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The media needs to open discussion on GMO issue

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More than two years on from the disaster of March 11, 2011, debate continues in the mainstream and social media about the uses of fear to advance agendas. Much of the debate is centered on the environmental crisis surrounding the crippled Fukushima nuclear reactor. On one side are people who say that the region is dangerously irradiated, thus making it uninhabitable for generations. On the other are people who say the danger is minimal and that antinuclear advocates are exaggerating findings in order to scare the public into needlessly rejecting nuclear power.

This struggle was recently exemplified in the reaction to a statement by Sanae Takaichi, the policy chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Takaichi, in advocating for the restart of nuclear power stations that are currently idle, remarked that no one was killed by the meltdowns of 3/11. Opposition parties and the Fukushima government called her insensitive, saying that some 70 people died as a result of being evacuated after the accident, and she eventually retracted the statement, which nevertheless characterizes the main point of the camp that claims the dangers of the accident have been overstated. A corollary of this point is that it was fear that killed those 70 people, fear exacerbated by excitable and irresponsible media.

But aren’t the media supposed to relate circumstances as they happen, as honestly and directly as possible? People who point up the accident as proof that nuclear power can never be safe tend to say that the media were actually too cautious in their reporting of the meltdowns, that they were over-solicitous of the authorities’ desire to downplay their seriousness. If the debate remains contentious and unresolvable, it’s because of the scientific nature of the issue, which is unknowable in the short term. Radiation is invisible and resilient, its effects only apparent in the long run.

Both sides use Chernobyl, the nuclear plant accident most comparable to Fukushima in scope, to press their respective points. The pronuclear side says that the number of humans sickened and killed by the 1986 meltdown has been negligible, while the antinuclear camp insists it caused a million casualties. It all depends on whose study you believe.

The new French documentary, “Tous Cobayes?” (“All of Us Guinea Pigs Now?”), screening at movie theaters and community halls throughout Japan this summer, tries to present the long-term health consequences of global commercial enterprises in their proper scientific and social contexts. It is unabashed advocacy journalism, taking the position that its two main concerns, nuclear energy and genetically modified organisms (GMO), are products of global industrial conspiracies. But while a certain paranoid tone infuses the movie’s rhetoric, its premise — that the danger of these two endeavors can only be comprehended by taking a long view — is presented with scrupulous technical authority.

GMO is the movie’s main focus and easier to sell as a diabolical corporate scheme. Many companies are in the business of commercializing genetically modified materials, but Monsanto is the villain of choice because of its marketing of GM seeds impervious to pesticides, in particular the popular Roundup, which Monsanto happens to manufacture. The film chronicles a complex study conducted by molecular biologist Gilles-Eric Seralini, who felt that Monsanto’s three-month testing of its GMO crops for safety was by definition inconclusive because three months is too short in the life cycle of complex organisms.

Seralini’s experiment cost more than €3 million (¥382.2 million) and involved dozens of rats fed different combinations of GMO foods, some contaminated with Roundup at levels equivalent to those in the environment, over the course of two years. Monsanto guards its seeds jealously and thus they were difficult to obtain for testing purposes. French officials also indicated their opposition to the study when an official of the Biotech High Council called Seralini a “militant researcher” and “fear merchant” in public. (Seralini sued for libel and won.) For these reasons the experiments were conducted in secret. The rats’ normal life spans were shortened by the diet, with many developing huge tumors. Seralini theorizes that these abnormalities were caused not only by the pesticide, but also by the GM foods themselves.

The experiment forms the thematic backbone of the film, but what gives its thesis traction is the contrasting reports on alternatives to the kind of industrial-scale agriculture that GMO represents: farmers in Senegal practicing ecologically sound crop rotation methods, pig herders in Normandy feeding their livestock scraps of leftover produce, French farmers growing “heirloom” corn with seeds they cultivate themselves. “Organic (farming) is not that difficult,” one says, gently contradicting a representative of the Bill Gates Foundation, who earlier in the doc advocates for GMOs because they are seen to be more economically feasible for poorer nations. One elderly anti-corporate activist says that the goal of the U.S.-dominated GMO industry is to “force open third world markets.”

The movie’s stance with regard to nuclear energy, supported by extensive footage from Fukushima, is less balanced, but the connection to GMOs is forcefully presented. Seralini enumerates the commonalities: irreversibility, contamination and accumulation in the food chain, all of which are conditions that can only be evaluated on a long-term basis.

The implication is that we are all subjects in these ongoing experiments, which is relevant to the aforementioned nuclear debate but should also be taken into consideration when talking about the current Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, whose outcome could force Japanese farmers to adopt GM methods. I, for one, would be grateful if the media discusses both issues openly and without regard for any sensibilities it might upset.

  • Alex Muir

    I agree fully that the discussion in the media about GMO needs to be intellectual in nature. In Canada we rarely hear about problems with GMO in the media and perhaps this is why Canadians are trying to get Dr. Thierry Vrain, formerly Head of Biotechnology @ Agriculture Canada’s Summerland Research Station, once a supporter of GMO to be able to share his understanding of why the science behind genetic engineering is flawed on Canada’s public broadcaster as he has in his recent Ted talk entitled The Gene Revolution, The Future of Agriculture:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQkQXyiynYs

    So Canadians are singing a petition to CBC News, The National to Interview Dr Thierry Vrain Regarding GMO & The Future of Agriculture

    http://www.change.org/en-CA/petitions/petition-cbc-news-the-national-to-interview-dr-thierry-vrain-regarding-gmo-the-future-of-agriculture

    Perhaps the Japanese media should interview Dr Thierry Vrain as well given his message is one that is not often heard in the media despite numerous European studies supporting his views.

