Seralini's GMO Study Ignites A War

A recent study performed by a team of French researchers, led by Gilles-Eric Séralini, lit up the GMO debate and made the GMO/pesticide industry nervous if for no other reason than the negative PR for its products. The study looked at the impact on rats fed a diet of maize (corn) genetically engineered for herbicide resistance (NK603), with or without the herbicide Roundup, and a control group that consumed non-gmo maize.

The two year study, first of its kind to be performed on 200 rats over their lifetime (2 years), found increased tumors, mortality, and organ damage in rats fed GM maize (NK603) and similar results in rats fed Roundup in amounts well below the officially set safety limits. The study also found that tumor incidents increased 2-3-fold in comparison with the control group. Séralini’s study questioned the efficacy of the current approval standards since “[t]he first large detectable tumors occurred at 4 and 7 months into the study in males and females respectively, underlining the inadequacy of the standard 90 day feeding trials for evaluating GM crop and food toxicity.”

The study concluded “that agricultural edible GMOs and formulated pesticides must be evaluated very carefully by long term studies to measure their potential toxic effects.” It was peer-reviewed and published in the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology.

Alarming? Indeed.

The next logical step would appear to be to further examine the questions raised by the study, analyze its findings, see if they can be replicated and determine what other additional research is needed.  That is, after all, the definition of the scientific method. Instead, we saw a concerted effort by some — propelled by corporate interests — to stifle scientific discourse. This threat to scientific integrity has appeared in quieter and more subtle ways before.

In fact, further study is precisely what the GMO/pesticide industry doesn’t want other scientists to perform. It also wants to keep lawmakers from even considering the notion that the existing policy on GMOs needs to be re-evaluated. And the industry that poured millions of dollars to defeat a California GMO labeling ballot initiative would probably prefer to keep consumers in the dark about GMOs.

In fact, the No On 37 campaign spent roughly $45 million to defeat the Californian referendum and 6 out of 8 top contributors were the Big Six GMO/pesticide manufacturers (Monsanto, Dupont, BASF, Bayer, Dow, and Syngenta).

And so the floodgates were opened as soon as Seralini’s study was published and wave after wave of discrediting began. The GMO/pesticide machine went into overdrive trying to discount the study and its authors. After all, if it’s all just “junk” or “crap” science — as Seralini’s study has been called by detractors — then there is no need to look any further into the disconcerting issues it raises, so the theory goes.

There was was no shortage of vitriol against the study authors and their work. Seralini was accused of not following accepted protocols, using rats that are more prone to tumors, using small sample size, not presenting the raw data, having statistical errors in the study, not providing journalist with an advanced copy of the study, publishing a book on the same day that the study was released, having an anti-GMO agenda and so on.

Never mind that the industry “standards” are arguably less rigorous than Seralini’s, that the industry does not release information about its patented products so that independent scientific inquiry is limited or non-existent, that the same animals used by Seralini are used by the GMO industry for product studies, that many of the GMO scientific boosters have industry connections, and that most of research on the safety of GMOs, relied on almost exclusively by regulators, is industry funded.

People who live in glass houses, however, should’t throw stones.

The European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER), which performed a comparative analysis of the published industry data and the data of its institutional member, the French Committee for Research and Independent Information on Genetic Engineering (GRIIGEN), which partially funded Seralini’s study, “conclude[d] that many arguments which attempt to invalidate the Séralini et al. study cannot hold up to closer scrutiny. Raised criticisms are to a large extent either wrong or apply double standards.”

ENSSER also noted that:

The publication of this study triggered orchestrated discrediting campaigns against the authors and their work, similar to previous campaigns attempting to discredit other studies finding adverse effects. This strategy has been extensively described for example in the journal Nature (Waltz 2009) and by Hilbeck et al. (2012). While it therefore comes as no surprise, this approach should be decried as contrary to sound scientific principles, and thus institutional anti-science. ENSSER condemns all ad hominem attacks and arguments and the emotional, often vicious conduct of the debate, …

As Mike Ludwig reported in TruthOut:

Many of the study’s alleged shortcomings that boomed through the media following its release also exist in the industry studies – including Monsanto’s own studies – that form the basis of approvals of genetically engineered crops in Europe. Some of the loudest critics of the study, such as the UK-based Science Media Centre, have received funding from agrichemical companies such as Bayer, BASF and – you guessed it – Monsanto.

Likewise, the statement put out by six members of the French Academy of Sciences, who publicly dismissed Seralini’s study as a “scientific non-event,” albeit anonymously, has not only been rejected by at least another member of the French Academy but, a French journalist has now identified at least one member of this “shadow committee” – Georges Pelletier — who was involved in the regulatory approval of Monsanto’s NK603 maize, the same variety that takes center stage in Seralini’s study. GMWatch reported that Pelletier is also a key figure in AFBV – the French Association of Plant Biotechnology, a GM lobby group headed by Marc Fellous, whom Seralini has successfully sued for defamation.

“When an industry study comes out poorly designed, they don’t trash it,” said Michael Hansen, a biotechnology expert for Consumers Union, to TruthOut. Hansen also described “a “battalion” of “pro-industry scientists that stands ready to criticize independent researchers like Séralini whenever their studies are released.”

Séralini, for his part, and Joël Spiroux de Vendômois, president of CRIIGEN and a co-author of the paper, in a response to written questions by Nature magazine:

say that they have been surprised by the “violence” and immediacy of scientists’ criticisms. They argue that most of the critics are not toxicologists, and suggest that some may have competing interests, including working to develop transgenic crops. They also point out some errors by critics, such as claims that graphs in the paper showing rat survival over time do not include data for the controls.

Tom Laskawy of Grist poignantly asked “remember that even cold fusion, one of the great scientific hoaxes of all time, wasn’t totally rejected until other scientists were unable to replicate the findings. Why isn’t that the attitude with GMOs?”

It is easy for the GMO/pesticide PR machine to quote scientists on industry payroll with a pithy zinger discrediting Seralini’s study (sloppy design, fear-mongering, conspiracy). Having shifted the goal line in the debate field they can now sit back and watch.

Where once the GMO/pesticide industry was on the defensive (GMOs are linked to cancer?! what?!), with a few carefully planted slingshots it is now on the offensive (Seralini is peddling junk science!), and it’s the study authors that are now forced into a defensive position.

Except that Seralini’s defense cannot be achieved with the eloquent brevity, albeit biased and incorrect at times, of the offensive industry produced zingers but requires digging into the actual scientific framework of the study and engaging in a discussion about statistics and outcomes.  That’s just not as sexy — a fact undoubtedly recognized by the GMO/pesticides attack wolves — and is definitely more technical to an average consumer (did you say binary variables, mean intervals, OECD chronic toxicity protocol v. carcinogenicity study protocols…zzzz….).

So is the mudslinging working? It remains to be fully seen whether the short term goal (discredit the work in the court of public opinion) as well as the long term goal (ensure that lawmakers don’t bother rethinking their stance on GMOs) has been achieved by all this verbal flogging.

The Food and Drug Administration, which, since 1992, has treated GMOs as generally recognized as safe (all the while the companies still get to call their products “novel” under patent law) has remained, unsurprisingly, silent while the internet GMO war rages on.

In the meantime, Russia has temporary suspended imports of this maize, Kazahstan banned all of its imports, and the French food authority, while proclaiming that Seralini’s results are unsupported by the data nonetheless agreed that more studies are needed.

If Seralini’s study forces more independent scientists to explore the impacts of GMOs on health, then it can be declared a victory by anyone keeping the score.