As the Genetic Literacy Project reports, the GMO wars are escalateing after the discrediting of a central pillar of the anti-crop biotechnology movement and the stumbling by a prominent science journal.
Gilles-Éric Séralini, author of the controversial rat study that claimed to show that genetically modified corn could lead to a high incidence of cancer, says he is contemplating suing the journal that published the study if it goes through with its stated plan to retract it.
In a stunning development, the editor of the Food and Chemical Toxicology, A. Wallace Hayes, sent the French scientist a letter dated November 19 saying that the paper will be withdrawn if Séralini does not agree to do it voluntarily. In either case, evidence of the discredited paper will be expunged from the journal’s database.
According to Le Figaro, which broke the story, Séralini rejected Hayes’ findings. The French scientist, who works in Caen as founding director of anti-GMO research group called CRIIGEN, the Committee for Research and Independent Information on Genetic Engineering, said the journal’s criticisms of his work were “unacceptable,” adding, “Were FCT to persist in its decision to retract our study, CRIIGEN would attack with lawyers, including in the United States, to require financial compensation for the huge damage to our group.”
The impending retraction comes as a blow to anti-GMO campaigners, who have been leveraging the fact that the article appeared in a first-line journal put out by the prominent scientific publisher Elsevier. It has been cited 28 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.
Many scientists believe the journal badly botched the peer review of this paper. The editor’s letter appeared to be carefully crafted, apparently in anticipation of a legal response by Séralini and the anti-GMO industry, which has brandished the paper over the past 14 months as ‘proof’ that genetically modified foods pose potentially serious health hazards, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.
“Unequivocally, the Editor-in-Chief found no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of the data.” Wallace wrote. “However, there is legitimate cause for concern regarding both the number of animals in each study group and the particular strain selected. … This retraction comes after a thorough and time-consuming analysis of the published article and the data it reports, along with an investigation into the peer-review behind the article.”
Hayes outlined the peer review process, the international criticism the article prompted from the mainstream science community and the subsequent review and reasons behind the decision to retract.
The low number of animals had been identified as a cause for concern during the initial review process, but the peer-review decision ultimately weighed that the work still had merit despite this limitation. A more in-depth look at the raw data revealed that no definitive conclusions can be reached with this small sample size regarding the role of either NK603 or glyphosate in regards to overall mortality or tumor incidence. Given the known high incidence of tumors in the Sprague-Dawley rat, normal variability cannot be excluded as the cause of the higher mortality and incidence observed in the treated groups. Ultimately, the results presented (while not incorrect) are inconclusive, and therefore do not reach the threshold of publication for Food and Chemical Toxicology.
The paper came under fire from the moment it appeared. In what most journalists and scientists said was an outrageous abuse of the embargo system, Séralini demanded reporters to sign a non-disclosure agreement when the study was first being released in an attempt to limit criticism. The demand was designed to turn reporters into stenographers, wrote Ivan Oransky at Retraction Watch.
The paper claimed that rats fed a diet containing NK603—a seed variety made tolerant to the spraying of glyphosate (Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide)—died earlier than those on a standard diet. The Séralini team reported that 50 percent of males and 70 percent of females died prematurely, compared with only 30 percent and 20 percent in the control group. But, in fact, some of the rats fed GM corn outlived the control group.
There are two parts to the peer review process. Journals send out articles to a limited number of scientists for comment. After publication, the gauntlet continues as studies undergo scrutiny from the mainstream science community. It’s in this court that the Séralini paper failed so miserably.
Geneticists and the general science community were first out of the block with withering critiques, 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, including its poor design, the use of tumor prone rodents, the lack of standard controls, the small sample size and the selective presentation of data.
“The study appeared to sweep aside all known benchmarks of scientific good practice and, more importantly, to ignore the minimal standards of scientific and ethical conduct in particular concerning the humane treatment of experimental animals,” concluded a prominent group of scientists in Transgenic Review. They noted the rats in the study were exposed to extreme and unnecessary cruelty. None of the results depended on the size of their tumors or how long they lived after the tumor appeared. This unethical treatment of animals was a direct violation of accepted research protocol and was by itself grounds for the article being rejected initially or withdrawn.
After carefully reviewing the study, six French national academies (Agriculture, Medicine, Pharmacy, Science, Technology and Veterinarians) issued an extraordinary joint statement condemning it and the journal that published it. The paper was reviewed and refuted by the most prominent independent international science organizations and every food standards agency of note, including French HCB and the National Agency for Food Safety, the Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie, Technical University of Denmark, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, Brazilian National Technical Commission on Biosafety and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
Quoting the EFSA: “The study as reported by Séralini et al. was found to be inadequately designed, analysed and reported…. Taking into consideration Member States’ assessments and the authors’ answer to critics, EFSA finds that the study as reported by Séralini et al. is of insufficient scientific quality for safety assessments.”
As Oransky notes, there has been pressure on the journal to retract the study since publication, along with other criticisms and an exchange of letters in the journal. Ignoring the groundswell, anti-GMO journalists and campaigners and crop biotechnology skeptics alike have recklessly promoted the findings. Patrick Holden, head of the UK-based Sustainable Food Trust, which positions itself as a balanced moderate in this controversy, hosted a London press briefing to hype the results and posted an apologia for it on GMO Seralini, the brash pro-Séralini website.
