Unethical Journal Retraction Fuels Mistrust in GMO Science
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In September of last year, the first-ever lifetime feeding study assessing the health risks of genetically engineered (GE) Roundup Ready corn (NK603) was published in Reed Elsevier’s peer-reviewed journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology.The two-year long study1 led by Gilles-Eric Séralini revealed shocking health effects, including massive tumors and early death.Rats given glyphosate in their drinking water also developed tumors.Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup, which has recently been implicated as a major contributor to chronic disease. Needless to say, Séralini’s findings set off a fire-storm of opposition from the industry.Last month, the publisher retracted the study saying it “did not meet scientific standards.” While no errors or misrepresentation of data were found, the study had too small a sample size to make any definite conclusion about health effects, Elsevier said.2, 3, 4, 5According to Reuters:6“The journal said that while it received many letters expressing concerns about the validity of the findings, the proper use of animals and even allegations of fraud, its own investigation found ‘no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of the data.’‘However, there is a legitimate cause for concern regarding both the number of animals in each study group and the particular strain selected,’ it said.”
Séralini Defends His Research
Séralini vehemently defends his research, and according to some sources may end up taking the issue to court.7 He’s certainly no stranger to legal battles. A mere two years ago, he won a libel case against the French Association of Plant Biotechnologies. As reported by GM Watch in January 2011:8“Séralini sued for libel following a smear campaign... This was part of a furious response from the GM industry to a number of papers by Seralini and colleagues which demonstrated serious statistical and other shortcomings in the Monsanto research dossiers submitted in support of applications for the approval of three GM varieties.The papers had not argued that the Monsanto GM maize lines were actually dangerous, but had simply argued that there were no grounds for assuming them to be completely harmless. They asked for further research and longer animal feeding studies than those that had been conducted.”The research team issued the following statement9 on GMOSeralini.org:“We, authors of the paper published in FCT more than one year ago on the effects of Roundup and a Roundup-tolerant GMO, and having answered to critics in the same journal, 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.”It’s quite noteworthy that after an intense year-long review by the publisher—in addition to being reviewed by twice the typical number of referees prior to publication—the study was not retracted due to errors, fraud, or even the slightest misrepresentation of data.It was retracted because the strain and number of animals used allegedly rendered the findings inconclusive. However, since when are studies retracted for showing inconclusive findings?
Inconclusive Findings Are Not a Valid Ground for Retraction
As noted by GM Watch,10 inconclusiveness of findings is not a valid ground for retraction. According to the guidelines for scientific retractions set out by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), the only grounds for a retraction are:
- Clear evidence that the findings are unreliable due to misconduct (e.g. data fabrication) or honest error
- Plagiarism or redundant publication
- Unethical researchClearly, the retraction is in violation of COPE guidelines. On his website,11Séralini defends the use of Sprague Dawley rats, stating this strain of rats is routinely used in studies investigating toxicological and tumor-inducing effects, including in some of Monsanto’s own toxicology studies.One main difference is that Monsanto ended their feeding study at 90 days, and Séralini’s team discovered that tumors and other devastating health effects occurred AFTER the 90-day mark. What’s more, contrary to Séralini’s paper, Monsanto’s study actually contains errors, yet it was never retracted. As reported by ISIS:12“[A] study published by Monsanto in the same journal in 2004 does contain errors if not outright fraud, basically because the effect of GMOs was not compared with matched isogenic non-GMO controls, while the feed for controls was most likely contaminated with GMOs. That paper should be considered for retraction, but the issue was never even raised.”Séralini also explains and defends the number of animals used, stating that while standard research guidelines call for 20 animals per group in carcinogenicity studies, the team was not performing a carcinogenesis study. They were assessing long-term chronic toxicity, and tumors just happened to be part of the outcome; hence they were reported. As noted by GM Watch:13“It is important that scientists do not overstate their findings or draw conclusions that are not justified by the data, but Prof Séralini's paper does not do this. Because Prof Séralini's study was a chronic toxicity study and not a full-scale carcinogenicity study, which normally requires larger numbers of rats, He conservatively did not do a statistical analysis of the tumors and mortality findings. Instead he simply reported them, without drawing definitive conclusions. This is in line with the OECD chronic toxicity protocol, which requires that any ‘lesions’ (including tumors) observed are recorded.”
