Turning point from the botched French maize study: GM opponents look like climate deniers

| September 28, 2012 |
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The highly controversial study by French scientist Gilles-Eric Seralini, who as we noted in last week’s update has a long history of actively disparaging GM technology based on questionable research, may mark a watershed in the debate over GM technology.

The Seralini Affair, as it may yet come to be known, is drawing a sharp line between anti-innovation campaigners and more mainstream scientists and journalists, who have strived to report on an emerging technology with potentially disruptive—almost all for the good—consequences.

As Keith Kloor writes in a comprehensive deconstruction of the research fiasco, how journalists report on this issue has long divided the serious-minded from the mostly ideological.

“… fears are stoked by prominent environmental groups, supposed food-safety watchdogs, and influential food columnists; that dodgy science is laundered by well-respected scholars and propaganda is treated credulously by legendary journalists; and that progressive media outlets, which often decry the scurrilous rhetoric that warps the climate debate, serve up a comparable agitprop when it comes to GMOs. In short, I’ve learned that the emotionally charged, politicized discourse on GMOs is mired in the kind of fever swamps that have polluted climate science beyond recognition.”

In other words, Kloor suggests, strident opponents of GM technology are starting to look like climate deniers, and they often enabled by advocacy NGOs and campaigning journalists who, ironically, took the lead in debunking the pseudo-science of the right.

Kloor and others take welcome potshots at some of the biggest purveyors of misinformation about genetic technology, most notably Tom Phillpott, the young food blogger for Mother Jones. He bizarrely writes that Seralini’s results “shine a harsh light on the ag-biotech industry’s mantra that GMOs have indisputably proven safe to eat.”

Phillpott is notorious among scientists and serious science journalists. He has carved out a reputation as a precautionary junkie, reliably opposing almost anything that the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace or the Environmental Working Group announces a campaign against. Phillpot, who has no science background or history of serious writing on the subject (he was recruited to Mother Jones from Grist magazine, which has also botched the Seralini coverage), often cherry picks anti-GM or anti-chemical food related studies, reporting them out of context and with no attempt at balance.

“This brand of fear-mongering is what I’ve come to expect from environmental groups, anti-GMO activists, and their most shamelessly exploitive soul travelers,” writes Kloor.

Journalists in the United States and Europe continue to express outrage at the way Seralini and his colleagues tried to manage the media coverage, forcing reporters to sign a non-disclosure agreement that barred them from seeking outside sources, which, remarkably, many large organizations agreed to.

What some are calling a “retraction watch” has now begun. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is set to deliver within days its preliminary review of the study. Seralini has refused the agency’s request to review his data—a standard practice that allows other scientists to attempt to replicate findings and evaluate the data to further future research. The EFSA—no friend do the GM industry—has previously criticized the quality of Seralini’s research, as has the Public Research and Regulation Initiative (PRRI).

Chemical Toxicology Journal, which published the Seralini paper, has been deluged by written requests from academicians and scientists to reassess its handling of the paper after the almost universal criticism of what appears to be the manipulated findings. Editor Wally Hayes has reportedly indicated that he would consider taking action, perhaps including a retraction.

Besides the long list of problems with the study, scientists also note that it contradicts similar research by far more independent scientists. Previous peer-reviewed rat feeding studies using the same products (NK603 and Roundup) have not found any negative food safety impacts.  The Japanese Department of Environmental Health and Toxicology released a 52-week feeding study of GM soybeans in 2007, finding “no apparent adverse effect in rats.” Earlier this year, 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 multigenerational studies (up to 5 generations), concluding there is no evidence of health hazards.

Stay tuned.