Does the Seralini corn study fiasco mark a turning point in the debate over GM food?

Are anti-biotech campaigners the leftwing version of climate change deniers? The science media are finally confronting the distortions perpetrated by anti-GM advocacy groups and illiberal “progressive” journalists and bloggers. Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, reports.

The fallout continues to escalate over the questionable maize study by Gilles-Eric Seralini released almost two weeks ago. It’s already being referred to as The Seralini Affair or Seralini Tumor-Gate.

The notorious French molecular biologist known for his history of anti-biotechnology activism and scientifically disputed research claimed that rats fed a high dose lifetime diet of Monsanto’s genetically modified corn or exposed to its top-selling weed killer Roundup suffered tumors and multiple organ damage.

The study sparked an immediate furor among independent scientists, including those who support the labeling of GM foods but found Seralini’s research sloppy and poorly documented. Scientists have often responded forcefully after the release of poorly constructed studies. What’s unusual this time is that science journalists, who traditionally have given activist scientists and NGOs a free pass when they circulated questionable science about GM crops and food, are up in arms as well.

Geneticists and the general science community were first out of the block with their criticism, pointing out more than a dozen problems with the study. The London-based Science Media Centre, which assists reporters when major science news breaks, posted an entire page of criticisms, most notably its poor design, the use of tumor prone rodents, the small sample size and the selective presentation of data. MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Tracker documented a slew of problems.

Seralini’s research is anomalous. Previous peer-reviewed rat feeding studies using the same products (NK603 and Roundup) have not found any negative food safety impacts.  The Japanese Department of Environmental Health and Toxicology released a 52-week feeding study of GM soybeans in 2007, finding “no apparent adverse effect in rats.” Earlier this year, a team of scientists at the University of Nottingham School of Biosciences released a review of 12 long-term studies (up to two years) and 12 multi-generational studies (up to 5 generations) of GM foods, concluding there is no evidence of health hazards.

The latest and most surprising pushback is the outrage coming from journalists at responsible news organizations who generally have been loathe to criticize reporters from “progressive” NGOs and suspect activist media sites (e.g. Mother Jones, Grist and ninety percent of the contributors at Huffington Post)—perhaps because they are aligned ideologically on many other issues.

The most dramatic break came in a comprehensive deconstruction of the research fiasco by Keith Kloor at Slate magazine headlined, “GMO Opponents Are the Climate Skeptics of the Left.” As Kloor noted, although Seralini’s research was immediately and almost universally panned by serious scientists, the anti-biotech NGO-media complex went into over-drive upon its release, promoting it as game-changing research that raised fundamental questions about the safety of GM crops and food. Here’s the process, as Kloor described it:

“… [F]ears are stoked by prominent environmental groups, supposed food-safety watchdogs, and influential food columnists; that dodgy science is laundered by well-respected scholars and propaganda is treated credulously by legendary journalists; and that progressive media outlets, which often decry the scurrilous rhetoric that warps the climate debate, serve up a comparable agitprop when it comes to GMOs,” Kloors wrote. “In short, I’ve learned that the emotionally charged, politicized discourse on GMOs is mired in the kind of fever swamps that have polluted climate science beyond recognition.”

Kloor’s analysis followed on the heals of scathing articles by non-ideological science-focused journalists and watchdog groups in the United States and Europe that pointed out how NGOs and advocacy groups conspired before the release of the report to try to rig the public debate. Seralini and his colleagues required that reporters who wanted pre-release access to the study sign a non-disclosure agreement that barred them from seeking input outside sources including other scientists, which, remarkably, many large organizations agreed to.

The unheard of restrictions meant that initial reports on the study—including at such places at Reuters—gave Seralini’s highly questionable findings an uncritical free pass. As a consequence, as the researcher Scicurious pointed out in a blog at Discover’s The Crux, the initial reporting gave legitimacy to questionable conclusions, playing into the anti-GMO narrative, rather than putting the study in full context or calling attention to the concerns expressed by mainstream researchers about the validity of the results.

Within minutes of the release of the study—well before mainstream scientists had even had a chance to review it and offer a more balanced perspective—what appeared to be a coordinated response narrative by anti-GM groups surfaced in the US and Europe. The always-balanced Andrew Revkin, who writes The New York Times’ Dot Earth blog, noted how anti-GMO groups immediately started promoting Seralini’s study in an attempt to influence the upcoming vote in California over whether mandatory labeling should be required of GM foods.

Almost concurrently with the release of the study, Yes on Proposition 37 released a statement saying that the findings “underscore the importance of giving California families the right to know whether our food is genetically engineered and to decide for ourselves whether we want to gamble with our health by eating GMO foods.” Gary Ruskin, the advocacy group’s campaign manager, claimed, wrongly, that Seralini’s research was the “first ever long-term study” of GM foods—a blatant falsehood repeated by anti-GM NGOs.

Reliably anti-GM journalists piled on. The Guardian’s John Vidal, known for his reflexive embrace of even the most bizarre anti-GM claims, became a embarrassing mouthpiece for Seralini, who has steadfastly refused to share his raw data with independent scientists.

Kloor took welcome potshots at some of the biggest purveyors of misinformation, most notably Tom Phillpott, the popular food blogger at Mother Jones. After the study’s release, the new-minted genetics expert bizarrely wrote that Seralini’s results “shine a harsh light on the ag-biotech industry’s mantra that GMOs have indisputably proven safe to eat.”

“This brand of fear-mongering,” Kloor wrote, is what I’ve come to expect from environmental groups, anti-GMO activists, and their most shamelessly exploitive soul travelers.”

Philpott has a notorious reputation among scientists and serious journalists a precautionary junkie, reflexively renouncing almost anything opposed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists, Greenpeace or the Environmental Working Group. Phillpott, who was recruited to Mother Jones from Grist magazine, which also botched the Seralini coverage), often cherry picks anti-GM or anti-chemical food related studies, reporting them out of context and with no attempt at balance.

What’s next?

What some are calling a “retraction watch” is now underway. This week could be telling. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is expected to deliver its preliminary review of the study, although Seralini has refused the agency’s request to release his raw data (a standard practice that allows other scientists to attempt to replicate findings and assess how to proceed with future research). The EFSA—traditionally no friend to the biotech industry—has previously criticized the quality of Seralini’s research, as has Europe’s Public Research and Regulation Initiative (PRRI).

Chemical Toxicology Journal, which published the peer reviewed Seralini paper, has been deluged by written requests from academicians and scientists to reassess its handling of the review process. Editor Wally Hayes has reportedly indicated that he is considering taking action, perhaps including retracting the paper.

Whatever the short term fallout, scientists and serious journalists believe this fiasco might yet prove to be a watershed for how journalists cover the food and crop biotechnology revolution. The Seralini Affair is helping to draw a sharp line between anti-innovation campaigners among NGOs and the media and more mainstream scientists and journalists, who have strived for balance in reporting on an emerging and scientifically complicated technology. Science may yet prevail over ideology.


Jon Entine, founding director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication at George Mason University, and a senior fellow at the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS).



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