The Controversy Deepens
Interestingly, according to one report, Séralini may be planning an experiment that could throw serious doubt on virtually allprevious GMO research.14 According to Séralini, all experimental animals are routinely exposed to pollutants and (most likely) GMOs via their chow. This makes it impossible to properly distinguish spontaneous, natural tumors from tumors developed in response to GMOs and other toxic contaminants, and it doesn’t matter how many animals you use in your tests... As stated by Sustainable Pulse:15“In short, the ultimate defense [of Seralini’s 2012 GM maize study] is to cast doubt on the relevance of the studies done so far. This statement – which would need to be seriously supported – will undoubtedly cause a wave of protest. The editors of the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology were perhaps hoping to extinguish the controversy, but instead they may have fanned the flames.”Indeed, the chemical technology industry, led by Monsanto, is not sitting so pretty right now, and victory shouts of “I told you so” in response to the retraction of Séralini’s hotly contested research falls flat when you consider that the GMO industry just lost one of its own primary scientific figure heads to a string of embarrassing study retractions. I’m talking about Pamela Ronald,16 of course, the public face of GMO research. Two of her scientific papers (published in 2009 and 2011 respectively) were retracted this year, and questions have been raised about a third paper. Her work was correctly retracted due to errors, which included mislabeled samples and failure to use replicable experimental conditions, and more.What many don’t realize is that even a small number of retracted studies can wreak absolute havoc with the science-based paradigm. Other scientists, who have based their research on the results from studies that for whatever reason end up being retracted, are now perpetuating flawed science as well. In this case, Dr. Ronald’s retracted GMO studies have been cited by at least 121 times.17, 18 That’s a large cleanup job in a field that’s already heavily criticized for its preponderance of lousy science. This probably added pressure to even the playing field by removing some of the worst evidence of harm from the table. With Séralini’s findings dismissed, they’ve managed to at least slow down the GMO industry’s demise.
Mistrust in Science Grows as Conflicts of Interest Become the Norm
As if Elsevier wasn’t in enough hot water, the retraction of Séralini’s research comes on the heels of the installation of a Monsanto employee on the publisher’s editorial staff. Earlier this year, they created a brand new editorial position, Associate Editor for Biotechnology and filled it with Richard E. Goodman,19 who was a Monsanto scientist for seven years. Goodman is also an affiliate of the GMO industry-funded group, the International Life Sciences Institute.While on Monsanto’s payroll, he assessed GE crops for allergenicity and published papers on the safety of GE food. While there’s no proof that Goodman was responsible for the retraction, the timing and obnoxiously blatant appearance of conflicts of interest are hard to ignore. As stated by the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS):20“The journal and its publisher are operating a double standard in retracting a paper reporting adverse health impacts for which no fraud or error was found, as opposed to one claiming no health impacts where serious error at least is involved. This is not just a blatant violation of publishing ethics, it means conspiring to remove from the public record results that could be of great importance for public health. Furthermore, it is an abuse of science and amounts to corporate terrorism on independent science and scientists. It strikes at the very heart of science and democracy, and the aspiration of scientists to work for the public good.” [Emphasis mine]Indeed, regardless of Goodman’s level of involvement, the bizarre justification for retracting Séralini’s study is enough to indicate that “corporate terrorism” has seized the field and is actively undermining science as we know it. Science used to be a field held in the highest of esteem, and all of modern medicine is built on the foundation of “science-based” treatments.Now, it is abundantly clear that the preferred business model of an industry is created first, and “scientific evidence” is then concocted, sometimes almost like an afterthought, to support the established business model—not the other way around, which is how most people understand the fundamental role of science. This is precisely why the scam has worked this long. Everyone just assumes that scientific integrity is somehow assured; that there are safeguards along the way...
