Agro-Gene Technology: Evidence Review Group concludes its work

An Evidence Review Group organized by the Swiss Academy of Sciences has looked in a multi-stakeholder scientific dialogue process at the currently available scientific evidence on agro-gene technology, with a focus on the Swiss context. This joint learning process resulted in a compilation of scientific publications that are considered relevant when discussing the potential impact of agro-gene-technology in Switzerland as well as in the identification of four key issues that can help foster a constructive dialogue among scientists and stakeholders.

Rapspflanzen
Image: Public Domain

“The most striking contradiction of our civilization is the fundamental reverence for truth which we profess and the thorough-going disregard for it which we practice”
(Vilhjalmur Stefansson, 1936)

Introduction and basis

It is a pleasure to present the process and outcomes of the Evidence Review Group (ERG), a multi-stakeholder scientific dialogue process that looked at the currently available scientific evidence on genetically modified (GM) crops relevant particularly for the Swiss agricultural context.

The ERG concluded its work during the extraordinary year when we were all hit by the pandemic of SARS-CoV-2/Covid-19. A coincidence to remind us that any society can only function and reach effective and sustainable policies when basing itself on all available scientific evidence that inspires the socio-political process of decision-making for the benefit of a society. We sit all in one and the same boat, have our well-defined roles and responsibilities, may have different opinions and experiences, but we need to move forward reaching our common main goal: fighting the pandemic. The SARS-CoV-2/Covid-19 pandemic illustrates clearly the need for well-defined, effective processes to reach evidence-based, accepted and feasible solutions, but also reveals that these processes are not yet well established and require continuous adaptation and mutual learning among all involved. While this is evident in a crisis like the current pandemic, it is less widely understood among scientists, politicians and the population when we deal with the regular process of undertaking research and discussing science with the community and political levels. The long-lasting debates on technology, biodiversity, climate or tobacco are typical areas where –even in the light of available scientific evidence – dissent is fostered. As a consequence, narrowing and contractions of views, intransigence and dogmatism start to prevail, a situation not conducive for any societal development.

Agro-gene technology is a particular case in point: it has been debated globally and nationally for decades and discussions tend to be polarized and characterized by intransigence in scientific and public discussions. Gene technology has the potential to improve crop yields and nutritional value and reduce the need for pesticides, but involves directly modifying an organism's genes to enhance, add or remove particular qualities which, in turn, leads to the ever-important issue of weighing risks and benefits at the individual and the societal level.

Scientists all over the world, including in Switzerland, have actively researched the actual and potential impacts of GM crops for decades. GM crops have been cultivated for over 25 years and numerous studies on their environmental and human health impacts have been published. In Switzerland, after a popular vote leading to a moratorium on the use of GM crops in agriculture in 2005, the National Science Foundation initiated a research program with the aim to assess the risks and benefits of GM crops in agriculture with a focus on the Swiss context (NFP 59 from 2007-2011). At the national and international level, scientific bodies have conducted reviews to assess the safety of GM crops for humans, animals and the environment (e.g. US Academy of Science 2016; European Academies Science Advisory Council 2013). Additionally, in countries where GM crops are allowed in agriculture or for animal or human consumption, they are assessed by biosafety committees and regulatory authorities based on scientific publications as well as publicly available and confidential data from applicants before gaining regulatory approval. All of these research publications and evaluation reports by scientific and regulatory bodies add to a still growing body of scientific evidence on GM crops.

The Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT) has repeatedly provided scientific information for the political dialogue on GM crops based on an assessment of the available scientific evidence. This information has been challenged by some scientists and stakeholders as biased and/or incomplete. As a reaction to this criticism and in the light of growing contractions of views, perceptions implying that the Academies are not sufficiently and broadly analysing and communicating available evidence, intransigence and also some dogmatism, we decided to launch the ERG, an inclusive multi-stakeholder scientific assessment process that involved actors from the scientific community, public administration, NGOs and large business corporations, both nationally and internationally. With the ERG-process, we aimed to establish a science-based dialogue with the involved stakeholders by jointly identifying, reviewing and contextualizing key elements of evidence that need to be considered when assessing and discussing the application of crop-gene-technology in the Swiss context.