Anti-biotechnology journalists were equally reckless. Within hours of the study’s release, the foodie writer Michael Pollan, who has dissimulated on the GMO issue for years, tweeted that it was possibly the first … long-term feeding study of GM crops and Round-Up” and he touted it for possibly finding “serious health problems.” In fact, numerous long-term GMO feeding studies assessing the same products (NK603 and Roundup) or similar ones have not found any negative food safety impacts. A few months before the publication of the disputed French research, 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.
Pollan subsequently tweeted a pro-Séralini apologia from the Orwellian named Independent Science News, a well-known pro-organic, anti-GMO front, attacking mainstream scientists for contending that the study was “shoddy.”
The anti-GMO industry has incessantly hawked the Séralini study and the gruesome pictures that accompanied it even as the peer criticism mounted. Just last month, a fringe organization known as the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility, whose deputy chairman is co-author of the French study and whose membership is a ‘Who’s Who’ of anti-biotechnology scientists and campaigners, issued a statement asserting, there is “No scientific consensus on GMO safety.” No prominent mainstream scientists signed the declaration, although it has a few hundred signators, most of them with activist ties, including anti-GMO lobbyists Michael Hansen of Consumers Union and Doug Sherman-Gurian of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
It will be revealing to see if Holden, Pollan and self-proclaimed independent scientists and journalists who have prominently promoted or aligned themselves with the now officially discredited study withdraw their inflammatory endorsements.
News of the retraction announcement broke on Thanksgiving Day with articles in the French media, which has generally been sympathetic to the controversial scientist, and on anti-GMO websites in what appears to be an orchestrated response to discredit the journal’s decision. Séralini apparently received the letter last week.
A website set up to promote the Séralini study, GMO Seralini, released the retraction notice along with a full blown response by the embattled scientist and his co-authors.
We, authors of the paper published in FCT more than one year ago on the effects of Roundup and a Roundup-tolerant GMO (Séralini et al., 2012), and having answered to critics in the same journal (Séralini et al., 2013), do not accept as scientifically sound the debate on the fact that these papers are inconclusive because of the rat strain or the number of rats used. We maintain our conclusions. We already published some answers to the same critics in your Journal, which have not been answered (Séralini et al., 2013).
Claire Robinson, editor of the that site and the anti-GMO activist site GM Watch, blasted the retraction announcement as “illicit, unscientific, and unethical,” the first salvo in what will no doubt be a vigorous defense of the study in the weeks ahead. “Hayes’ decision will tarnish the reputation of FCT and will increase public mistrust of science in general and genetically modified foods in particular,” she wrote.
Robinson also went after Richard Goodman, who runs the AllergenOnline database at the University of Nebraska. Goodman is an internationally respected expert on allergies and the health effects of GM foods—but also a former Monsanto scientist. He was brought in by the FTC earlier this year to clean up the journal’s peer review process. As Robinson acknowledges, “there is no proof that Goodman was responsible for the retraction of Prof Séralini’s study.”
Goodman declined to comment directly, but numerous people have confirmed to me that he was not involved in the evaluation process and was not even aware of what if any action the editor had been contemplating. With one of the central pillars of the anti-GMO industry now officially discredited, expect more Robinson-like personal attacks in the days and weeks ahead.
Robinson also claimed that the retraction violated scientific guidelines laid out by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). COPE guidelines state that the grounds for a journal to retract a paper are: (1) clear evidence that the findings are unreliable due to misconduct (e.g. data fabrication) or honest error; (2) Plagiarism or redundant publication; or (3) Unethical research. Perhaps fearing legal action, Hayes wrote in his letter that the independent examination of Séralini’s raw data showed “no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation” and nothing “incorrect.”
Robinson’s rebuke highlights just how badly Hayes and Elsevier has mishandled this entire affair. The original research clearly violated numerous ethical guidelines for animal use, standard media protocol, guidelines for sample size in animal tests and a variety of other standards that should have prevented it from ever being published. Among his many ethical missteps, Séralini also failed to cite pertinent prior studies, claiming his research was original, which it was not, as even Robinson acknowledges. The studies he did not cite were relevant and contradicted his results. None employed such brazen cruelty to animals. Not citing the relevant literature is itself considered scientific misconduct.
The entire episode, including the oddly worded retraction statement, is a black eye for the beleaguered journal and Elsevier. “Their motive now appears to be to deny culpability, protect your reputation, and immunize yourself against lawsuits instead of do the right thing,” I was emailed by Bruce Chassy, professor emeritus and retired chair at the Department of Food Science at the University of Illinois. “The narrowness of the retraction overlooks many other deficiencies and weakens their case in the lawsuit that will inevitably follow.”
A court airing of this ugly episode now appears inevitable. Rumors abound that Séralini is already in contact with legal counsel and is set to pursue this issue in court, and perhaps in multiple courts. The disgraced scientist, in an attempt to rehabilitate his reputation, could also turn around and submit the article in its current or revised form to a third-tier journal, including the many pay-for-play publications that cater to activist scientists.
Editor’s note: This article was updated to include a response by Séralini on November 30, 6:30PM ET (US).