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The media needs to open discussion on GMO issue


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:


    So Canadians are singing a petition to 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

      Wow you sure are pushing that everywhere aren’t you Alex. I had a debate with Dr. Vrain and this is what happened.


      • Alex Muir

        Yeah given his qualifications and experience, I feel it’s important he gets heard. Robert, you views would be more credible were you to acknowledge that GM agriculture and the GM business model do have some problems. You have to admit there are some obvious ones right?

      • RobertWager

        Sure there are issues. Which real one would you like to discuss?

      • Alex Muir

        Well that just it, your reluctant to even mention them independently on your own. There is no balance in your perspective. Feel free to list the problems with GMO, I’d really like to know what you think the problems are.

      • Sam Gilman

        Alex, it looks like you’re trying to get other people to put your arguments for you. Don’t you have anything to offer yourself?

        Here’s a real problem for you: the heavy reliance by GMO opponents on a few individual poorly received studies like Seralini (or Ermakova, or Puzstai) It suggests they are not interested in the quality or volume of evidence. That means that a discussion of the scientific evidence is impossible with them. They filter out everything that they disagree with, rather than filter out poor quality information.

        Do you think Thierry Vrain’s championing of Seralini’s poorly done study enhances or diminishes his scientific standing?

      • Alex Muir

        No Sam, I’ve made plenty of logical arguments elsewhere. I’m just pointing out the obvious slanted perspective or Mr Wagner unable to even point out the obvious problems of GMO on his own.

      • Sam Gilman

        No, Alex, you’re being a child. It is not someone else’s job to provide you with your own arguments and evidence, and it means nothing if they don’t play your game with you.

        If you’re capable of providing logical arguments elsewhere, then provide them here as well.

      • Alex Muir

        It’s a simple request Sam.. call it what you want it.. Peace out.

      • Sam Gilman

        “Peace out”? Are you leaving the conversation?

        Here’s my take home from your appearance here. When someone asked you to raise the issues you have with GMO so they can be looked at, your response was “no, you list them” as if this was a clever thing to say.

        Then, when I ask you to provide the “logical arguments” that you claim you’ve put elsewhere, in place of what honestly seems to be childishness, you – apparently – back off.

        Given that you are, it appears, running around the Internet begging people to sign a petition, one would have presumed you would be adept at defending its premises.

        As I said above, one of the issues in the GMO debate is the behaviour of anti-GMO activists and their problematic relationship with science. One of the apparently well-credentialed scientist Vrain’s main arguments against GMO apples is that apples are a symbol of health. Very scientific. (To be fair, he does mention studies out of Europe: one suspects that’s Seralini, Ermakova (where even the control rats fell unusually ill because of general mistreatment by someone not qualified to do such research), Puzstai (a Royal Society review no less said no conclusions could be drawn from such a flawed study) and so on.) And note in the comments on that page Alex pushing his petition.

      • Alex Muir

        Well to be honest when you started calling me childish and were unable to list a few problems with GMO I lost interest in the conversation. Take Care Sam.

      • Sam Gilman

        This is surreal. You now want me (as well as Robert Wager), someone who is not an anti-GMO activist, to tell you, someone who is an anti-GMO activist, what the problems are with GMOs? Why should I do that for you?

        In any case, for the third time, I have actually told you a huge problem with GMOs. It’s people like you, Alex, who, much like the anti-vaccinists and the climate change deniers, seriously degrade the discussion of scientific evidence by promoting politically-motivated junk science like Seralini.

        The thing is, I used to be very nervous about GMOs. I’m sympathetic to the argument that nature is a complex system that we mess around with at our peril, and that large corporations should be watched like hawks. However, I’m always prepared to look at evidence. And that’s why I changed my mind. The general evidence against GMOs championed by anti-GMO activists consists of a rather small number of studies of incredibly poor quality (such that major science institutions speak out against them), and then a whole bunch of madey-uppy stuff tacked on, garnished with pseudo-environmental theology.

        If I may quote from the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

        “The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe. The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.”

        Of course, it’s entirely possible that this or that particular GMO may be a problem, so case by case testing – as happens now – is appropriate. But here’s the thing. Researchers like Seralini and his champions like you are like the boy who cried wolf. After a while decision-makers and their advisers will just instinctively (and quite reasonably) assume that every problem the anti-GMO movement bring up is just another couple of hundred dead lab animals sacrificed on the altar of GMO conspiracy theory ideology.

        Given that corporations like Monsanto are incredibly powerful, that’s not a good atmosphere to create, is it Alex? Are you happy being part of that? What’s your allegiance to, people’s health and well-being, or your personal ideology? It can’t be to both.

