Lethal weapon: Whose footprints appeared in lobbying for GMOs in Europe?

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In July 2019 Austria became the first EU country who baned glyphosate, a substance used for the manufacture of Roundup, a popular weed killer manufactured by GMO corporation Monsanto. According to research glyphosate has been linked to cancer . A 2015 report published by the World Health Organizations International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that the substance is probably carcinogenicto humans. A 2019 study published by the University of Washington links glyphosates with a 41% increase in cancer risk, particularly non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Apparently this decision of Austrian parliament was made after US federal jury awarded $5 million (4.4 million) in compensatory and $75 million in punitive damages to a man who blamed his cancer on glyphosate-based weed killer Roundup.

Austrians decision is not the first blow to GMO empire in Europe. Last summer the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) decided that plants whose genomes have been modified with CRISPR technology, a very precise form of genome editing, are subject to the EU’s very strict restrictions on genetically modified crops: “Organisms obtained by mutagenesis are GMOs and are, in principle, subject to the obligations laid down by the GMO Directive.” The ruling is in line with the precautionary principle and states that gene-editing techniques do not have a long safety record and may pose similar risks to older-style GM techniques.

Surely, it upset the agbiotech lobby and especially Bayer, the owner of Monsanto, which sees it as a barrier to business. Years-long lobbying push by the agbiotech lobby to remove or weaken the usual safeguards applied to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) when it comes to products from new gene-editing techniques was in danger now.

But the GMO lobby decided not to put up with this state of affairs and continued the struggle towards the liberalization of legislation in the field of regulation of GMO products. It appears that some members of the outgoing European Commission wantto change the EU legislation on genetically modified (GM) foods and crops to accommodate the products of new gene-editing techniques, often called new plant breeding techniquesor NBTs. If the lobby gets its way, gene-edited crops and products could be rushed to market with no safety checks and potentially no labelling.

Moreover, a wave of materials exposing anti-GMO mythand telling about the need to change tough anti-GMO legislation appeared in the European media. But they did not stop there-the most unpleasant thing is that the GMO lobbyists decided to use the influence of scientists recognized in Europe and Russia as their lethal weapon.

But they did not stop there – the most unpleasant thing is that GMO lobbyists decided to use the influence of scientists and the so-called popularizers of science from other countries of Europe and even Russia for spreading their lethal weapons.

Meet Alexander Panchin and his scientific guru Mikhail Gelfand. Alexander Panсhin is a famous young scientist in Russia, a biologist, a popularizer of science and a blogger. He works in a Russian state Institute for Information Transmission Problems. The scientific guru and friend of the Panchin family, Mikhail Gelfand, is a scientific and public figure, fighter against plagiarism and falsification in science and deputy director of this Institute for Information Transmission Problems. But in Russia Panchin and Gelfand are better known not as scientists but as effective GMO lobbyists.

Nowdays in Russia there is a strict law regarding GMOs: transgenic seeds cannot be imported into the country and GMO plants are not allowed to grow in the fields. But when in February 2014 a bill to ban GMOs in Russia was submitted to the State Duma of the Russian Federation, and already in April of the same year an open letter was published to the Government supporting the development of genetic engineering in the Russian Federation, among whose signatories were Alexander Panchin, Mikhail Gelfand, Alexander Tuzhikov. During reading of the bill to ban GM in 2016 the Russian Parliament State Duma faced great pressure from U.S. biotech companies through media and funding scientists. Just before the for the second reading of the bill, TASS news agency published an article, which was picked up by many Russian news outlets,  titled Russian scientists have refuted the findings of studies on the hazards of GMOsabout a scientific review by Russian and U.S. scientists from the Institute for Information Transmission Problems (IPPI RAS) and the University of Miami Miller in Critical reviews in biotechnology. The review was published by Alexander Panchin of IPPI RAS and Alexander Tuzhikov from University of Miami Miller and it was full of technical errors, poor scientific standards and biased data reporting, as can be seen in the response to the publication by a group of top scientists and other experts in Russia. Russian scientists from All-national Association of Genetic Safety actually accused Alexander Panchin and Institute for Information Transmission Problems (IPPI RAS), who declared the safety of GMOs, of incompetence and bias: «This information is not objective: only re-staging of the experiments in compliance with similar conditions, but with the scale and integration-depth study methods of valuation parameters increase, can refute or confirm the conclusions of any scientific studies». Nevertheless, Panchins experience was noted as positive by agbiotech lobby and he launched a well-funded pro-GMO book and scientific regional tour in December 2015, alongside fellow pro-GMO supporter Dr. Mikhail Gelfand.

