THE BLOG

Condemning Monsanto With Bad Science Is Dumb

04/26/2013 12:51 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2013
  • Tamar Haspel Effete urban journalist, gone to hayseed: StarvingofftheLand.com

Did you see the latest indictment of Monsanto making the rounds? It's a "peer-reviewed" paper in the journal Entropy, co-authored by Anthony Samsel and Stephanie Seneff, blaming glyphosate, the compound in the herbicide Roundup, for virtually all the ills that can befall us.

But here's the thing -- they made it up. Or, all but. They say, "We explain the documented effects of glyphosate and its ability to induce disease, and we show that glyphosate is a 'textbook example' of exogenous semiotic entropy: the disruption of homeostasis by environmental toxins." Exogenous semiotic entropy! That sounds serious. Google it, though, and you find that those three words occur together in only place. This paper. They made it up. At first, I thought the whole thing was one of those jargon-laden academic hoaxes but, alas, it isn't.

Slog through their argument (and, please, if you take this seriously, read the paper!), and you find it boils down to two things. Glyphosate, they claim, 1) inhibits CYP enzymes, which are active in lots of metabolic processes, and 2) disrupts gut bacteria, which are susceptible to its mechanism (disrupting the shikimate pathway), even though humans are not. Therefore, any condition that involves metabolic processes or gut bacteria must be affected by glyphosate exposure. QED!

Here's the list of ills they blame, at least in part, on Roundup: inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, Alzheimer's, autism, anorexia, dementia, depression, Parkinson's, reproductive issues, liver diseases and cancer.

The evidence for these mechanisms, and their impact on human health, is all but nonexistent. The authors base their claim about CYP enzymes on two studies, one of liver cells and one of placental cells, which report endocrine disruptions when those cells are exposed to glyphosate. Neither study is CYP-specific (The effect of pesticides on CYP enzymes, by contrast, has been studied specifically.) As for the gut bacteria, there appears to be no research at all on glyphosate's effect on them.

Samsel and Seneff didn't conduct any studies. They don't seem interested in the levels at which humans are actually exposed to glyphosate. They simply speculated that, if anyone, anywhere, found that glyphosate could do anything in any organism, that thing must also be happening in humans everywhere. I'd like to meet the "peers" who "reviewed" this.

After reading the paper, I had to wonder -- who are Samsel and Seneff? Seneff is a Senior Research Scientist in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT. Her advanced degrees are in electrical engineering. She describes herself as having "recently become interested in the effect of drugs and diet on health and nutrition." Samsel describes himself as an "Independent Scientist and Consultant," and, for the last 37 years, has run Anthony Samsel Environmental and Public Health Services, which does "Charitable community investigations of industrial polluters." I think it's fair to say they probably went into this with a point of view.

There's real danger in bad science like this. Industrial agriculture has created a lot of environmental problems. We have to find ways to reform our food system, but shoddy research only helps Monsanto. If we base our objections on papers like this one, we won't -- and we shouldn't -- be taken seriously.