Process and key questions

The jointly agreed intent of this process was to first gain a robust overview of the currently available scientific evidence on GM crops that the different stakeholders consider as relevant for the Swiss agricultural context, without making any prior judgement calls regarding the interpretation of the collected evidence. Secondly, it was conceived to jointly assess, interpret and contextualize the collected evidence, to draw conclusions and to identify knowledge gaps. In a third step, it was intended that the results of the process could feed in and help reinitiate a more constructive policy-relevant dialogue, based on an inter- and transdisciplinary assessment of the current state of scientific research.

The process started in fall 2017, ran over three and a half years and involved some 40 scientists and stakeholders with different background and affiliations from Switzerland and abroad. The project was conceived as an iterative process where each next step was designed based on the views and proposals brought forward by all ERG members. Important milestones were:

  • Joint broad collection of questions of interest and selection of a set of key questions, based on priorities and available resources
  • Joint collection of the literature up to a certain date that should be assessed in the course of the synthesis report
  • Supervision of the creation of a literature synthesis report on key elements of evidence, including a literature database by an independent organisation
  • Joint workshop in August 2018 to present and discuss the intermediary findings with over 30 participants from Switzerland and abroad
  • Assessment of the content of the preliminary literature synthesis report and possibility to add additional literature to the database and the report
  • Preliminary establishment of a working group tasked to interpret the findings of the literature synthesis report; however, this step was not completed as no consensus on how to evaluate the evidence could be reached and no background- and opinion-balanced group could be established
  • Review of the literature synthesis report and incorporation of remarks and additions made by the members of the ERG in two extensive review rounds

The papers and documents to be considered for the literature synthesis report were iteratively collected by the members of the ERG. To assess and synthesise this body of literature, the scientific think tank "Reatch! Research. Think. Change." (www.reatch.ch) was mandated by the SCNAT to screen and summarise the major findings, without giving an interpretation. By mandating Reatch, the SCNAT deliberately chose a group of young, independent scientists who had not been involved in previous respective discussions and could thus approach the topic with a fresh and unencumbered perspective. The researchers involved in the literature synthesis report have solid backgrounds in medicine, molecular biology, ecology, law and open science.

In consultation with the ERG and SCNAT, Reatch based the literature synthesis report primarily on meta-analyses, reviews and scientific reports and complemented them with individual experimental studies where gaps existed according to the inputs of the ERG members. Such an approach – although not representing a full systematic review or meta-analysis - allowed to compile a broad and scientifically robust overview of key elements of evidence with the available resources. Given the fact that the field encompassed by the three key questions entails more than 10'000 primary publications, a full systematic review or meta-analysis was neither conducive nor feasible in the framework of this project, which again was agreed upon by all ERG members at the outset.

The key questions for the literature synthesis report were defined by the members of the ERG and, in short, focused - following again exchanges with all involved - to assess the following three key questions:

  • Molecular and metabolic effects: What are the effects of classic (transgenesis) and new genetic engineering technologies (e.g. cisgenesis, genome editing, RNA-mediated gene silencing) on a plant genome and its molecular and metabolic composition? How do these effects compare to those observed when using other breeding technologies including mutagenesis?
  • Health effects: What positive and negative effects on human and animal health have been observed from the consumption of GM crops in comparison with non-GM crops?
  • Ecological and agronomic effects: What positive and negative agronomic and environmental effects have been observed for GM crops in field trials and agricultural systems relevant to the Swiss context? What do scientific models predict?

It was, however, also recognized that there are additional important questions that have to be considered when assessing and discussing the impact of agro-gene-technology in the Swiss context, in particular regarding social, political, economic, ethical and cultural dimensions, and that these aspects should complement the perspective taken in this project at a later stage. This initial restriction again resultet from the iterative process with a final decision reached at the joint face-to-face meeting on 29 August 2018.