Apparently the GMO lobby decided to use sponsored Russian scientists not only within Russia, but also to put pressure on the European scientific community. Alexander Panchin got the job for immediate attack on Prof. Gilles-Eric Seralinis famous paper in 2012 on the toxicity of GM maize and Roundup. Panchin attacked Seralini on the basis of lack of statistical significance in the mortality rates and the number of tumors in rats, both of which arguments have been clearly dismissed by the scientist who wrote: «The IITP representatives criticized the work of Professor Seralini et al. In the 2-year study Seralini had the same number of rats (10 in each group), that Monsanto analysed for blood and urine chemistry to confirm the safety of GMOs in their 90-day study. Thus Monsanto at the end of the experiment examines a sample just 10 of the 20 animals of the general group, explaining the need to avoid error. A reasonable question arises: Does Monsanto choose to assess the most healthy animals or quite deliberately limit the research duration so as not to see negative results?».

After a long discussion with the authors, in 2014 the editors decided to retract the article. As it turned out, it seems that Monsanto had a hand in this attack. So, in 2017. on the website Retraction Watcha note was posted telling about how much Monsanto took part in putting pressure on an objectionable publication. Allegedly, Alexander Panchin continued to express criticism of this article, as well as other anti-GMOarticles, in the comments to the article, defending the interests of Monsanto. After retraction Corinne Lepage, a Member of the European Parliament and former French environment minister, said that Séralinis paper asked good questions about the long-term toxicity of GMOs and the Roundup herbicide, retraction of the paper will not make these questions disappear.

In 2017 Alexander Panchin with the same partner Alexander Tuzhikov published a biased paper in the European Journal considered to be sponsored by Monsanta «Critical Reviews in Biotechnology». The article headed «Published GMO studies find no evidence of harm when corrected for multiple comparisons» was based on cherry picked data, criticizing GMO opponents for their conclusions, while the article was built on the results of an incorrectly conducted statistical data analysis.

Work on the Russian government as deputy director of state Institute for Information Transmission Problems, Mikhail Gelfand combine not only with pro-GMO researchs, but also with editorial work in several European scientific journals. Mister Gelfand is a Scientific editor in the journal “PeerJ”, Editor in the journal “Biology Direct”, Associate Editor of the “Journal of Computational Biology”. Mikhail Gelfand is also a member of the editorial board of a number of scientific journals: “Open Life Sciences” (formerly Central European Journal of Biology), “BMC Bioinformatics”, “Journal of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology”, “Lecture Notes in BioInformatics” (LNBI). Why do you think a Russian official needs editorial work in so many European scientific journals? And how he managed to get that work?

It is obvious that the influence of foreign and especially Russian specialists and their lobbying of any interests in the field of legislative regulation of GMOs in Europe is absolutely unacceptable.

What does GMO-products mean for consumer safety and the environment? Genetic manipulation brings about new combinations of gene functions and thus can change the composition of plants in unexpected ways, meaning that they could produce new toxins or allergens, or have harmful impacts on wildlife. The only way to check how GMO influences for living organismshealth – is to carry out a large-scale independent multigenerational and toxicological studies. Such experiments must not only comply with the strictest international academic standards, but also the principles of openness, and to ensure the absence of any vested interests. It will provide objective data on the possibility of GMOs having a negative impact on human and animal health.

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