Does the use of genetically modified organisms in food pose a threat to our health? We expect scientists to tell us. Science, as we all know, consists of the dispassionate evaluation of evidence and, after careful deliberation, an agreement within the scientific community about what that evidence tells us about the risks of GMO using foods.
In September, a group of French researchers contributed to this discuss in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology. Gilles-Eric Séralini and his colleagues at the Committee for Research and Independent Information on Genetic Engineering fed a Monsanto Roundup Ready GMO corn to rats over a two-year period—which is the natural life span for these creatures. They found significant health effects compared to a control group fed non-GMO corn. The effects included a significantly greater incidence of cancers, kidney disease, and liver disease.
This prompted an immediate and fierce response from many scientists associated with the biotech industry. Food and Chemical Toxicology was flooded by attacks on the research, it’s design, and the integrity of the researchers. Many demanded that the journal retract the article. According to Reuters “[h]undreds of scientists from around the world have questioned the research.” Reuters quotes the head of Rothamsted Research, a UK biotech company, as saying that it is “appalling that such work should appear in a respected … journal” because the Séralini research is “seriously deficient in its design, its execution and its conclusions.”
The research even got the attention of Forbes magazine, where Hoover Institute scholar Henry I. Miller and biotech scientist Bruce Chassy wrote that “[t]he experiments … show that [Séralini] has crossed the line from merely performing and reporting flawed experiments to committing gross scientific misconduct and attempting fraud.” Miller’s other contributions to Forbes include titles such as “Rachel Carson’s Deadly Fantasies” and “Labeling Of Genetically Engineered Foods Is A Losing Proposition.” After all, readers of Forbes want reassurance that their investments in biotech are safe and sane.
Finally, the European Food Safety Authority joined the critics, thus rendering an official objection. It will not surprise you to know that the people at the Authority responsible for the criticism have extremely close ties with the biotech industry.
As The Guardian describes it, “[t]he GM industry has traditionally reacted furiously and personally” to science that questions their products. This is not the first time the Dr. Séralini has been the object of the industry’s abuse, having successfully sued Marc Fellous, president of the French Association of Plant Biotechnology, for defamation.
Dr. Séralini and his colleagues responded to the critics in a detailed comment in Food and Chemical Toxicology. For example, to the objection that he used rats that are prone to develop cancers, Dr. Séralini pointed out that these were the same breed of rats that Monsanto used to gain approval for the strain of corn. To the criticism that he won’t release his data, Dr. Séralini replied that he’d do so as soon as Monsanto released its data. And so on.
This media campaign undertaken in the scientific literature corresponds to the media campaign that defeated Prop 37, California’s proposed GMO food labeling law.
Commerce corrupts science. Some recent books document that corruption with such titles as Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health, Bending Science: How Special Interests Corrupt Public Health Research, and Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.
The corruption consists not only of fudging science to the benefit of commercial interests and attacking science that might harm those interests but also consists of using the myth of the singular scientific community as a way to cast doubt, provide political cover, misdirect our attention, and obscure information on issues of sickness and health.
There is no unified scientific community but many. What we see with the attack on Dr. Séralini is Monsanto’s scientific community at work. Luckily, Dr. Séralini has his own scientific community.
Both scientists and the media perpetuate the myth of the unified scientific community. The myth says that scientists don’t take sides. That’s obviously false.
We don’t have to wait for the mythical scientific community to form a consensus on the health risks of GMO foods. There’s more than enough evidence to demonstrate that this uncontrolled public health experiment needs to be stopped. The good news is that the forces behind Prop 37 aren’t giving up.