      • Alex Muir

        Wow, Sam you make it sound like a petition to have the CBC interview Dr. Thierry Vrain, formerly Head of Biotechnology at Agriculture
        Canada’s Summerland Research Station who has 35 years of experience in that field followed by 10 years in organic gardening will make things better for Monsanto and worse for humanity.

      • Sam Gilman

        Yes. That’s what I’m saying. By promoting bad science, your position has no connection to reality or to any of the actual consequences of using GMOs (something scientific advisors will let the government know). By promoting bad science with the sponsorship of a section of the food industry that benefits directly from anti-GMO propaganda (something many of your researchers like to keep quiet) you prove yourself actually more corrupt than people sponsored by Monsanto, who do declare their interests in scientific publications. In essence, you turn yourself into a political obstacle to be negotiated, not a voice to be listened to. You look like a bunch of financially compromised unscientific cranks.

        And then, should a proper, honest scientist actually find a genuine problem with a particular GMO, it becomes very easy for Monsanto to say “you know what these people are like”. You’ll never keep Monsanto on a leash with bullshit like “don’t have GMO apples, they’re a symbol of health”.

      • Alex Muir

        I suppose you’ll say that the problems happening in India with GMO cotton are not actually happening?


        You’ve called my an anti-gmo activist, akin to a religous zealot and Dr Vrain dishonest. And yet it’s you who cannot even bring yourself to accept a single problem with GMO technology. Either your an industry representative or there is something wrong with your ability to accept information contrary to your established point of view.

        But here I’ll help you out you can call me a DNA Hugger … clearly name calling is your solution to an honest logical discussion and to clear obvious problems with GMO technologies..

        I’m just a concerned citizen. I care about honesty and about people.

      • Sam Gilman

        The problems in India have nothing to do with food safety. Yet in both these threads you try to derail the conversation about food safety by referring to GMO cotton. That’s what I mean by dishonesty, Alex. I’m sure you’re very truthful to your friends and your parents. It’s your lack of intellectual honesty that’s the problem.

        Intellectual honesty matters when you are dealing with facts about the world that threaten your worldview. It means that you don’t dodge or deny facts that threaten that worldview. Scientists – honest ones, anyway – seek to detach their work from any worldview. They accept the results and adjust their thinking accordingly. It doesn’t always happen, as scientists are human beings too. But at least in science, intellectual honesty – facing the facts as they are, not what you wish them to be – is a basic principle of research.

        You keep painting Seralini’s research as faulty only because he was doing a toxicology, and not a cancer study. This benign conclusion is found despite a wealth of expertise that has picked over what he did and found work that is evidence either of extreme incompetence or straightforward corruption. It’s also found despite the fact that Seralini deliberately sought to shield the reporting of his research from scientific scrutiny – again, something widely reported. I am at a loss as to why you are not disgusted with Seralini’s behaviour. It’s people like him and the GMO crowd’s support of him (and Carman and Ermakova) that lead me to the belief that the anti-GMO crowd are full of the proverbial. You lack intellectual honesty. I’m sure you think you’re doing good, but rather like anti-vaccinists and climate change deniers (who also think they are right) you put your ideology before reality.

        Oh, and thanks for putting on your tinfoil hat and accusing me of working for the GMO industry. Do you believe that the World Health Organisation, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Society, the American Medical Association are all controlled by the GMO industry?

      • Alex Muir

        Sam I thought we were having a discussion on GMO agriculture generally. I didn’t realize that pointing out problems in India would be derailing the discussion. You’ve added tin foil hat to your list. I trust by the end of this discussion you have associated more labels to me while continually for some interesting reason being unable to admit there are problems with GM agriculture.

        I gather than you aren’t interested in discussing the plight of the small scale Indian farmers struggling since adopting Monsanto’s GM cotton?

        I wouldn’t agree that it’s a not a food saftey issue as well given that cows and goats that have been grazing on the cotton leaves after production, which is a traditional part of their diet. Given the freedom animals have to move about after harvests in India and other countries such as those in Africa all which allow that same grazing practice to occur after harvest and would be hard pressed to stop it without a massive expenditure on infrastructure for fencing which they cannot afford. Why would cows and goats dying after grazing on cotton leaves not be a food safety issue? Certainly it’s a food safety issue for the Indian farmers and their animals.

