As the battle to label GMOs (genetically modified organisms) rages on, we have another more insidious battle taking place. It's the battle to hold on to scientific integrity, especially as it relates to research about GMOs.
In October 2012, Seralini published his controversial research in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology (FCT). His two-year study looked at the effects of GMO corn and the herbicide Roundup on rats. As I have written about before, his study found that GMO-fed female rats died more quickly and developed mammary tumors more often than the rats that were fed non-GMO-fed. And GMO-fed male rats had more liver and kidney problems and larger tumors.
The Seralini study was criticized for having a complex design, using too few rats in each group, and for the type of rat used. In November 2013, the study was retracted from the journal. What was the reason for the retraction? The journal's editor, Dr. A. Wallace Hayes, said the research was not conclusive.
Um, what? The typical reasons for retraction include unreliable findings due to misconduct or honest error, plagiarism, redundancy, or unethical research, none of which applies in this situation. Dr. Michael Hansen of the Consumers Union said, "The study was a follow-up to Monsanto's 90-day feeding study on its NK603 corn." So why is this protocol OK for Monsanto but not for Seralini? And was this retraction related to FCT's addition of a new associate editor of biotechnology, Richard E. Goodman, who previously was a scientist at Monsanto?
Controversy is common in the field of science. What normally happens is that controversial research would be clarified as new research articles are published, without the need for a retraction. A case in point is the research related to the low-carb diet, yet another polarized and contentious issue. Back in 2004, a study was published comparing a low-carbohydrate diet to a low-fat diet. This research found that participants on the low-carb diet lost more weight and had better cholesterol levels than those on the low-fat diet after six months. But the trial was controversial because six months may not be enough time to determine if a diet is effective for long-term weight loss, and it was funded by the Atkins Foundation, which was acknowledged as a potential conflict of interest.
Was this study viciously attacked in the media and ultimately retracted? Nope. Instead, a year later, another study was published, this time with funding from the National Institutes of Health. It compared the Atkins, Ornish (low-fat, plant-based), Weight Watchers, and Zone diets for one year. This study found that there was no significant difference among the different diets in terms of both weight loss and some markers for heart disease risk. Thus, at one year, the low-carb diet did not offer more weight loss or other benefits compared to the other diets.
And this is how science works. But that is not what happened with the Seralini study. Unfortunately, it's not the first time this has happened.
Emily Waltz's article "Battlefield" highlights a disturbing trend: If you publish negative research about GMOs, you will be harassed, attacked, and discredited. Waltz's article describes what happened to Emma Rosi-Marshall after publishing a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) on the effect of genetically modified Bt corn on the environment. Rosi-Marshall found that Bt corn negatively impacted larvae and flies in nearby streams. The article's abstract stated that "widespread planting of Bt crops has unexpected ecosystem-scale consequences."
What happened next surprised Rosi-Marshall. She was attacked by scientists expressing their strong objections to the experimental design and conclusion. They wrote not only to her but to PNAS and the funder of her research. She was attacked personally and accused of misconduct. Even Monsanto, the creator of Bt corn, wrote a critical six-page response to her paper. Dr. Henry I. Miller also weighed in on the controversy. Californians will remember that Miller, a former advisor to a tobacco front group, was featured in misleading ads in support of a "no" vote on Proposition 37, which would have labeled genetically engineered foods. Ironically, none of the criticisms called for more research on the effects of Bt crops on the environment, a testament to the unusual response and unscientific perspective of GMO proponents.
David Shubert from the Salk Institute had a similar experience when he implied, in Nature Biotechnology, that not enough was known about the unintended effects of adding genes to plants. Unfortunately, "he has given up trying to have a public discussion about the technology."
In 2001, Dr. Ignacio Chapela from UC Berkeley published a paper in Nature with his discovery that the native Mexican maize had been contaminated with genes from GMO corn. He was also attacked and received so much criticism that Nature published an editor's note claiming that there was not enough evidence to support the original paper. In 2009, new research confirmed that genes from genetically modified corn were found in Mexican maize. Chapela commented, "I have a very long experience now with young people coming to me to say that they are not going into this field precisely because they are discouraged by what they see."
Dr. Arpad Pusztai's research found that rats fed genetically modified potatoes had damage to their gastrointestinal tract and immune system. Pusztai went public with his findings and created a media frenzy in the UK. He was attacked, and his research was criticized for using too few rats, and opponents erroneously stated that the GMO potatoes were too low in protein. In fact, all of the animal feed was low in protein. Thus, any negative effect of a protein-deficient diet would be seen in all rats, not just in those consuming GMO potatoes. Pusztai was suspended from his position at the Rowett Research Institute and banned from talking publicly about the situation. Was his research repeated? Nope.
Suppressing dialogue, retracting studies, and not doing follow-up research is indeed anti-science. This, in combination with personal attacks and attempts to discredit those with differing opinions, is part of the arsenal used by some in the biotech industry to push their agenda on an unwitting population. Promoting the use of GMOs with claims that they will help us feed the world or prevent blindness is inaccurate and misleading. If we let this anti-science behavior continue, we will be stuck with this technology and its unknown effects on us and the environment.
Are you willing to take that chance? I, for one, am not. I think we should apply the precautionary principle to everything that could potentially harm us or the environment, and that includes GMOs.