Yesterday, Gilles-Eric Séralini and his team had their article published in Food and Chemical Toxicology. It was a study where they explored the long-term effects of a GM herbicide tolerant corn on rodents. After a well-executed PR and communications strategy in advance of its release in London yesterday, the article has caused quite a stir in the media. As a colleague posted: “It has lit up the Twitterverse!”
Check out Andrew Kniss`examination of the study from a statistics perspective – `Why I think Séralini Feeding Trial Study is Bogus` Plus, here are some other links to critiques of the piece (Science Media Centre, UK and Reuters). The Séralini study has been referred to as a `statistical fishing trip`. Anthony Trewavas, professor of cell biology at Edinburgh University, questioned how the research was conducted, saying the number of rats involved in the study – 200 – was way too small to draw any meaningful conclusions. He sees it as a “random variation in a rodent line likely to develop tumors anyway.”
Stirring the media: Backing Séralini and his team in this endeavour to push the (questionable) results of this study into the media is Sustainable Food Trust, an organization out of the UK headed by Patrick Holden. It was quite clear to me that a well-executed communication strategy was conceived (AKA media manipulation) in order to push some very scary things out into the public realm. There was even a video. Leading up to the formal launch of the article, the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) circulated several well-worded, fear-generating bits of info on Twitter and on its website. It even provided a set of pre-crafted tweets online for Twitter users to copy and paste and circulate. Combine this with the fact that the journalists that were given the article in advance (under embargo, which is NOT UNUSUAL) had to sign a non-disclosure agreement promising to not show the study they’re reporting on to any independent researchers or outside experts prior to its official release (VERY UNUSUAL). In Maggie Koerth-Baker’s words (of BoingBoing) “…that’s messed up.” Andrew Revkin also explores this ‘severely tainted situation’ in his NY Times article: Group Promoting Rat Study of Engineered Corn Forced Coverage Rush.
This all points to some serious collusion and contrivance around the study. It kind of reminds me of Wakefield and his Austism/MMR study or Pusztai and his rat/potato study.
At the end of the day, this whole thing raises a bunch of red flags. It not only points to shoddy science but more importantly to problems that I have eluded to in other posts (see below): the influence of political agendas and the peer-review process itself.
I smell a rat. One heck of a media-manipulated rat. Let’s face it, `bad science` can only get ‘good legs` if peer-review doesn`t do its job. Séralini has a political agenda pushing his research ahead. That`s quite evident to me. But where is the accountability on the part of the journal, its editors and the publisher? As an academic science journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology has an obligation to lead and maintain the integrity of the peer-review process. And, based upon what I have read, it appears that there was no independent peer-review conducted on Séralini`s study. Or if it was done, I question the integrity, capability and political agendas of those reviewers. (I have a couple of letters into editors of the journal but its questionable whether I will even get responses.) It will be interesting to see what, exactly, Food and Chemical Toxicology and its publisher Elsevier will do about this; and so disappointing if nothing happens at all.
UPDATE (January 2013): The Séralini study has now been discredited and does not meet acceptable scientific standards by more than 30 food and feed safety organizations worldwide including: Health Canada, European Food and Feed Safety Authority, and the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).
Worried about GMOs? Don’t be. Snell etal (2011) review several studies examining effects GM lines of maize, potato, soybean, rice and triticale. The studies in question are of two types: 1) 12 long term toxicological studies, where feeding time exceeds well over (up to 2 years) that of the 90 day studies classically used in toxicological studies applied to GMOs; and 2) 12 studies whose duration extended over several generations of animals. Long story, short Snell etal (2011) conclude that these studies by public research laboratories do not reveal any safety problem linked to long term consumption of GMO-derived food. (It’s interesting to note that the Snell etal article was published in the same journal as the Séralini study.
Other related blog entries:
For a truly OUTSTANDING summary of the controversy and criticisms surrounding the Séralini study, please check out Jay Byrne’s well-articulated and easy to read online posting.
This from Henry Miller in Forbes.
Online activism, social media lags and poor peer review: When Bad Science Gets Good Legs
“Fear profiteering = big profit!” – “…the press does not print “There was no wolf, after all” stories when alarms are shown to be false or overblown. The press and public remember the “Wolf!” story.” (April 2011)
Is Science Missing the Boat? Social media strategy is a must for science advocates (January 20, 2011)