        I didn’t suggest those organizations are controlled by the GMO industry and wouldn’t. I have no evidence to suggest that nor did I myself. Honestly I don’t particularly care much about the Seralini study, I’ve already made a clear simple statement above about it. Can you post a link to the reports calling it “extreme incompetence”? Although I’ve read Seralini criticisms I’d like to read through your various sources on that. Thanks Sam

      • Alex Muir

        Well I hope we can all agree that Séralini’s study was not a properly done carcinogenicity study because he used too few rats of a strain prone to tumours although the study was designed as a chronic toxicity study. It seems to me that everyone logical that is a proponent of precaution is suggesting that the Séralini study is indication that carcinogenicity study on GM NK603 maize and Roundup should follow. To ignore the simple facts that the that groups of rats eating NK603 maize and Roundup had kidney and liver damage, increased mortality, and the increased and earlier development of tumours compared to the rats eating organic corn baffles me. “Championing” is a ridiculous word to use for someone who is suggesting nothing more than what I just did.

        However it’s not unlike the reactions you get from the supporters of GMO completely ignoring any and all problems with GMO. Unable to bring themselves to mention Ht weed resistance or root worm bt resistance or the extraordinary influence Monsanto has over congress and the government resulting in the Monsanto Protection Act or appointments of industry representatives to management positions in the FDA and USDA resulting in favourable outcomes on product safetying. Never mind that farmers lose control of their seed. You guys can’t talk about the problems.

      • Sam Gilman

        Alex, what you’re trying to do is give the impression you’re all reasonable and evidence-based. You say:

        Well I hope we can all agree that Séralini’s study was not a properly done carcinogenicity study because he used too few rats of a strain prone to tumours although the study was designed as a chronic toxicity study.

        So, the Seralini study was poorly done and the results are meaningless, for reasons that even a layperson can understand. We can agree that. Great. Except that you then say:

        It seems to me that everyone logical that is a proponent of precaution is suggesting that the Séralini study is indication that carcinogenicity study on GM NK603 maize and Roundup should follow.

        No, that’s not logical at all.

        Perhaps you’ve missed something, or more likely, filtered it out. Seralini was a badly done, secretive study, by a dedicated anti-GMO proponent, who deliberately sought to shield the media announcement of his research from scientific scrutiny. It’s not just too few rats that get cancer easily, it’s too few rats with a research design almost deliberately designed to produce noisy data with a secret feeding schedule. The results are simply meaningless. It appears, however, that you (and Vrain) want to wring meaning out of them.

        If Vrain (organic farmer and partner to a herbalist) wants to even mention Seralini as indicating anything, then what do you think that says about his ability objectively to assess the quality of research? Why are there so few “serious” studies that even claim to show harm, and why have all of those ones had severe methodological problems?

      • Alex Muir

        How ironic.. the EU has issued a call for researchers to do a 2-year carcinogenicity study on NK603.


      • Sam Gilman

        What’s the irony? This is a political response, not a scientific one. The EU’s own food standards agency has clearly stated Seralini’s research actually failed to show any increased risk of cancer at all, and I understand (from an anti-GMO site) that their scientific experts haven’t been particularly enthusiastic about money being directed here rather than other places. Political appointees, on the other hand… Well, maybe they’re looking for a way to counteract the PR campaign by Seralini.

        Interesting site to link to, by the way. I see the people of GMO watch are already lining up their excuses for when the results come in negative.

        Alex, if this study shows no cancer risk from NK603, will you change your mind?

      • Alex Muir

        We will clearly be more informed about the cancer risk resulting from the study. Even Seralini agrees with the EU that his research failed to show any increase risk of cancer, he didn’t design his study to be looking for cancer as you would well know if you read Seralini’s response to the criticism. He was extending the methods used in the 90 day toxicology studies that Monsanto uses to determine the food is safe to a 2 year period to see the result. Both the EU and Seralini clearly agree that a follow study was worth doing as did Russia by the way. You make it sound like you would rather that the study was not done at all which is the whole point of the Substantial Equivalence concept which lets companies get away with not doing long term health studies.

        I’m wondering what you’ll say about this France24 report. India vs. Monsanto: seeds of discord.


        I find it interesting how you can completely ignore all problems with GM agriculture. Unable to bring yourself to mention a single problem with the technology.

      • Sam Gilman


        That’s interesting. I ask you a simple question: would the results of this research, if they went against your beliefs on GMOs, affect your beliefs in any way?

        You refused to answer. And then you tried to change the subject. I’ve met this kind of behaviour before: in religious zealots.

