“We’re not Allowed to Demonstrate the Knowledge we Have”

(December 11th, 2014) Stefan Jansson is a plant physiologist at Umea University. He coordinated the open letter, which called attention to the precarious situation of scientists working with genetically modified plants in Europe. Isabel Torres spoke with him.

Lab Times: How did the idea to release such a letter arise?

When I found myself in the Lab Times list of the 30 most cited plant scientists, I thought maybe I could use it for a good purpose, rather than just being happy to be on that list. A couple of years ago, I organised something similar in the Swedish plant science community. In the GMO debate, often people claim that only scientists who have links with industry are being picked to give statements because they are pro-GMO. Then, there was this Lab Times list of most cited plant scientists in Europe, which selected scientists based on a completely different ground. I thought, if you ask these people whether they would like to sign a letter, it would show the views of the most influential scientists. And so together we began to formulate a statement.

What were the biggest difficulties?

Certainly, if you have such a group of highly cited scientists, there will be some with very strong opinions and integrity and so, it took almost two months to agree on a text. During this process, a few of them dropped out as well, saying they were not interested anymore. We had six that we didn’t get on the list for various reasons. One never replied to my email and others didn’t agree with the entire message, probably because there was a pretty strong statement about GMOs. Right before the European Parliament elections in May, we had our final list of 21. But it was very clear that it wouldn’t be a good idea to release the letter right before the elections because no one would take notice. […] That’s why we waited for the right moment and it came in November, when important decisions were made at the European level.

Can you briefly summarise what you ask for in the open letter?

The main point is that plant science is important, if we want a sustainable society, a greener Europe or a smaller carbon footprint. In comparison with biomedicine and some technical fields, for instance, plant science is not well-funded in Horizon 2020. But, we must make sure that plant scientists can get funds to do their research and that they also have good conditions to do good research. The second point concerns GMOs: it is an enormous hassle for scientists in Europe to do field experiments with plants that are genetically modified. In very few countries these trials are allowed and in most of those, the fields have been systematically destroyed and researchers are threatened. […] And of course this is a serious threat to science. The third point is that […] in order to translate the knowledge from basic science to products useful for society, you need companies […] and seed companies can’t sell those seeds in Europe, if they are GM - they’re blocked.

What is the biggest problem of the current system?

Every approval of a [GM plant] variety is enormously expensive, complicated and unpredictable, so no one even tries nowadays. If companies or the rest of the society cannot see the potential of plant science, it sets back plant science in the long run. We can never show what we can do. How can politicians and the public evaluate the potential value, if we’re not allowed to demonstrate the knowledge that we have. All the inventions and all the new environment-friendly varieties that have been produced over the years, they’re just in the drawers of the scientists and are perhaps never used in practical agriculture.

Have you had any response from the European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety?

No, not at all.

Did the letter receive support from the research community?

Yes, the European Academy of Sciences (EURASC) and the European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO), who weren’t involved in writing the letter, were very happy. And the American Society for Plant Biology (ASPB) actually asked us how they could also sign and endorse it. Many colleagues from all over the world appreciated it. I haven’t had a negative response.

Are plant scientists aware of the current political developments in Europe concerning GMOs?

Yes, I think so. The pressure from the scientific community in Brussels is, however, weak. We are not lobbyists, we can never be lobbyists because if we start to become lobbyists, we undermine our own credibility. We can say what we want but they can choose not to listen. Scientists don’t have people walking around the corridors in the European Parliament or at the European Commission. It’s a disadvantage because those who we are speaking against sometimes have very strong lobbying capacities.

How did the public respond?

Many comments to the open letter in newspapers say: “how much are you paid by Monsanto to do this?” To claim that this group of scientists is paid by Monsanto is outrageous. A few of the scientists, who signed the letter, have links with industry, that’s because they are trying to do something that could be useful for society, but most have not. We wouldn’t have any problems to defend this group of people as being independent.

How could we get the message across that plant scientists don’t all work for industry giants like Monsanto?

It’s a vicious circle. The green movement is very influential, which is good. I have been an environmentalist myself and I think it’s good that Europe is taking in environmental concerns. But the thing is that if Greenpeace says something, it’s almost impossible for science to say that Greenpeace is wrong - they have such credibility. Their opinion influences the public and the public influences the politicians, of course. And politicians are the ones who make the laws and rules. It’s really hard, and it’s been like this for many years and perhaps it may get even harder in the future. So, what can we do? We need to fight, we need to go out and speak about it. And that’s what we are doing here.