  • RobertWager

    And every food safety authority in the world that looked at his so-called research totally rejected it as terrible science full of flaws from start to finish. This is the third time world food safety authorities have examined his work and completely rejected it.

  • Joe Olden

    When you discussed Seralini’s study, you failed to mention that most scientists, including the European Food Safety Authority felt his study was fatally flawed and showed nothing. The rats developed tumors not because of the GM food, but because the Sprague-Dawley rats used naturally develop tumors. You don’t have to go any farther than Wikipedia to find out that most scientists say the study is crap.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%C3%A9ralini_affair

  • Alex Huszagh

    I love how you call it a “complex” study when he didn’t even get his statistical methods right. That is something he should have learned as an undergraduate, and just highlight Séralini’s poor methodologies in his study.

    Also, you forgot to mention the unusual and highly suspicious manner in which he published the study, forcing via contract all reporters upon pain of paying for the study’s hefty price tag not to consult outside scientists or experts before publishing their results. In short, his results are nothing but a statistical fishing expedition, except without even proper statistical analysis.

  • Sam Gilman

    If journalist Phillip Brasor wants an open public discussion about GMOs, let’s include the behaviour and/or competence of journalists like him in covering it.

    To be clear: the Seralini case is famous as a classic example of how an activist-scientist sought to manipulate media opinion with bad science. As someone has already pointed out, there’s even a whole Wikipedia page on it (“Seralini Affair”), with some excellent references (which is what marks a good wikipedia page out. Interestingly, an attempt by a supporter of Seralini to get the article deleted was met with near uniform opposition from established editors.)

    We’re in similar territory to the MMR vaccine affair, which was also about a scientist with a conflict of interest doing bad research taking advantage of journalistic incompetence and love of a scary headline.

    The reasons why it’s junk are interesting as an example of how a scientist can produce the data he or she wants. I’ll list them and others can judge if they’re too difficult for a journalist to follow. They’re not as exciting as “people are going to get cancer and DIE”, but as the Japan Times has shown from its coverage of Fukushima, faithful reporting of science is not what turns its journalists (like Mr Brasor) on.

    1. Seralini used a strain of rats that has a well-known tendency to develop cancer. The length of this study was unusually long: as long as the average lifespan of these rats.

    So you’re going to get a lot of rats with cancers whatever happens, which leads to a statisically noisy set of data. You’re going to need a lot of rats. Now, to be fair, it’s the kind of detail a journalist might miss if he or she were looking at the study without outside opinion. I’m not knocking Phillip Brasor for not being a scientist. Anyway, the problems get worse:

    2. The tendency of these rats to get cancer increases if you don’t limit their food intake. However, details of the feeding regimes were not given in the study. Seralini has actually refused to release his data for general inspection. He actually cites bad practice by others as a defence for his own bad practice. I’m not kidding.

    So we don’t know anything about a key issue in a toxicity study: what and how much the were rats fed. It’s also possible that common fungal contaminants in feed can increase the cancer rate – but, of course, no data was released on that either. Again, to be fair, a journalist without expertise might not pick up on this food thing either.

    3. About those numbers. The minimum recommended number of rats in any group (control, experimental etc.) for toxicology studies is 20, and for cancer studies of this nature is 50 in general, 65 for this strain of rats (given their tendency to get cancer anyway) in order to have enough statistical power todraw conclusions. How many did Seralini use in each group? Only ten. Apparently each group started with twenty, but he only included ten to study. Hmmm.

    So in any case, we have a scientist making a huge noise over a study that couldn’t support any conclusions at all because it was too small. Of course, a journalist, without the benefit of scientific expertise, might not be aware of this.

    I’ve stressed how these criticisms might not be apparent to a journalist. But surely, journalists are aware of their own scientific shortcomings, and will contact a relevant expert before going to press? Well, you see, there was a problem with Seralini:

    4. Journalists were only allowed to see advanced copies of the study if they signed an agreement not to allow anyone else (including scientific experts) to look at it . To add spice, non-compliance would result in being sued for several million Euros. This is extremely unusual in science reporting, and the journal Nature censured those journalists who agreed to go along with this.

    So, the initial wave of media coverage (on an explosive issue) was manipulated under threat of financial ruin to be free of any scientific scrutiny.

    The thing is, this study was released last September, and scientists have subequently had a look and overwhelmingly slammed the study as junk. Phillip Brasor doesn’t have the excuse of not being able to consult experts. There’s even a wikipedia page on the whole damned saga.

    And it gets worse, but this time in a way a journalist should be able to spot:

    5. In a case of conflict of interest, Seralini timed the release of the study to coincide with the release of a film and a book. He is also founder of an anti-GMO organisation. One would think a journalist would get cold feet about something like this. Alas, not all of them.

    It’s all looking a bit bad for the Seralini study. If you’ve got this far, perhaps you can ask yourself whether Phillip Brasor’s call for an open debate is more about his personal politics than his duty to the reader to report the truth. Shouldn’t a journalist with genuine journalistic ethics be outraged at attempts to prevent journalists consulting outside sources? Isn’t that the real media story?

    On the other hand, if it’s that all this science is too difficult for him, perhaps he should stick to lifestyle articles on home improvement.

    And if anyone is thinking “it doesn’t matter if the Seralini study is bad, I still don’t like GMOs” – that’s fine. Just don’t go do what the journalist Phillip Brasor has done and think “Because I don’t like GMOs, the study must be good.”

    The GMO debate matters. GMOs have the potential to solve food and nutrition crises around the world. They also have the potential to be abused by corporations. So we need a well-informed debate based on good scientific opinion. We need journalists with a commitment to reporting on our best scientific attempts to find the truth, not hacks who think the highest achievement is to “teach the controversy”.