French Academy of Medicine’s Opinion: Impact of GMOs on Health: April 2003

Thursday 11 January 2007

2 - Documents

The Academies have organized meetings, gatherings, appointments and conferences to build their opinions. Speakers were invited to talk, and out of the twelve members in the working group who prepared the opinion of the French Academy of Sciences, seven were not members nor correspondents of the Academies. One of them was a representative of the French seed manufacturer Limagrain. The Academy of Sciences is the only one to have published a scientific report on its opinion, whereas the Academy of Medicine declared that a press release was published rather than a report. A few articles similar to that of the Academy of Sciences are available on the Internet and in the Bulletin of Academy of Medicine in its session of 26 November 2002. On strictly scientific criteria, the general or authority arguments that were not supported, were, at first, put aside with a view not to enter into a unilateral debate. For this analysis, we will try to take into account the arguments backed by peer reviewed scientific references in international journals with a reading panel, if need be. The report of Academy of Sciences on the matter was published by the RST Committee (Science & Technology Report) which includes twenty four members or correspondents. It is available in the following book (Editions Tec & Doc, Lavoisier, 2002: “Les Plantes Génétiquement Modifiées”). The Abstract indicates clearly this: “All the criticism against GMOs can, for the most part, be put aside on strictly scientific criteria”. We will therefore study the said criteria scientifically. 

3 - Analysis

Except for general recommendations as well as specific recommendations underlining the position of the Academy on the matter and its strategic vision, and over and above the contextualization which serves as an introduction, the heart of this work includes six chapters. The comments of a critical reading panel follow, which is very unusual. The comments of the French Natural History Museum does, in this respect, offer a rich and documented vision with references on the ecological risks. Other comments are mostly personal or economic opinions without any references. The six chapters detailed hereinafter are envisioned as the major part of the documentation:

Chapter 1 – The vegetable transgenesis from DNA to proteins

This chapter focuses on the techniques and principles that make it possible to produce GMOs. It is oscillating between basic scientific generalities on DNA and caricatures which are not always true, as biologists know very well: “the number of chromosomes in a nucleus is fixed for a given organism” or “the correspondence grid between triplets (called “codons”) and the amino acids is preserved universally” or comments like “a genetic modification on the plastid cannot be propagated to the male gamete via pollen”. You can also find sentences like: “organisms are constituted of various organs”. This secondary school style paper aimed at the public at large does not enter into the debate on GMOs, nor does it offer any analysis on their account.

Chapter 2 – Transgenic Plants and Fundamental Research: Science and Society

This article corresponds to the sociological reflection of a biologist preoccupied by the “heuristics of fear” that he imagines in the opponents to GMOs. Throughout the article, the confusion between a possible disapproval of fundamental research and a disapproval of the industrial use of GMOs in the environment, in economics and in agriculture is maintained. The conclusion of this lengthy essay is riddled with recommendations on the necessity of funding research and a better communication. It is a rather partisan manifesto on the perception of ideas with paragraphs entitled for example “Research workers on a soul-searching quest,  facing society, violence  and economic imperatives…”. Therefore this chapter has nothing to do with an analysis on the safety of GMOs, especially where human health is concerned. 

Chapter 3 – The Vegetable Transgenesis in Agriculture

This is an agronomic history chapter in favour of GMOs, which, according to the authors, are part of a sustainable type of agriculture… Another authority argument which is not justified. The GMOs promised in the future are the ones described in the various White Papers already published by the industry. The only diagram with figures in the whole article describes the position of France in terms of the registered patents based on a vegetable cell. Once more, the plea is an economic one, which is very strange for a core paper produced by the Academy of Life Sciences. And numerous recommendations can be found in the conclusion: “we need to do something about the undermining of research”, and “a necessary evolution of regulations is advocated”, especially “with a view to no longer make a difference between transgenic plants and other plants”. Or “The necessity to hear international bodies: there is no international agreement on the necessity of labelling GMOs”. Philosophical stances may stimulate reflection, but still, there are no studies with an analysis of the data. 

Chapter 4 – Transgenic Plants: Risks and Regulations

With such a title for this chapter, one could have expected a study of the risks, especially since the author was sitting with Axel Kahn on the Biomolecular Engineering Commission (CGB) to authorize the very first GMO maize with antibiotic resistant genes, and who is still part  of the CGB, a body in charge of assessing the risks of GMOs, and  not the Academy of Sciences or Medicine. It is also the same author who is signing a synthesis of this paper for the Academy of Medicine, along with the secretary of CGB for the government. An introduction starts by describing the reductions in the use of pesticides in the United States without any scientific reference. The whole things turns very quickly into the projections promised by the manufacturers without naming them: “the data coming from across the Atlantic” is the only hint on the source of the figures mentioned in the article, which is very vague. Then extrapolations on Europe make them write that “20.5 million litres of fuel would be saved if 50% of some GMOs were cultivated”. This pithy turn of phrase for this argument is astonishing in a scientific paper which is getting closer and closer to the advertising methods used on television. Such a tool to persuade is quite novel for the Academy of Sciences. 
Then there is a very long regulation list of risks to analyse which more or less repeats what is said in the European Directive, or sometimes it mentions the benefits to perceive, with an assessment of the benefits only, on considerations rather than on the results of studies. Authority arguments are used once more and they are sometimes quite strange, still without any scientific reference: “the use of pawpaw trees resistant to this virus, made it possible to fix the situation” or “the terminator system (for sterilizing plants) consisted in preventing the dissemination of transgenes in the environment”. Or for example on an allergenic protein of rice there was this argument in the paragraph entitled Allergenicity “a team of researchers could have obtained the inactivation of the gene” without any detail or reference. We will not come back on the preposterous generalities like: “our metabolism degrades the DNA consumed into nucleotides, that are chemically identical for all living beings”, and forgetting that each meal corresponds only to a partial digestion of the ingested substances. 
Very often nowadays, daily newspapers are gradually becoming more precise in their descriptions on the subject than some of the basic articles by the Academy of Sciences. One also finds rather strange generalities that are formulated in aquestionable way: “DNA being a universal molecule, its origin does not itself have any impact on its role nor its faculty in replicating itself or in being passed on” or truisms like “the assessment of risks is the keystone to regulations”. 
Recommendations conclude the text once more with questions like “will traceability […] definitely confine the use of GMOs to marginal integrated industries?” This seems to be their major concern. In bold it says “we should not hesitate to re-form the regulations  that will not have functioned properly”. But according to what criteria? And “there is no objective reason to prolongate the moratorium”. It must be underlined that there is no scientific reference at all mentioned in this twenty-three page long vibrant plea.

Chapter 5 – Transgenic Plants in Developing Countries 

This is a plea “for increasing public effort to create the transgenic varieties  which will benefit to poor farmers in developing countries”. There is no analysis of experimental data, but just a debate.

Chapter 6 – Transgenic Yeast: A Tool for the Food Processing, Chemical and Pharmaceutical Industries

This chapter is somehow tangent to the main rationale and quite descriptive and fundamental. It concludes that “the fear of a boycott by the consumers of food or drinks prepared with GM yeast has, until now, deterred manufacturers from commercializing such products…” There is no scientific analysis of the risks on experimental data, but however there are still plenty of recommendations which seem to have been systematically asked from the authors, who were selected on the base of their opinions rather than their research work. Obviously they favour the following school of thought: “Genetics […] must be given special attention and be encouraged…”.