Why have GM crops approvals been blocked in Europe for so many years and how has this affected plant scientists in Europe?

I don’t know if someone could have foreseen this but about ten years ago, when the legislation came into place, it was pretty straightforward: EFSA does a science-based risk evaluation [of the GMO] and puts it into two categories: risky or not risky. Then a group of representatives of the Member States (the Standing Committee) decides about the approval. So, politicians take decisions based on the advice of specialists. When it comes to pharmaceuticals, for instance, it’s not politicians that make the evaluations whether the drug is dangerous or has side effects or not, it’s the scientific body. That works for all other Standing Committees, but not for decisions about GMOs. The decision requires a qualified majority; it means that if 9 countries out of the 27 are against it, things are blocked. And there are countries that say no regardless of what the scientific evidence says. Many of them don’t rely much on farming, for example Malta, Cyprus and Luxembourg. Scientists can still do what they want if they stay in the lab, in most countries. However, in France and some other countries they have problems. Colleagues of mine have had research applications blocked because they mentioned they’re going to use GMOs as research tools.

What do you think about science-based evaluations of GMOs in Europe?

If you ask me, they are much too strict but at least they are performed in a scientifically sound way. One issue brought up all the time is that the companies themselves provide the data for the risk evaluations. Can we trust them? But that’s how we wanted the system to work. It’s the same for pharmaceuticals. If a company wants to sell a new pharmaceutical, it’s the company that has to pay for risk assessment, not the public. The same is true for crops. If a seed company wants to make money, it has to prove that its product is safe. But it is used as an argument against the system: how can we rely on data produced by the company?

A lot of independent university research has come to the same conclusion: GM technology isn’t more dangerous than any other breeding technology. But, of course, EFSA doesn’t ask for this kind of data and thus, companies don’t include it in their application. Even if EFSA approves, the Standing Committee can still, for political reasons, say: “No, we don’t believe in this, you have checked these insects but you haven’t checked those insects, do that as well”. Then it returns to EFSA and the circle starts again. It’s a bouncing ball that has delayed [GMO approvals] for a decade in some cases. Basically, the Standing Committee comes up with whatever to block the approvals. So, the system is flawed although it is, in principle, scientific.

In November, the European Parliament approved draft plans to allow Member States to restrict or ban GM crops on their own territory. Will this block GMO cultivation in Europe for good?

Originally, the draft proposal said that there should be some [scientific] rationale behind a ban and not just an aversion against GMOs. I’m not a specialist in this… Some people say - I don’t know whether it’s true - that the companies in a way will have to admit that their crops could be dangerous, if there is a ban. And, of course, there is the extra economic burden put on those that want to use them. There are a lot of issues. If a variety is allowed in Spain but not in France, there have to be very strict measures to prevent unintentional export or even pollen flow from Spain to France. Spain can’t do what it wants on its territory because France has decided against GMOs. How could you then talk about a common market?

Could the original proposal have worked?

With the original compromise, I had the feeling that it can’t get worse, so at least we can try it. But now it’s hard to know. In the upcoming months, a re-evaluation of the whole approval system is planned. Before the release of the draft plans, we were hoping things will improve but now, in the light of what happened, we really wonder if these things will go in the right direction. Juncker stated: “I don’t think it’s right that we have to approve varieties just because they have been found safe.” If you replace ‘crops’ with ‘pharmaceuticals’, everyone would realise how ridiculous it sounds. But when it comes to GM crops, it’s an argument you can make, obviously.

Will GMOs ever be grown in Europe?

In 50 years, there’s no doubt they will be grown everywhere, probably not in 10 or 20 years. I think [public] opinion in Europe will eventually change when farmers will ask for GM plants and when we realise that the rest of the world is passing us on this. […] Companies have already given up in Europe. Every year, the pressure is increasing on European agriculture. We become more and more dependent on the outside world, in particular of feed but also food. European agriculture is lagging behind in terms of development, yields and so on. So, every year the rest of the world is improving more than we’re doing here.

What will happen to plant science in Europe?

It won’t disappear but it won’t flourish either. Maybe, in ten years, there will be fewer plant scientists and they will be a little less useful for society.

Interview: Isabel Torres

Photos (2): Jansson lab

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