Scientists call for reason in GM row

March 8, 2002

The most heated academic dispute over genetically modified organisms since Arpad Pusztai fed potatoes to his laboratory rats has prompted 100 prominent scientists from across the globe to petition for reasoned scientific debate.

The experts believe that the furore, which was sparked by controversial research claiming that transgenic DNA had found its way into non-GM Mexican maize, has ignored the science.

The original paper appeared in the journal Nature last November. It has been criticised by scientists for using an inappropriate technique to reach conclusions that have been seized upon by anti-GM groups.

Frustration in the biotechnology community has grown as the journal has yet to publish critiques of the research. Meanwhile, 144 non-governmental organisations have issued a statement claiming the scientists behind the research - Ignacio Chapela and David Quist at the University of California, Berkeley - had become victims of a campaign of intimidation.

The NGOs accused "pro-industry academics" of mudslinging and called on academe to "renounce immediately the use of intimidatory tactics to silence potentially 'dissident' scientists".

In response, 100 scientists this week published an electronic petition. Among them are Ingo Potrykus, the Switzerland-based creator of the vitamin A enriched GM "golden rice", and Jose Luis Solleiro, senior researcher at the National University of Mexico. They rejected the accusations, saying:

"Scientists have a fundamental ethical obligation to rigorously examine the results and methodology of reported research."

Some attacked Nature for running the paper in the first place.

Klaus Ammann, director of the Bern Botanical Garden, who convenes an influential plant biotechnology internet discussion group, said the journal had not tackled the scientific fallout from what he felt was flawed research. "Has Nature become a boulevard science journal altogether?" he asked.

However, Anthony Trewavas, professor of applied biochemistry at Edinburgh University, felt the journal had been right to prompt the debate despite his misgivings about the technique used.

Nevertheless, he added his name to the scientists' statement and has written to Nature asking why the researchers did not use a more reliable test to confirm their results.

Philip Campbell, editor of Nature, denied the journal was biased against GM in agriculture. "In editorials we have endorsed it as a technology that should be cautiously pursued," he said. "We have published articles and papers that are explicitly or interpretable as being on either side of the arguments, as well as balanced accounts of the debates."

Despite the dispute, most scientists agree that gene flow - the process at the heart of the paper - was inevitable and would include transgenes from GM crops.

But many of the petitioners said there were no grounds for the conclusion that such transgenes posed a threat to native species of maize in its country of origin, as the paper suggested.

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