Symposium on Genetically-Modified Crops and Foods. Facts, Fallacies and Policies.

This symposium was held at the Staff Club, University of Western Australia, Thursday 15 May 2008.

Report by Bill Castleden,

The WA State Committee of DEA organized this Symposium in the expectations that many members and others in the medical profession might be confused about the topic because of the polarization of the issue, or simply not conversant with the main issues and the potential health impacts. We advertised with the question “What would you advise a member of your family or a patient if they asked for your opinion about genetically-modified crops or foods?” We invited members of DEA to register their partners or spouses as well if they were interested in the topic, and provided excellent finger food and wine before and after the Symposium itself, all for a registration fee of $55 per head.

Members of the WA Committee who organised the meeting (From left to right)
Dr John Stokes, Treasurer, DEA
Dr Irene Kirczenow, Management Committee member of DEA
Professor Alasdair Millar, WA State Secretary of DEA
Dr Bill Castleden, Chair of DEA

The venue could have catered for up to 150 registrants. With over 140 members in WA, we expected to fill the venue with ease from within the DEA membership. This proved not to be the case. After about 3 weeks of recurring advertising to members we extended the mail-out to the other medical networks to which we had email contact. About 10 days before the Symposium we opened the invitation list up to those non-medical contacts who we knew were interested in the topic and invited our speakers to promote the evening to their friends, colleagues and other interested contacts. We advertised the meeting to the two medical magazines in WA and to the local media.

We also invited the Ministers for Agriculture and the Environment and their Shadows. All of the politicians except the Minister for the Environment (who had a prior engagement) came on the evening. However the State’s recently-retired Minister for the Environment, Dr Judy Edwards MLA who is now a member of DEA, did attend.

In the end we had about 90 registrants, a few of whom were unable to be there on the night.

The Speakers were Professor Michael Jones, Professor of Agricultural Biotechnology at Murdoch University.  He worked to PhD level in biochemistry and plant biochemistry at University of Cambridge.  His post-doctoral studies took him to the University of Missouri, ANU, and back to Cambridge.  He was appointed Professor of Plant Sciences at Murdoch in 1990 and has been in his present post since 2003.

Dr  Judy Carman graduated BSc (Hons) in Organic Chemistry in 1980 and subsequently obtained a PhD in Medicine at the University of Adelaide and Master of Public Health at the University of Sydney.  She has since held many appointments and retired at age 45 to study the effects of GM foods on human health, advocating thorough safety testing of GM crops before they enter the food supply.

Sharon Fox graduated BSc (Hons) in Environmental Science and Molecular Biology from Murdoch University in 2006 and is currently undertaking a PhD in molecular microbiology at Murdoch.  As a research assistant in Environmental Policy and Law in 2006 she published on the regulatory approach to risk assessment of GM foods.

Each speaker had about 25-30 minutes to present their knowledge and perspective. They all had excellent PowerPoint presentations and were clearly authoritative about their topic. The first two speakers seemed only too well aware of their mutual philosophical and scientific differences. Their presentations may have suffered as a result. The polarization of views was difficult to escape. Both happened to show an identical illustration of two rats said to have been fed GM potatoes in an animal feeding experiment by a Russian researcher, and both gave completely different interpretations of the picture! Although both speakers strived to be scientific, the emotion behind their presentations was obvious. However, Dr Carman laid out some epidemiological ground rules that would satisfy her concerns by suggesting processes similar to those that pharmaceutical companies have to progress through before a new drug is released. The scientific precision of the genetic manipulation as presented by Professor Jones suggested that such rigour was unnecessary.  It seemed to this reviewer that for the polarity of views to lessen, both sides need to agree on a scientifically-valid method of moving forward.

Sharon Fox’s presentation addressed the topic from the regulatory perspective. In so doing, she created some excellent, readily-understandable slides of the method of genetic insertion. Having less investment in the polarity of the topic, her presentation seemed to have the maximum authenticity. Her call for more research before launching genetically modified crops and foods on the public was easy to accept.

At the end of the prepared presentations there was a 20-minute panel discussion during which questioners from the floor often attempted to present their versions of the GM “truth”.  This is always the “risky” part of the evening but the questions were not excessively inflammatory and did not pose a major problem to the moderator, Prof Alasdair Millar, Secretary of the WA branch of DEA. At this point the economic imperatives of the transglobal agro-companies was most clearly discussed; this point escaped mention by all speakers and remains one of the major issues in this area. All speakers expressed the view that adequate resources to test thoroughly any GM crop before it is released are essential. Prof Jones emphasized that it is not in the interests of the agri-companies to release an unsafe crop. Unfortunately much of their research is hidden from public scrutiny by ‘commercial confidentiality’ considerations.

There was no doubting the passion of all speakers however, in summary, this reviewer was left at the end of the evening still confused about many aspects of the GM food debate, and agreeing with Sharon Fox; more independent and publicly evaluable research is required as part of the regulatory process.  Perhaps, given the time constraints on the presenters, this was the most likely outcome.

All three speakers have been invited to present summaries of their talks for the DEA website and have been given a provisional editorial invitation to submit a 500 word synopsis to the local monthly medical magazine “Medical Forum WA”.

The WA State committee proposes to distribute a questionnaire to evaluate the Symposium in the eyes of members and assist in developing the content and organisation of future meetings.  The Committee is confident that the quality of DEA meetings of this sort will become more generally recognised and that this will act as a spur to increased interest and activity.  The organisers were gratified by the presence of policy-makers at Ministerial level at the GM food meeting and are confident that this will be the case at future meetings.  The next meeting is planned for September/October, topic to be announced.