War over unsafe GM maize

December 2012

The publication of a unique, long-term GM feeding experiment was clearly a worst-nightmare come true for the biotech industry.  It revealed multiple evidence of harm not only from eating a GM maize and but also from drinking the herbicide that the maize was transformed to accumulate (see GM MAIZE IS NOT SAFE TO EAT - October 2012).

This was bad enough, but the things that caused the real panic in biotech circles were the indications that both test materials (GM maize NK603 and Roundup herbicide) promoted cancer and disrupted endocrine function.

What happened next was that a scientific civil war broke out.  As the study's lead scientist, Gilles-Eric Séralini, put it, on one side are supporters of biotech "science" and on the other side supporters of the science which he practices which is “not made to feed the insatiable ogre of finance but to protect the human beings of today and tomorrow”.

What are Séralini's grounds for this disparaging statement about his fellow-scientists?

Consider for example the speed, nature and sources of the critical responses to the publication.

The journal's peer reviewers took four months to consider the paper and asked for further analysis to fill perceived gaps.  Pro-GM critics sprang into action within days, and it took less than three weeks for regulatory agencies to appoint expert sub-committees and for these to decide to discredit the work (the decision was confirmed the following month).  There was no pause for thought because the sub-committees included much the same people as had approved the GM maize in the first place, and they couldn't admit to its negative implications without admitting to their own scientific failings.

By the next issue of the journal, a spate of letters from well-known pro-GM activists (such as AgBioWorld) had been received by the editor and some 20 of these were published.  These denounced the study as “bad” and “junk” science.  Personal attacks on the authors described them as “militant researchers”, “motivated by personal interests”, and “activists linked to the environmental movement”.  Even more vicious attacks appeared within the same time-span in the wider media.  COMMENT  Debate between peers is a necessary part of all scientific exploration, but does this sound like a serious peer-group discussion, or an orchestrated rant designed to stifle questions and questioners?  

The anti-Séralini letters didn't just attack himself, his team and their experiment.  Critics went so far as to demand that the journal retract the paper.  The Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology is one of the most reputable in the world.  This demand is an outright attempt to discredit a leading journal which just happens to be the journal most likely to publish science showing harm from GM foods.  It's also an outright attempt to discredit the peer-reviewers who just happen to be the people most qualified to give voice and weight to the health warnings implicit in the study.

*Note.  While peer-review and publication in a scientific journal is the gold standard for presenting experimental results, not all journals are equal: some are controlled through biotech industry sponsorship.  Three out of the four journals which published Monsanto's 'proof of safety' studies of the same NK603 maize which poisoned Séralini's rats, openly advertise their commercial sponsors.  The Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology however isn't under the corporate thumb.

The real scientific civil war started when a fast-track, fierce, criticism of  Séralini's paper appeared from an unexpected and very respectable quarter: the French National Academies of the Sciences (FNAS, which comprises Agriculture, Medicine, Pharmacy, Science, Technology and Veterinary Science).  In this apparently 'official' statement,  Séralini's paper was trashed as a “scientific non-event” which “does not enable any reliable conclusion to be drawn” and whose publicity has “spread fear among the public”. 

However, according to statistician and Academy member, Paul Deheuvals, this opinion from the Academies seems to have emerged from “a group of experts ... convened in an emergency, we do not know by whom, no one knows how, with a total lack of transparency in the selection of its members, and on the basis of two representatives from each academy.  These people have seen fit to write in a very short space of time an opinion highly critical of this study.  They cannot claim to embody the opinion of the entire French scientific world, and it would be a crime to suggest that they do.”  Since then, it has emerged that one of the unnamed critics was involved in the EU approval of the NK603 maize which Séralini fed his rats.

Since Dehauvals is the only representative of the discipline of statistics in the FNAS, he points out that “it would have been normal for me to be consulted, yet that was not the case”.  He goes on to point out that the (much criticised) small sample numbers in the study make the findings of increased and earlier cancers more convincing because any cancer is an unusual event and , thus, can rarely be observed without a much larger sample.  In his opinion “... the study has suffered a bad trial, using bad arguments, carried out with a fury that is absolutely suspect, given the huge financial interests at stake.  It is not a matter of what the media think, but rather to judge the technical quality of this work.” (Translation by GM Watch)

Controlling the perceived opinion of the top French scientific institution shouldn't be that easy.  But, sadly its scientists are all part of the great global scrabble for the money: industry pays millions of dollars to 'independent' research laboratories to produce 'independent' science on GM or to buy a respectable,'independent', co-author to add to industry-sponsored research. And if industry gets what it wants, there's the promise of more contracts and cash in future.  Also, the money coming into independent laboratories from patents on GMOs has become a major source of income in science.  The scientists of the FNAS don't want to be unemployed or unemployable any more than anyone else.

The war continued with a letter to leading French newspaper, Le Monde, directly challenging the “incredible outcry” surrounding Séralini's experiment.  The letter was  signed by some 140 French scientists.  It ends “... we want to assure our citizens that there are also a large number of researchers in the scientific community who are convinced that we must take seriously the risks associated with technology and who feel that, if the researchers on the one hand, and the social applications of science on the other, are tied into ideologies, beliefs and / or vested interests, the scientific approach must be to try to remain as independent as possible in order for science to fully play its proper role in society.” (Translation by GM Watch)

OUR COMMENT

As befits a top scientific journal, Séralini was given the opportunity to reply to his critics.  In his response to what he politely refers to as the “intense debate” sparked by his rat study, he points out that three quarters of these immediate critics were plant biologists, some of whom were developing patents on GMOs and some of whom were from Monsanto.  In his reply,  Séralini lists all the criticisms made (no matter how obvious it is that the peer reviewers would already have considered the point in depth) and carefully answers each one.

If you want to read  Séralini's responses to his critics for yourself, check them out at
www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278691512005637.


SOURCES
  • Gilles-Eric Séralini, How a GMO, a pesticide, and a system can be toxic, Le Monde, 26.10.12
  • Paul Deheuvels, The Séralini GMO study - a bone of contention  to the Academy of sciences, Le Nouvel Observateur, 19.10.12
  • Excess Cancers and Deaths with GM Food: the Stats Stand Up, Institute of Science in Society Report, 16.10 12
  • Jacques Demarthon, French academies trash GM corn cancer study, Radio France Internationale, 19.10.12
  • What's behind the science academies' attack on Séralini? GM Watch, 28.10.12
  • Tim Schwab, Of course Monsanto says it's safe, Food and Water Watch, 18.10.12
  • Henry Miller, Scientists Smell A Rat In Fraudulent Genetic Engineering Study, Forbes Magazine, 27.09.12
  • Benjamin Sourice, The covert was to discredit Séralini's study, http://blogs.rue89.com, 12.11.12
  • Science and Conscience, Le Monde, 14.11.12

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