French researchers criticise MON810 ban

"Little respect for scientific facts."

In mid-April 2009 the cultivation of genetically modified MON810 Bt maize was banned in Germany. In banning its cultivation, the German government was following the example of several other European countries, including France. A group of French scientists has carried out a systematic assessment of the available scientific literature on Bt maize published since 1996. They come to the conclusion that there are no scientific grounds for the cultivation bans.

The authors of the study submitted the data on which the German ban is based to a critical assessment and found the scientific justification lacking in terms of methodology and content. The study was published at the end of June in a prestigious international journal. GMO Safety asked the authors about the content of their criticisms.

Dr Agnès Ricroch teaches genetics and plant breeding at AgroParisTech. She has been studying the effect of GMOs on biodiversity since 1988. In 2009 she published a study on the role of science in the public debate about plant biotechnology in France.

Marcel Kuntz is a biologist and Research Director at the National Scientific Research Centre (CNRS) in Grenoble.

GMO Safety: Under European law, a national ban on cultivation is permitted only if there is scientific justification for it. There must be new or additional scientific information that provides justifiable grounds for the assumption that the genetically modified plant presents a danger to the environment. You have assessed the “new information” cited by the German government. What were your conclusions?

Agnès Ricroch: We can show that the cultivation ban is based on an incomplete set of literature and that the internationally recognised case-by-case approach has been ignored. For instance, some of the studies cited do not relate to MON810, but to a different type of Bt maize that produces 12-80 times more Bt protein in its pollen. Neither did the risk assessment differentiate clearly between a possible risk and an established risk.

GMO Safety: Can you explain that further?

Agnès Ricroch: Thanks to our systematic literature analysis we can confirm that there is now a large body of knowledge available concerning MON810 – we call this meta-knowledge. We have assessed all the publications from 1996 to 2009 that cover potential effects on non-target organisms. Of the 41 studies published between 2008 and 2009, only two show any effect on the non-target organisms investigated. The effects found in these two studies were either inconsistent or indirect. If we look at all the publication since 1996 (nearly 400), we cannot conclude from any of them that there is a consistent effect. We can also show that Bt maize has less impact than treatment with insecticides.

GMO Safety: What criticisms do you have regarding the methodological approach used by the German authorities for their risk assessment of MON810?

Marcel Kuntz: A proper scientific risk assessment of the effects of Bt maize on non-target organisms needs to assess what concentrations of the Bt protein are toxic for which organisms. It is possible to check this e.g. in the laboratory. However, the laboratory approach tells us only the possible risk to e.g. a species of butterfly. In order to establish the actual risk to this species, a second question needs to be answered: What is the probability of this butterfly species actually coming into contact with the Bt protein in nature? In our view, this line of thought was not taken sufficiently into account.

GMO Safety: In your opinion, which of your criticisms of the approach taken by the German authorities is the most serious?

Marcel Kuntz: In my opinion there is no particular criticism that needs to be highlighted - I criticise in principle the unbalanced justification and the low respect for scientific facts. This criticism also extends to the French government and its 2008 ban on MON810.

GMO Safety: How is it possible for studies that are methodologically suspect to achieve such a high status in the debate? How do you think people should deal with flawed individual studies?

Marcel Kuntz: I doubt that the “new findings” cited by the German government are having any great effect on the scientific debate. In scientific circles people see very clearly which research provides meaningful results and which does not. The German authorities selected studies that supported their argument. If they had taken into account the entire body of available knowledge, they would have had to come to a different conclusion.

GMO Safety: What needs to be done to ensure that scientific findings are taken into account more in political decisions?

Agnès Ricroch: It would make a lot of sense if a procedure could be established like the one practised in the health sector since the 1990s for drug development. In many areas people are asking how the ever-growing body of knowledge can be adequately dealt with and assessed. Only an ongoing reflection on the available knowledge can provide a good basis for sound decisions. It also makes communication between scientists and politicians easier when the discussion is about the value of scientific data. Important base data include e.g. systematic reviews, and assessments of publications that have been appraised by experts, systematic meta analyses and regular updates of systematic evaluations.