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Smell a rat? Flawed GM cancer study highlights flawed media approach

19 commentsBy Caroline SCOTT-THOMAS , 08-Oct-2012
Last updated on 08-Oct-2012 at 18:27 GMT

Five of the ten controls developed tumours too
Five of the ten controls developed tumours too

A French study on the effects of Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM) maize in rats has said little about the safety or otherwise of GM crops – but it has said plenty about how the media can be used to push an agenda.

The study itself has been widely criticised, but at a time when pressure is on reporters more than ever to be the first news organisation to ‘break’ a story, many members of the public will have read nothing but the initial, scaremongering reports – which reflect exactly what the researchers intended.

There are several issues that bother me here. However, as a journalist, top of the list is the fact that reporters given pre-embargo access had to sign an agreement that they would not speak to any outside experts before the embargo was lifted.

This more or less guaranteed that no early reports would question Séralini’s findings – and, worryingly, some pretty well-respected news outlets agreed to this condition. The contract was essentially an abuse of the media, and of the embargo system, to quash early criticism.

It also took advantage of journalists who failed to grasp that the peer review process is not gospel; even published studies need to be questioned.

Nearly immediately, anti-GM groups started leveraging the reports to push their agenda , leading Russian authorities to temporarily ban imports of the crop and the French government to call for an EU-wide ban.

Passion and urgency, but a lack of data

There are few issues in food today that stir up such impassioned – and such ill-informed – views as GM materials in our food supply. As such, Séralini et al knew that many news outlets would take their results as presented, run with them, and never take a second look, and in many cases they were right.

Meanwhile, the researchers have refused to publish their full data set.

Frankly, this is bizarre. It is normal and expected for scientists to make their data available so others can assess their methodologies and attempt to replicate results.

However, even without the full data, there were some glaring faults, as EFSA and other food safety agencies around the world have pointed out.

I smell a rat…

Some of the most obvious were the small sample size (just ten per group) and that the rats used were genetically predisposed to develop tumours. In fact, the Sprague-Dawley rats have a 70 to 95.8% chance of developing tumours within their two-year lifespan – that’s before any treatment of any kind. Especially if they only number ten, these rats were not suitable controls, and it’s hardly surprising that five of the ten Sprague-Dawley rats in the control group developed tumours.

In addition, Séralini listed no conflict of interest for this study, but Embargo Watch – which has an interesting take on this issue – pointed out that he also has a book on GMOs out this week. Coincidence…?

In short, it doesn’t matter what your ideologies are, this study was hugely flawed. Nevertheless, it managed to get a lot of publicity with little analysis by taking advantage of the media’s desire to be first on a story in a high-speed world.

It actively took advantage of widespread paranoia about GM foods and a lack of understanding of scientific methodologies.

So what next?

We need a cool head to examine what is going on with the safety or otherwise of GM crops, without the baggage of a predetermined viewpoint. Unfortunately, few individuals have that, even researchers, as this study underlines.

My hope is that there are lessons to be drawn anyway; it could lead to better testing of the safety of GM crops, including the development of methodologies that will be acceptable to global food safety authorities…as well as a much larger dose of scepticism among journalists next time someone tells them to whom they can and cannot talk.

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19 comments (Comments are now closed)

Author response @Jennifer Christiano

Thank you Jennifer for your well-written and respectful response. You raise lots of interesting points, and I agree with you on many of them. In particular, the study you link to was something I covered for this publication last year, and something that I found - and find - very concerning.

To reiterate the main point of my commentary, I was drawing attention to the flawed media approach - by scientists and by media - in their handling of this study, not offering a critique of Monsanto, although whenever I discuss the GM issue, my lack of a critique of this company seems to be what readers hear, more than the issues I actually discuss.

I find it interesting how many people seem to have a "if you're not against Monsanto, you're for Monsanto" ideology. I haven't said that I'm either. However, when it comes to a type of agriculture becoming globalised and dominant without global consensus, I do indeed find that worrying.

There are many, many issues in the GM debate, but I find that too often they get rolled into one that is strongly based on emotion. Again, I appreciate your thoughtful approach.

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Posted by Caroline Scott-Thomas
11 October 2012 | 09h59

Response to author's call

In response to the author's comment regarding not being "pro-GM", I would suggest that perhaps the tenor of her articles don't do her feelings justice. There must be some reason why the majority of readers across time seem to be getting the incorrect impression. Regarding the issue of good journalism, I won't disagree, but it's interesting that the few positive responses to the relentlessly pro-GM sounding articles usually seem to come either from those who express a marked pro-GM bias, themselves, or from those who don't reason particularly well. Personally, I'm going to withhold judgement about the articles being 'fair and insightful' until I see some good supporting evidence.

