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A retracted 2012 study purporting to show that genetically modified (GMO) corn causes cancer was not recently vindicated by French courts. A few publications lacking minimal journalistic standards have made that false claim. There was a favorable ruling in a libel suit brought by Gilles-Eric Séralini, author of the study, but it did not vindicate his sloppy research in any way. The court simply agreed that the defendant could not prove that Séralini had committed fraud. In the U.S., proof of malice by the defendant would have been required for a libel verdict, but not in France. In any case, the ruling did not address the scientific validity of  Séralini’s research, only that it was not willfully fraudulent. Courts do not serve as arbiters of scientific validity.

The study itself was awful. Details can be found here. Séralini used rats that were bred to develop cancer with an extremely high incidence (70% – 80% lifetime); he tested different groups of these rats with varying amounts of GMO corn and Roundup pesticide. The small samples he used meant that the tests had very low statistical power. There were suspicious aspects of the study that might or might not have been cleared up with sufficient disclosure, and there was even contradictory evidence within the study itself, as would be expected with so much statistical noise. Séralini’s efforts to publicize the paper didn’t help his reputation in the scientific community. He made some exaggerated claims, and though he might have believed them, he was clearly interested in making a big splash.

The paper received overwhelming criticism in the scientific community. It was retracted by the journal that originally published it, but later it was republished in a low-quality journal without peer review. This study was not the first piece of Séralini research to be harshly criticized by his peers. Here are comments from the blog of respected horticulturist Kevin Folta, who does not mince words:

It boils down to this– if these data were significant, if the experiments were good, and the interpretations sound, this would not be buried in the depths of a crappy journal. If there was hard evidence that our food supply truly caused tumors, it would be on the New England Journal of Medicine, Science, Nature, or maybe Cell if he wanted to go slumming. But it’s not there. It is in a tiny, obscure journal that has quite a visible agenda, and that’s the only thing visible about it.

And that’s where it belongs. Let him have his day in the sun. History will not remember him for his science. It will remember him as a disgraceful hack that let personal agenda affect adoption of safe scientific technology. He’ll be the guy that fooled millions with low-quality data.

It is very sad, because I’d rather be writing blogs about exciting science and new findings. Instead we’re back to this nonsense. Luckily, it will slowly disappear into time, like Puzstai’s lectins, Huber’s mystery organism, and the rest of the alarmist junk never published or never reproduced.

An issue that has been thorny for GMO advocates is the erroneous conflation of GMOs with glyphosate (Roundup is one brand). Séralini’s work focused on glyphosate-resistant GMOs, and his treatments involved the administration of glyphosate to rats in varying quantities, but publicity surrounding the study gave the impression that his “findings” applied more generally to GMOs. Glyphosate resistant plants were an early product of the GMO technology, but most GMO plants have nothing to do with glyphosate. Instead, they confer benefits such as nutritional superiority, drought resistance, pest resistance, disease resistance, and improved environmental consequences of agriculture. The variety of problems that can be addressed with GMOs is staggering.

The safety of GMOs is well established in the plant science literature. Use the box above to search Sacred Cow Chips for “GMO” or “genetic” to find earlier posts in which I have addressed GMO safety at greater length. A recent article from Andrew Porterfield of the Genetic Literacy Project addresses some aspects of this literature and on long-term animal feeding studies, which have demonstrated the safety of GMOs.

A petition in support of GMO technology signed by over 1,400 plant science experts is linked in this article in Science Daily. Three of the authors of the petition are affiliated with The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur, Missouri, not far from my home.  The petition vouches for the safety of GMOs and their promise in meeting the world’s demand for food.

Note: the infographic at the top of this post is from the Biology Fortified blog.