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End of discussion? Testbiotech refuses to join public scientific debate

Press Release (14 Jan 2015)


In October 2014, the EU-funded research project GRACE invited experts and interested members of the public to take part in a scientific discussion of the results of its 90-day feeding studies with genetically modified MON810 maize, which were published the same month. A public discussion forum was set up for this purpose, hosted by the scientific journal Archives of Toxicology. Testbiotech e.V. has been criticising the study in public ever since, but refuses to take part in the open discussion on the forum. In addition, in its key criticisms of the study, Testbiotech refers to an analysis by an anonymous toxicologist. Under these circumstances, GRACE no longer sees any basis for continuing the debate with Testbiotech.

The aim of the feeding study was to test the added scientific value of feeding trials for risk assessments of GM plants. The results showed that food containing up to 33 per cent MON810 maize did not have any negative effects on male or female Wistar Han RCC rats following subchronic exposure (90-day feeding trial).  In response, Testbiotech e.V. (Executive Director Dr Christoph Then)  published press releases and critical background reports on the results of the GRACE study. Among other things, Testbiotech accused the research project of having drawn the wrong conclusions from the trial data. Suspected manipulation of the results was also mentioned. In addition, Testbiotech claimed that some of the scientists involved in the study had links to industry and were therefore not independent, and called for the paper to be withdrawn

GRACE opens forum for public discussion of its research

Since then, the GRACE project has responded in detail to Testbiotech’s accusations in a number of open letters and statements (correspondence between GRACE, Testbiotech e.V. and the EU Commission). In December 2014, the Editor-in-Chief of Archives of Toxicology, Prof. Jan Hengstler, launched the open scientific forum with a leading article. In another contribution on the forum, Prof. Pablo Steinberg, one of the main authors of the GRACE paper, responded in detail to Testbiotech’s criticisms of the study. GRACE has repeatedly invited Testbiotech to take part in the forum and to share its arguments and discuss them in a scientific manner with interested experts and members of the public, but without success.

GRACE has attached great importance to transparency and ongoing, public, scientific discussion of its work since the project planning phase. Throughout the project, GRACE has encouraged, and continues to encourage, debate with stakeholders and external experts in the forums set up for this purpose. Both when it came to drawing up the study plans and discussing the interim results, more than 700 stakeholders and scientists were invited to take part in workshops and to submit written comments (including Testbiotech). The European Commission has now also confirmed, in response to an enquiry from Testbiotech, that GRACE has successfully implemented this transparency principle and the involvement of stakeholders in the analysis of the 90-day feeding trials and that it has therefore put in place the necessary conditions for a constructive public debate of the results. Testbiotech has published the response from the European Commission.

Testbiotech opts for media performance instead of scientific debate

Instead of taking part in this debate, Testbiotech and some media outlets are pursuing a one-sided representation of the GRACE project. A new background report from Testbiotech and a television programme supported by Christoph Then and shown on Bavarian television in January this year shorten statements made by the GRACE consortium and present them out of context, which distorts the meaning. They fail to mention the project’s responses to the accusations concerning a lack of independence of some of the project scientists and alleged errors in evaluating the study data. The unabridged statements from GRACE and from the European Commission in response to Testbiotech’s accusations and in answer to Bavarian television’s enquiry can be found on the GRACE project website.

In its criticisms of the feeding studies, Testbiotech refers to analyses carried out by an anonymous toxicologist. The reasons for concealing the toxicologist’s identity are not clear and raise more questions. In the interests of a constructive evaluation of the study results, GRACE would greatly appreciate it if this anonymous toxicologist would take part in the public discussion forum. He interpreted some of the study data as indications of potential harmful health effects. Scientists involved in the GRACE study responded to his assessment in detail in November and disagreed with most of it.  Unfortunately however, further transparent, scientific discussion with the anonymous expert does not appear practicable in the circumstances.  

Following its experience with Testbiotech, the GRACE consortium has decided to restrict further discussion of the published feeding studies to scientific, transparent platforms. GRACE has worked with Archives of Toxicology to set up a discussion forum on the subject, where specialist comments on the feeding studies are discussed openly and scientifically by as broad a range of experts and other interested parties as possible.