      • Alex Muir

        I didn’t refuse to answer I clearly wrote “We will clearly be more informed about the cancer risk resulting from the study” and I mean that sincerely. I would qualify my statement in a similar way to most every scientific study ever done. Isn’t that the prudent thing to do? Just think of how many studies have shown differing results over the years on various things. Until a clear consensus is reached like on the theory of evolution or that smoking causes cancer I remain more informed with the variety of information that people create. I don’t currently have any information to suggest GMO’s cause cancer and haven’t said they do.

        There has been more research they are causing problems related to digestion. Such as the recent study that found pigs fed GM grain have more stomach inflammation.


        Also there are clear problems with weed resistance.

        And rootworm resistance


        As well according to academic studies from Kansas and Wisconsin state University the Ht corn and Soy technology suffers from 5-10% yield drag because the creation of the new proteins requires energy and data from USDA do not showing increasing yields and Monsanto admits that.

        So Monsanto’s technologies although showing promise in the early days are increasingly failing to work effectively and I don’t agree that a company should be able to patent seeds forcing the farmer to not allow them to save them so they become more dependent on a company to grow. Certainly that dependency is made worse when the technologies patented are not working as effectively. Also they are no longer reducing pesticide use and now the FDA is having to increase the allowable limits of glyphosate residue on food because farmers need to apply more and more.

      • Sam Gilman

        You want to wait until there is scientific consensus on food safety? Heh. No you don’t. You want to wait until scientists agree with a position you have already decided yourself.

        Here’s where the current scientific consensus on GMO food safety lies, from the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

        “The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe… The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.”

        Now, here’s your challenge. Can you stay focussed on the issue of food safety and GMOs (which is what Seralini and this article is about), and resist the attempt to change the subject? Otherwise it looks like you’re trying to get out of an argument you’re uncomfortable with.

      • Alex Muir

        I’m trying to eat an organic diet on a precautionary principle and because I’m not a fan of the GMO industry generally for various reasons such as how it brings culture of lawsuits against farmers nor the way it patents seeds. I welcome scientific consensus on long term feeding studies. I haven’t seen one. Certainly we won’t get one from Monsanto’s standard 90 day studies with rats before claiming they are safe.

        I do understand why you would want to focus on Seralini, although the small statement I’ve made above is all that comes to mind to say on that subject.

        Why ignore the other problems I’ve put forth in the discussion? I suppose these problems cannot be debated as they are so clearly documented. None of those problems concern you?

      • Sam Gilman

        I’m focussing on the food safety issue both because it is the focus of this article, and because it is an excellent touchstone for how at least the vast majority of anti-GMO activists deal with evidence. For example, you mentioned pigs with inflamed stomachs. You’re doing the climate denial thing: look everyone! we have ONE study (er… -cough- forget the legions of studies that contradict it). Moreover, as with climate change deniers, it turns out the study is one of two things – totally misinterpreted, or in this, case utter junk science.

        Be honest, Alex, did you try to check out the quality of this research, or did you pick it up because it backed your pre-existing beliefs? Let me go through the problems:

        Background: It’s published in a journal sponsored by the organic federation of Australia, ie the representatives of people who financially benefit from anti-GMO feeling. If you like, the flipside of Monsanto. Several of the authors are anti-GMO campaigners who have received money from anti-GMO organisations. Yet the article declares there is no conflict of interest. I don’t know how much you know about academic research, but that’s really bad. I’m sure you’d agree: If we should be wary of Monsanto’s research, then we should equally be wary of research by these people as well, and that’s before what amounts to a false declaration of no conflicts of interest.

        Now, to the meat of the research. What Carman et al did was measure the health of pigs in a range of different categories – kidneys, hearts, lungs, stomachs, livers, spleens, intestines, uteri and ovaries. I’m sure you’ll agree, that at random, some of these organs will show more problems in one group of pigs than another even if they are fed exactly the same food because that’s the nature of chance.

        Yep, Carman et al went on what is known in statistics as “a fishing expedition”. They looked and looked and looked through all the organs until they found an issue where the GMO-fed pigs did worse than the non-GMO-fed pigs. And even then they had to fix the figures on stomach inflammation in order to manufacture statistical significance. In terms of research methods and ethics, it’s either quite incompetent or thoroughly corrupt.

        You can find this out very easily if you break out of your walled garden. That’s what I want you to do:
        break out of the group think and start applying criteria of trust not to the results of research, but to the honesty, openness and integrity of the methods by which those research results were reached

  • 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.

    • Ken Yasumoto-Nicolson

      Thanks for that link – I find it quite amusing that just like a lot of the radiation scaremongering, this study appears to be junk science.

  • 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”.