Joe Perry sees problems with the Spat
In the Spat on GM crops in the September issue, Michael Antoniou claims that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) does not claim universal confidence.
Actually, each Panel of EFSA is made up of 21 academic experts in their field. The Chair and Vice-Chairs of the GMO Panel each have over 100 published papers in refereed journals.
Antoniou questions the independence of the GMO Panel. None works for industry; their outside interests are all documented on EFSA's website.
Antoniou claims that the EFSA GMO Panel considers toxicity tests for GM foods in mammals should last at best three months. In fact the Panel says: ‘Ninety-day studies with rodents are normally of sufficient duration for the identification of general toxicological effects ... However, [they are] not designed to detect effects on reproduction or development ... in some cases, testing of the whole food and feed beyond a 90-day ... study may be needed.’ This is no different from the view of FAO/WHO and OECD.
Antoniou cites papers by Séralini and describes it as incomprehensible’ that EFSA does not agree with their findings. EFSA's reason is that Séralini's arguments were based purely on statistical grounds, not on toxicology, and that assumptions underlying the statistical tests performed did not hold, so Séralini detected more significant results than analyses based on more robust techniques.
Let there be no doubt that, aside from the views of those who see biotechnology as some form of crusade (whether pro- or anti-), there is a real consensus amongst independent academics and international agencies concerning safety assessments of GM crops.
The difficulty for the media in engineering debate between opposing factions in controversial areas of science is that the consensus position, which is of crucial importance in settling issues within the scientific community, is often downplayed. There is a danger that the 'maverick' view is publicized to a degree not justified by its importance, and that members of the public without the time to delve deeper believe that such views are taken equally seriously by the scientific community as the more rational 'consensus' view. I am afraid that that was the case with your last Spat.
Ken Okona-Mensah on causality and proof
Paul Tyler commented on the potential health effects of pilots’ exposure to cabin air fumes and lambasted work being done to investigate the reported symptoms (People & Science, March 2009, p.16). Lord Tyler claimed that relevant authorities are failing to take the matter seriously, and asserted that there was ‘mounting evidence that fumes leaking from aircraft engine oil into the cabin air can have serious effects on passengers’ and crew members’ health’. The article also suggested that causality is not being accepted by ministers until there is 100 per cent proof.
The independent scientific advisory Committee on Toxicity  (COT) undertook a substantive review  of all the available literature and published a statement in 2007 on the cabin air environment, ill-health in aircraft crews and the possible relationship to smoke/fume events in aircraft.
Although it is possible/plausible that the reported acute or short term health effects in pilots could be related, it is not possible to draw such conclusions based on anecdotal evidence alone. The COT, therefore, suggested that further research (which meets the criteria for a properly designed study) should be conducted. Research  commissioned by the Department for Transport (DfT) has already started, and additional information is available at the DfT website.
When providing any scientific advice, the COT uses a weight-of-evidence approach, recognizing that there is always some uncertainty. Therefore, one must emphasise that any further COT review would not require 100 per cent proof to establish causality.