The Rise of Corporate Terrorism
“Corporate terrorism” is perhaps one of the most apt descriptions I’ve seen so far to describe what’s happening here. Again and again, papers assessing the prevalence scientific fraud and the impact of conflicts of interest with industry show that the situation is dire and getting worse. In short, we have lost scientific integrity. Without integrity, science is dead.Instead of evidence-based decision making, we now have decision-based evidence making.This is creating a tremendous mistrust of science, and rightfully so. The Séralini case reveals just how gaping a gulf this problem has become. If we don’t have real, independent and unbiased science, how are we to make well-informed decisions about anything—be it related to the medical, chemical, or genetic engineering industries? The entire notion of “science-based”—anything goes right out the window! Where does that ultimately leave us, and how do we proceed?Ever since the introduction of genetically engineered (GE) seeds in the mid-1990s, the market for these chemical-dependent crops have spawned a multibillion dollar industry. Funding for the development of more varieties of GE crop varieties has come primarily from the privately-owned chemical technology industry itself. Over the last 15 years, conflicts of interest within science have exponentially increased, and at this point, it’s blatantly obvious that financial conflicts of interest play a major role when it comes to what research is done; what gets published, and what doesn’t. According to one 2011 study published in the journal Food Policy:21“In a study involving 94 articles selected through objective criteria, it was found that the existence of either financial or professional conflict of interest was associated to study outcomes that cast genetically modified products in a favorable light. While financial conflict of interest alone did not correlate with research results, a strong association was found between author affiliation to industry (professional conflict of interest) and study outcome. “Here’s another example of corrupted science. As noted in a 2012 paper published in the journal Nature,22 when researchers looked into the reproducibility of what were considered to be “landmark” cancer studies, they were absolutely shocked to realize that scientific findings could only be confirmed in 11 percent of these “groundbreaking” research cases! Unless a finding can be successfully reproduced, the hypothesis doesn’t hold water.Conflicts of interest are also at the heart of yet another round of controversy revolving around genetically engineered foods. Corinne Lepage, a Member of the European Parliament and former French environment minister recently called for the resignation of Anne Glover, chief scientific adviser to the European Commission. Glover, a GMO-advocate, was appointed to her position two years ago. Now, all of a sudden—for the first time since 1996—the commission is considering authorizing the cultivation of GM corn in Europe.23 Coincidence? Lepage doesn’t think so.Other scientists have also spoken out about the abuse and intimidation they suffer simply for publishing findings that point to problems relating to genetically engineered foods. Some of them are addressed in Emily Waltz’s 2009 report “GM crops: Battlefield,” published in Nature.24
Take a Stand Against Unethical Science
As stated by Corinne Lepage at a November 28 press conference, Séralini’s paper raised valid questions about the safety of GMOs and Roundup, and retracting the paper “will not make these questions disappear.”25 Joël Spiroux de Vendômois, physician and co-author of the Séralini paper called the retraction “a public health scandal,” noting that the journal had already scrutinized the study more closely than other papers prior to publishing. And the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility issued a statement26 calling the retraction “a travesty of science” that “looks like a bow to industry.”It sure does look like it, and Elsevier has the history to support such suspicions as well. Many may have forgotten this, but it was only four years ago that Elsevier was found to have created no less than six “science journals” that were nothing of the sort.27 The journals were designed to look like peer-reviewed medical journals—little did doctors know that the magazines were sponsored by unnamed pharmaceutical companies and contained reprints of favorable studies and single-source reviews. In short, it was “undercover corporate propaganda.”The publisher has also drawn enough ire from academics fed up with Elsevier’s business practices, especially its pricing. According to ISIS, more than 13,970 academics from all subjects have signed a boycott against the publisher, pledging not to publish, referee, or do editorial work for them.Now, a group of scientists have drafted an open letter requesting Elsevier reverse its retraction of the Séralini paper, and to issue a public apology to the authors. “Until this is done, we will boycott Elsevier, decline to purchase Elsevier products, submit papers for publication, review papers or do editorial work for Elsevier,” the letter states. The letter may be signed by scientists and non-scientists alike. In the time it took me to write this article, the letter received another 15 signatures by scientists. Please take a moment to sign the letter, and forward it as widely as possible.
Vote with Your Pocketbook, Every Day
The food companies on the left of this graphic spent tens of millions of dollars in the last two labeling campaigns—in California and Washington State - to prevent you from knowing what’s in your food. You can even the score by switching to the brands on the right; all of whom stood behind the I-522 Right to Know campaign. Voting with your pocketbook, at every meal, matters. It makes a huge difference.
I encourage you to continue educating yourself about genetically engineered foods, and to share what you’ve learned with family and friends. Remember, unless a food is certified organic, you can assume it contains GMO ingredients if it contains sugar from sugar beets, soy, or corn, or any of their derivatives.If you buy processed food, opt for products bearing the USDA 100% Organic label, as certified organics do not permit GMO’s. You can also print out and use the Non-GMO Shopping Guide, created by the Institute for Responsible Technology. Share it with your friends and family, and post it to your social networks. Alternatively, download their free iPhone application, available in the iTunes store. You can find it by searching for ShopNoGMO in the applications. For more in-depth information, I highly recommend reading the following two books, authored by Jeffrey Smith, the executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology:
- Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies about the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You're Eating
- Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods.Please, do your homework. Together, we have the power to stop the biotech industry from destroying our food supply, the future of our children, and the earth as a whole. All we need is about five percent of American shoppers to simply stop buying genetically engineered foods, and the food industry would have to reconsider their source of ingredients—regardless of whether the products bear an actual GMO label or not.
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