No fireworks at public GMO forum

I’m pleasantly surprised to report that — contrary to some expectations — the public forum held at Te Papa last night as part of the ISBGMO conference was for the most part an exercise in respectful restraint and open dialogue.

Soundings Theatre housed a fairly decent turnout — around a hundred people — many of them conference participants. The majority of the questions posed when the mic was turned over to the audience came from individuals representing groups that are actively opposed to genetic engineering. But the tone was not hysterical, and the regulators and scientists on the panel seemed to take the responsibility of responding to the concerns raised seriously.

Claire Bleakley, president of GE Free NZ, raised the issue of scientific evidence that comes before regulators and asked how panelists weigh up the evidence when research put forward by advocacy groups conflicts with the research that applicants for GMO trials present.

Sally McCammon, Science Advisor to the USDA, gave a considered response highlighting regulators’ concern that their judgements must be based on the “weight of evidence” rather than focusing undue attention on single studies. She pointed out that there is already a large and rapidly growing body of research on GM, enough to show coherent trends in the patterns of results.

She also said that it’s always better to have several top-notch scientists studying a problem from different angles than a single researcher working in isolation. Evidence that lines up with other similar studies carries more weight — an important point to consider the next time you see scientific results hyped up and trumpeted out of context.

I asked the panelists to reflect on advances in the field since their first ISBGMO conference in 1990.

Patrick Rudelsheim discussed the transition from the traditional aims sought by conventional agriculture — resistance to pests, diseases and herbicides, which are traits that have been selected for using hybridisation for many decades — to new applications for GM technologies on the horizon. He specifically mentioned the possibility of using food crops to produce pharmaceuticals, and “enhanced foods” with added nutrients.

Vish Vishwanath of AgResearch, who’s involved in their transgenic animals research, talked about the move from shotgun technology to the ability to select and transfer targeted gene sequences at will. He also said that the introduction of genomics has enabled huge advances. Whereas in the early days of genetic modification scientists were limited to searching for traits based on animal breed, now they can quickly isolate and verify the presence of a desired gene on an animal-by-animal basis.

AgResearch’s transgenic animal application attracted a bit more attention in the public forum than during the media session earlier in the week. When criticised for the broadness of it and other GM field trial applications, panelists responded by placing the field trials in the same context as R&D. It was interesting to hear that field trials are not just a safety check to see what happens when a newly-created GMO is grown outside the lab.  Instead, they are essentially the testing ground for various competing GMO “prototypes”.  Researchers feel pressure to apply for the broadest consents possible because they have no way of saying beforehand which will prove most successful.