The literature that was considered was provided by the members of the ERG in a total of four submission rounds, with a final deadline for inclusion of scientific literature published by end July 2020. The members of the ERG provided at several points during the process and in particular in two review rounds feedback on the literature collection and the draft literature synthesis report.

Results and outlook

The literature synthesis report developed by Reatch as well as the corresponding literature database, which assembled over 400 publications, is made available online by Reatch (published on September 1st). They provide an overview of the available scientific evidence that the different stakeholders considered important when discussing the benefits and risks of GM crops for the Swiss agricultural system.

In the framework of this project, the members of the ERG did not reach a consensus on how to evaluate and decide on the relevance of the collected scientific evidence and thus, the originally outlined process of jointly interpreting and contextualizing the evidence could most unfortunately not be achieved. Consequently, several members representing different positions decided to no longer pursue the process and support the results.

Nevertheless, through the mutual learning process with all ERG members, a number of key elements have been defined that could help foster a constructive dialogue on the individual and societal impact of GM crops:

  • Value systems play an important role in determining how different elements of scientific evidence are created, interpreted and compared against each other and how risks and benefits are perceived by different stakeholders composing the larger society. Reflecting upon values and making them transparent to others should be an important part of a joint assessment process and could also contribute to foster mutual understanding and trust.
  • Given the controversial nature of the topic, a scientifically solid knowledge base is essential for an evidence-based assessment of risks and benefits. Therefore, where it has not been done so, the scientific quality of all available studies should be evaluated systematically and independently of the studies' results, according to jointly supported, transparent set of criteria.
  • Future evaluation processes should put an emphasis on systemic aspects of GM crops as these have often not been adequately addressed in the past, i.e. analyzing effects at all levels of the agricultural and food system - ranging from input provision, food production, processing, transport, retailing to consumption and waste management -, and including social, cultural and economic dimensions and extraterritorial impacts.
  • Based on this, further processes could include more fundamental questions such as «Which agricultural and food system do we want in Switzerland?», taking into account national and international policy goals and obligations, including constitutional agricultural targets, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the Agenda 2030, goals regarding biodiversity and climate change as well as the Human Rights.

More broadly and in addition, the ERG process identified that the roots of many unhelpful scientific discussions and the obstacles hindering the thrive for true and established evidence are affected by the prevailing science culture; particularly the well-known replicability and validation crisis of science. One of the main drivers of unfortunate developments in assessing evidence is that too often individual findings are generalized without careful internal and external validation. Furthermore, strictly disciplinary approaches and views can lead to group-centric biases.

With the multi-stakeholder dialogue process described here, the Academy explored an approach to constructively take on and build upon criticism in a polarized context with an open and common project. Despite not having reached a comprehensive scientific report, the joint learning process resulted in a compilation of scientific publications (published online by Reatch on September 1st) that different stakeholders regard as relevant when discussing the risks and benefits of agro-gene-technology in Switzerland, which in turn provides key elements that should be considered for such processes and for a subsequent policy-relevant dialogue.

The achievements of the ERG have also identified the four key issues mentioned above that provide important input for a continuing, iterative discussion among scientists and stakeholders striving for a truer future, not only for agro-gene technology, but more broadly for the development of society and its well-being. Finally, the experience made with the ERG-process reminds us that understanding is the way forward and that some of the best relations are forged in the heat of disagreement.

We remain with deepest thanks to all who contributed with expertise and experience to this ERG-process as well to all staff of the Academies and supporters for their committed contributions. We look forward to continuing a joint way forward.

Marcel Tanner
President Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences (a+), President SCNAT until 6.2020

Philippe Moreillon
President SCNAT since 7.2020

Franziska Oeschger
SCNAT, ERG project coordinator

Categories

  • Dialogue
  • Gene technology
  • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
  • Genome editing

Contact

Marcel Falk
Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT)
House of Academies
PO Box
3001 Bern
Switzerland

+41 31 306 93 20
E-mail