The importance of early warnings

September 2011

Questions over GM maize.
Photo © Greenpeace / Martin Langer
The 'Precautionary Principle' entails identification of risk, scientific uncertainty and ignorance, and involves transparent and inclusive decision-making processes (Freestone and Hey, 1997).  It is a primarily a tool for policy decision, but must impact on the scientific research agenda.  It is the scientists, not the policy-makers who are in a position to identify risks, to pinpoint uncertainties and unknowns, and to provide the basis for communication.  Thus, it is of key importance that scientists take responsibility for the anticipation of problems.

To fulfill this role, it is vital that scientists are in a position to give 'early warnings' if their research indicates a problem might be anticipated.  Such early warnings should be communicated to regulators and to other scientists at the first opportunity so as to direct the research agenda appropriately.  An early warning may form the basis of a new project or suggest a new direction or useful extension to a current project.

Early warnings are not presented in peer-reviewed publications.

Peer-review of a scientific study prior to publication is the process by which the work, is critically evaluated with regard to the techniques and materials used, the evaluation of previous relevant findings, validity of conclusions drawn, and the significance and merit of the research; the review may suggest additional data be gathered before publication.  The process, if carried out robustly, is a good form of quality control over which work becomes part of the accepted body of knowledge.  But it's slow and it's the end of the process.  It's not part of the early warning system.

Peer review, by itself, does not make a scientific finding either true or false.  Neither is peer review nor the paper reviewed a single event: parts or all of the research will already have been presented for discussion and comment at internal or external seminars, or at conferences, and the end results may end up in more than one published paper.  Also, the material may well have been presented in a grant application in preliminary form.

If an area of work has commercial potential, it will form part of a patent application before publication.

Very little of the science carried out in biotech industry labs, or the science commissioned by the industry in independent labs, or the science presented in applications for a license to market the end-product, has been peer-reviewed.

The distorting effect that commercial funding can have on science has been documented in several studies.  For example, one study reported that one in five scientists had been directed to exclude or alter information in a scientific document, while more than half of scientists reported cases where commercial interests had induced the reversal or withdrawal of research conclusions, and a third of scientists had been barred from expressing their opinions.  Another study reported more than 15 percent of respondents had been directed to change the design, methodology , or reverse or withdraw research conclusions due to commercial interests and political intervention.  Of particular relevance to the GM-food safety issue is the study which concluded:
In 2011, yet another study was published which identified a clear correlation between industry financial or professional interests and research outcomes which cast GM foods in a favourable light.
“Industry funding of nutrition-related scientific articles may bias conclusions in favour of sponsors' products, with potentially significant implications for public health”. 
In America under President Bush, science was seen not as a source of evidence to be used in decision-making but as support for decisions already taken.  If the conclusions of research did not support the government's position, then they had to be altered so that they did.  Under Obama, attempts have been made to implement a policy of scientific integrity amongst government scientists.  However, the legacy of past scientific corruption and ongoing lack of regulation of industry there remain in place.


All of this makes it highly questionable that early warnings which don't suit the biotech industry can be brushed under carpet on the grounds that they don't form part of a peer-reviewed publication.

We all know what happened to Dr. Arpad Pusztai in Scotland when he sounded an early warning on GM potatoes which should have been as safe to eat as their conventional counterpart and obviously weren't.  And what Dr. Carrasco has been going through since he sounded a warning of evidence that 'safe-as-salt' glyphosate causes birth-defects.  They're certainly not alone.  

It also begs the question of why the UK Chief Scientist put forward a 'universal ethical code for scientists' specifying that  “disseminating work before it has been peer reviewed” is unethical.  In other words, he made sure scientists could not give an early warning without risking their position, livelihood and reputation.  This is a code of ethics which clearly does not apply to the biotech industry because little of their science is published at all, but suits the industry very well because it effectively prevents anyone blowing the whistle on the safety of their products.  It also prevents the precautionary principle from being applied.

Remember this next time you read the government spin that it is applying the precautionary principle in its decisions on GM food and crops.  You might respond to any such suggestion with a comment that we can't apply this principle unless the risks and uncertainties are explored, and we can't do that unless freedom of speech and a free scientific dialogue (both incompatible with commercial interests) remain paramount.

  • Terje Traavik, The Cartagena protocol, the Precautionary Principle, “sound science” and “early warnings”,
  • Prof. Peter Saunders, , Institute of Science in Society Press Release, 20.05.08
  • J. Diels et al., 2011, Association of financial or professional conflict of interest to research outcomes on health risks or nutritional assessment studies of genetically modified products, Food Policy 36
  • Arpad Pusztai, 2008, Pressure on Science, Plos Medicine, 7.03.08
  • Scientific Integrity in Washington, Institute of Science in Society Report, 15.12.10
  • Prof. Peter Saunders, Marketing Masquerading as Scientific Survey, Institute of Science in Society Press Release, 25.03.08

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