But my intent is to help, not criticize. The author asked for links to articles that show poor methodologies being used elsewhere. Surely she's aware of the difficulties of proving negatives, but I do have a few examples. One that comes to mind are the remarkable number of field trials of GMO crops that purport to demonstrate their safety, but which fail to follow the 'life cycle' of GM proteins as they leave the plant and enter the gut flora of pollinating insects or the soil biota. Where do those genes go after leaving their initial points of contact, and what influences do they have as they travel through the environment? Nobody really knows, because very few (especially Monsanto et. al.) have asked. However, the most recent research suggests that this gap in inquiry has allowed the gut flora of field insects exposed to GM proteins in situ, to mutate and confer host immunity. That wasn't, according to Monsanto et al., supposed to happen! There was no evidence that it could happen! The reality is that the evidence was waiting to be discovered, but the GM industry never honestly looked for it. It wasn't found until independent researchers thought to inquire. How much more evidence of harm is out there, lying hidden until somebody insightful enough and wealthy enough to ask, can run the correct studies?

Unfortunately, the absence of evidence was taken as the evidence of absence. This seems to hallen a lot with Monsanto. It's too bad that economic and political interests often push this mental sleight-of-hand onto unsuspecting members of the public and the press. When one substitutes logical fallacy for logic, and bolsters one's world view with selective evidence, the mistaking of all sorts of absurdities for truth becomes easy.

An issue related to "absence of evidence" is the sheer politics of publishing scientific reviews critical of Monsanto's work. Surely the author knows that scientific research and publishing are highly political endeavors, despite the official dogma that science is free and independent of such un-scientific concerns. Independent? Hogwash. The practical reality is that science is almost as political an endeavor as - well, as politics itself. And those pushing GM are currently the same ones holding the clout, and always have been right back to the beginning of this game.

Finally, there is the issue that Monsanto doesn't have to disclose all of its work to regulators or the rest of the scientific community. As a former bench researcher in the biosciences, myself, I can attest to the fact that the majority of articles published in peer-reviewed journals do NOT contain sufficient information to allow other researchers to fully replicate the published study in detail. And the researchers themselves are often coy about giving critical details to rivals or potential critics - especially when their work is being funded by powerful bosses or rakes in handsome rewards. The process of peer review does not normally require the sort of degree of disclosure that would be necessary for thorough evaluation of results, and why should we believe that, given the enormous reputations and amounts of money involved, the process of deciding whether GE crops are "safe" be a huge and glaring exception to the rule?

Anyway, with those caveats in mind, I am supplying a link to a good article from PlosONE regarding the evolution of a BT-resistant corn rootworm that Monsanto assured regulators would not evolve (or, at worst, that it would be well contained and never create any significant damage to corn fields, if it did somehow evolve): http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0022629 I hope that the author considers PlosONE to be at least as credible as any journal in which Monsanto publishes. Here is an excellent example of Monsanto's scientific environmental safety data being proven horrifically wrong by the empirical evidence. The PlosONE article points to several areas where Monsanto's methodolgy was miserably, if predictably, inadequate. Yet Monsanto's studies were accepted by regulators as "good evidence" of the envronmental safety of the particular strain of BT corn being affected. Let's write about that!

Before I leave, I suggest that all readers investigate James Shapiro's excellent nonpartisan book "Evolution: A View From the 21st Century". It is a fantastic guide to understanding the limits of scientific knowledge about genetics. One topic Dr. Shapiro explains is epigenetis, a brand new field of genetic knowledge which is finally validating the "jumping genes" discovered by Barbara McClintock. Dr. McClintock's observations were scoffed at or simply ignored for decades by most of the conventional scientific establishment because the scientists themselves lacked a framework in which to contextualize the evidence. The genetic engineering studies I've read over the years have never, until perhaps extremely recently, taken epigenetics into account. However, that doesn't mean that the processes weren't at work despite our ignorance. Did Monsanto include epigenetic concerns in its studies? I don't know the entire body of Monsanto's evidence, but what I have seen, directly and indirectly, says no. And of course not - they couldn't! The theories hadn't been developed, yet. That didn't stop our bodies and those of our offspring from being affected by epigenetics, though. And they will continue to be affected by whatever else we don't understand, yet. Why not write about that? Might be better than risk having to write a huge apology on down the road.

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Posted by Jennifer Christiano
10 October 2012 | 21h47

this sounds like Damage Control

it has been known for over 3 decades that GMO's are a weapon of mass destruction--even though no one has labeled as such---and studies abound to validate this---yet here we have a writer who neither knows anything and is using this forum-format to do damage control--if these foods were so safe then why no label access in north america--whether I buy them of not is a choice-or should I say an option--this was a controlled market here in North america and people here really have no choices--so much for freedom--what we have is a limited access to health and a whole lot of options on poison

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Posted by anth
10 October 2012 | 15h39

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