Canadian and US scientists slug it out over GMOs

February 4, 2000

Scientists on both sides of the genetically modified foods debate made sure they had their say when the UN held its conference in Montreal last week. Philip Fine reports

As representatives of more than 130 countries met in Montreal last week to try to square environmental concerns and fair trade practices on the sticky issue of genetically modified organisms, university scientists had their own debate.

Though the United Nations conference that tried finally to ratify a bio-safety protocol was negotiated by politicians and senior civil servants, scientists with academic allegiances tried to enter the debate outside the plenaries, speaking for environmental groups and biotech companies alike.

Academics sent in competing petitions: Canadian professors voiced their concern over the lack of discussion in the area of genetic research while United States scientists disliked the discussion taking place and "felt it necessary to counteract the baseless attacks so often being made on biotechnology and genetically modified foods".

Friends of The Earth International spokes-person Liana Stupples said that even though this was not a scientific discussion, the image of the university researcher was on the table and was under more scrutiny now that GMOs were getting some bad press.

"Scientists who work in the public domain have to have the public trust. Strong rules would bring back that public trust," said Mrs Stupples.

That trust, said Gordon Surgeoner, a professor in the department of environmental biology at the University of Guelph, Canada, will simply be gained by doing good science.

But Ann Clark, also from Guelph, did not think all research was getting seen. She said faculty make-up in North American agricultural departments was changing and leaning more towards proprietary research that favoured molecular biologists over researchers in the more traditional basic science areas.

A protest group that countered a recent anti-GMO protest at a US Food and Drug Administration meeting in California was headed by the chair of such a department, she said, and believes it was assembled simply to protect research contracts.

"You bring big business in and it becomes difficult to maintain a perception of objectivity," said Professor Clark.

She said academics such as herself, who speak out against GMO practices, were being muzzled. She had recently been chastised by her own dean and allegedly libelled by a colleague for speaking out against corporate partnerships.

The Guelph professors both make reasoned arguments. Professor Clark said the testing being done on GMOs treated them like a traditional toxin and ignored the need for secondary tests.

Professor Surgeoner said labelling a genetic alteration was meaningless if one looked at a by-product such as pure fructose where the alteration ends up becoming undetectable.

Now that the politicians have gone home, the debate rages on in the universities.

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