not inherently hazardous. That is, the technical
process used to develop insulin-producing GM bacteria is essentially the
same as that used to develop GM herbicide resistant soybeans, or
beta-carotene producing GM rice, or GM salmon with enhanced production
of growth hormones. If recombinant DNA were inherently hazardous, each
of these examples would present similar risks. But, obviously, they do
not. They each may carry specific risks, but no common danger. It is
time to shift the focus of our concerns from the general process to the
specific product. Surely, GM rice needs appropriate scrutiny to ensure
it is of no greater risk to health or environment than conventionally
bred rice. Growth enhanced GM salmon also demands judicious and prudent
scrutiny. But the appropriate questions asked of each are different and
based on the nature of the new product. Appropriate questions are NOT
based on the vagaries of the marketplace or the whims of speculation.

This Symposium is one forum for debate on the scientific basis of
biosafety concern with GMOs. Clearly there are issues of import and
continuing need for critical scientific assessment. New GMOs being
developed will have to be assessed for biosafety implications, not
because they were produced using GM techniques, but because they present
a new product. We need to continue to identify and evaluate new products
posing potential hazards to the environment, regardless of the method of

Only through unswerving dedication to scientific principles can we
provide credible reassurance of our scientific analyses. Scientists were
at one time held in high esteem by a public content to accept our advice
on the relative safety or otherwise of an unfamiliar technology or
product. Society no longer accepts our assurances, and I support their
more critical assessment of our deliberations. It means the public is
becoming more interested in all aspects of life, more willing to acquire
sufficient information to ask probing questions. When we evaluate GMOs,
knowing full well an interested public is anxiously observing over our
shoulders, sound science will provide the solid foundation on which we
can stake our reputation and rebuild public confidence. The only reason
to reject a more critical public is fear that we're doing something
wrong. Conducting well designed experiments to acquire or enhance
confidence in biosafety information on a new product is not wrong.
Unfortunately, we are under pressure from various sources to conduct
questionable, even irrelevant experiments.

If we attempt to appease or mollify (misguided) public sentiment by
conducting what we know are meaningless experiments or analyses, we
expose ourselves, quite rightly, to charges of incompetence and are
almost certain to be revealed, sooner or later, as scientific
charlatans, further degrading public confidence in the scientific
process. The ultimate result will see our sponsors-the public- reject
the legitimacy of scientific analyses in evaluating risk. What will
replace it? Non science, or nonsense. Witchcraft. It may be easier to
conduct the spurious assays, but reject the impulse to pander to
paranoia. Not only will acceding to requests to conduct meaningless
experiments jeopardize our credibility, it also wastes our limited
resources and diverts attention from what might be real issues of
concern. Our responsibility as scientists is to protect the public from
real threats. Scientific truth will eventually prevail.

We scientists must rebuild public confidence in science. We cannot
assume people believe us; clearly, they currently do not. We must not
ask for their trust; people who have to request trust are, in my
experience, inherently untrustworthy. I never ask anyone to take my
word, I prefer earning his or her trust instead. We will earn public
trust by not betraying it. We must conduct only those experiments we
know to be meaningful and rejecting those we know are not meaningful. If
an experiment is unlikely to contribute data increasing our
understanding of a GMO, then it is not worth doing. Once we've acquired
enough data to reach a reasonable conclusion, repetitions to provide a
slight increase in degrees of freedom are not worth doing. An experiment
simply designed to add another tiny amount of data to a mountain already
accrued is a waste of our time, expertise and resources. Once we've
acquired reasonable confidence in a conclusion, additional experiments
are unwarranted in the absence of a particular rationale.

Similarly, we must refuse to conduct irrelevant experiments without a
scientific rationale. Routine animal feeding trials with a GMO is
irrelevant in the absence of information indicating concern. If the
underlying genotype is a food crop, and the inserted gene (and protein)
originated from a common food, a complete battery of feeding studies
only gives apparent credibility that GM causes alterations beyond the
new inserted gene. In the absence of expectation or evidence, why do we
expend considerable time and money on outcrossing studies of an almost
completely self-pollinating GM plant? The public sees this, and says,
"They wouldn't do it if they didn't have reason to think there was
something wrong". No wonder the public is confused and incredulous.

Fight bad science! An experiment unjustified by data or valid hypothesis
is bad science. An experiment with little likelihood of helping answer a
meaningful question, even if technically well executed, is bad science.
Conducting such experiments simply to appease critics is a waste of your
skill, our resources and is disrespectful, if not downright deceptive,
to the public.

As we continue to properly assess new GMOs and other new genotypes,
howsoever created, let's keep in mind the real hazards and continue, in
spite of criticism, to focus on the real threats to health and
environment. Let's continue to acquire data probing legitimate questions
of biosafety, risk assessment, risk management. The only way for
scientists to regain our collective integrity, and ultimately public
confidence, is to be as honest, open and trustworthy as we can. I look
forward to seeing you all in Beijing when this Symposium meets once
again to deposit meaningful scientific data into the public domain and
continue the crucial debate on the biosafety of GMOs.

Alan McHughen DPhil CBiol MIBiol
Professor and Senior Research Scientist
University of Saskatchewan
Saskatoon, Sk S7N 5A8
tel +1 306 966 4975
fax +1 306 966 5015