Follow up or cover up?

August 2014

French maize. CC photo by Craig McGinty on Flickr
The scientific, and rational, response to a feeding experiment which indicates toxic, tumour-promoting and endocrine effects from a novel food is to repeat it for confirmation.

When Professor Gilles-Eric Séralini's study on a GM maize and its associated herbicide, 'Roundup', flagged up just these problems [1], the European Union announced a two-year carcinogenicity study on the maize, and the French Government announced that it would allocate Є3.7 million (more than the original project) to follow up the findings.

After the decades-long history of failure to follow up on adverse findings relating to GM food, this was good news indeed.

However, hopes of a credible confirmation of Séralini's experiment have been dashed.

To date, no protocol has been published for the promised carcinogenicity study, and it seems the team awarded the contract has involvement with industry.

The French authorities have decided to fund a study of only three, possibly extending to six, months.

Instead of following established toxicology measurement protocols to check Séralini's findings, it will focus on the use of various kinds of 'omics'. 'Omics' refer to state-of-the-art screening techniques which measure a swathe of markers for cellular activities such as biochemical processes or gene expression. 'Omics' generate huge quantities of data, but clear links to disease outcomes have then to be established before they can be interpreted.

In the long-term interests of finding early biomarkers for toxicity, 'omics' are well worth developing. However, the limited time-span of the planned study makes it unlikely to yield clear, useful, conclusive information.

Also, the French Government investigation will avoid any consideration of toxicity due to Roundup. This is a breathtaking omission, but seems to be in line with biotech industry practice of hiding inconvenient truths.

Add to this that the project will include an unprecedented “forum for dialogue” to which Monsanto, in the form of a Europabio*1 representative, has been invited. This is tantamount to inviting Monsanto to assess itself with a huge amount of public money.

Dėjà vu suggests the whole escapade looks set up to pronounce any findings “not biologically important”.

Séralini's team agree: it has formally withdrawn from the project. In the words of the president of CRIIGEN*2 :
“We have decided to withdraw because we do not want to condone such a waste of public money, as well as conflicts of interest, which we have always denounced. We have asked (the French authority) to stop the project while there is still time and to redirect its public funds into a study worthy of the name, that is more ambitious and scientifically relevant, and that allows an unambiguous response to the questions about public health surrounding GMOs and pesticides”.
Just to complicate the affair, over a year after publication, the journal's editor forced its retraction [2].

A few months after its retraction, the offending study was republished, without significant change, in another science journal [3]


There's an interesting time-line here.

In September 2012, Séralini's team published a study which had been kept very quiet up to that point to avoid it being sabotaged by the biotech industry.

The editor of the journal (Food and Chemical Toxicology, FCT) must have been fully aware how controversial the paper would be in biotech circles. He was, nevertheless happy to publish it, and just as happy to print the reams of pro-GM criticism which (not unexpectedly) followed.

Ten months later, the French government announced major funding for a follow-up study in addition to the carcinogenicity study announced by the EU. This was doubly inconvenient for the biotech industry.

Four months later, and fourteen months after the original paper was published, the journal editor forced the retraction of the paper using the somewhat desperate, trumped-up excuse that some of the data were 'inconclusive'. Over a year is a very long time for a journal editor to decide a piece of science isn't up to scratch. It is, however, tactfully long enough to disconnect his retraction from the immediate pro-GM pressure to bury it. He also tried to deny the authors the right to reply after the paper was withdrawn, but the journal publishers, Elsevier, stepped in and compelled him to do it.

The retraction of Séralini's paper meant that the French government and the EU no longer had a published study to follow up. It can only be speculated that the earlier plans for full follow-up studies may have unravelled at that point. The FCT editor must have been fully aware of the planned follow-up projects, and, of what effect his retraction would have on them.

Over the next six months or so is became clear that the EU carcinogenicity study was going nowhere fast, and the French government study was not going to be any kind of 'follow-up' but was designed to investigate new testing procedures using a protocol which might not test them at all.

This must have suited the biotech industry very well, and Séralini's team withdrew from the whole irrelevant project.

A month later, the offending experiment was re-published in another journal, with its data and conclusions intact.

So now there's a published study to follow-up once more. But the cash has been diverted away from actually doing it.

Did the FCT editor, in league with the biotech industry, publish Séralini's paper to make sure they could control what happened next? Who knows?

  1. *Europabio is Europe's association for the “bio-industries”. Its members include all the big international biotech players including Monsanto, BASF, Dow, Syngenta and Bayer. 
  2. *CRIIGEN (Committee for Independent Research and Information) is non-profit and independent. It arranged funding for, and ran, Séralini's experiment. 


[1] GM MAIZE IS NOT SAFE TO EAT - October 2012

[2] TORCHING THE SCIENCE - December 2013


  • Claire Robinson, CRIIGEN withdraws from French government project on GMO risks, GM Watch 28.05.14
  • Monsanto invited to assess itself with 3 million Euros of public money, CRIIGEN 28.05.14

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