Telling toxic tales about GM food
A Greenpeace-financed study claims GM corn is bad for us. Why did the media swallow it?
Another month, another GM-crop scare. ‘Monsanto Corn Allegedly Toxic,’ read the headline in Red Herring (1). The Daily Mail faithfully parroted the Greenpeace scare-line that ‘GM corn “could cause liver and kidney damage”.’ (2)
But this story demonstrates nothing more than the ability of the anti-biotech campaigners at Greenpeace to manipulate the media. In turn, several media outlets have demonstrated their willingness to unquestioningly accept the agenda of a political pressure group when it fits in with their own long-running paranoia about what big business is doing to our food.
The concocted controversy is over the supposed dangers posed by a variety of biotech corn that has been safely grown in the US and Canada since 2003 (and safely consumed for three years there), and Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Russia, the Philippines, and Mexico. The allegations (technically, they’re more innuendo than specific allegation) are made in a peer-reviewed paper in the May issue of Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology.
But this is all old non-news.
European safety authorities approved the corn, called MON863, for import, feed, and processing in 2005 and again in 2006. Sold under the name YieldGard Rootworm, it reduces the need to spray insecticides with an organic-approved protein that is safe for fish, birds, mammals, and people.
Greenpeace didn’t like the European approval, so they sued in order to get access to the data used to make those decisions. After getting the data, they paid a group of researchers at the University of Caen to ‘re-evaluate’ it. Not surprisingly, given their near-religious opposition to agricultural biotechnology, the Greenpeace-paid group says the data show ‘signs of toxicity’.
‘Our counter-evaluation show that there are signs of toxicity and that nobody can say scientifically and seriously that consumption of the transgenic maize MON863 is safe and good for health,’ lead author of the study, Professor Gilles Eric Séralini, told France’s TF1 television station.
Sounds scary, right? But it’s not. Even after applying an overly ‘sciency’ thicket of statistical gimmickry, all that they show is that there is variation among rats – normal variation like you would find in any group of people. None of the findings are in any way alarming or out of the range of normal variability.
As Andrew Apel at AgBioView notes: ‘In a nutshell, the Greenpeace-backed reinterpretation rests on data which show statistically significant differences in serum protein values or triglycerides mainly in rats fed low doses of MON863, but not in rats fed high doses of the corn. It’s generally thought that the dose makes the poison, but in this case high doses showed no discernible effects. Does this truly reveal, as the title of the new paper suggests, “Signs of Hepatorenal Toxicity?” The authors of the paper attempt to explain this by saying, cryptically, “This sex- and dose-related effect resulted in the fact that the growth variations of the 11 per cent GMO males are highly statistically lower [emphasis added] than their controls, and 33 per cent-GM-fed females higher.”‘ (3)
However you’d like to interpret that, it remains the case that scientists evaluating MON863 rat studies have consistently found the variations occurred randomly, were generally of small magnitude, and were within the normal range for laboratory rats.
The fully-accountable food safety scientists of more than a dozen governments have approved this corn after exhaustive safety evaluation. These public servant-scientists have staked their jobs and reputations on the integrity and accuracy of their safety approvals. If something goes wrong, they will be the ones who will be called upon to explain their decisions.
Greenpeace wants us to ignore these dozens and dozens of expert scientists in favour of the self-serving ‘counter evaluation’ of raw data by three scientists who claim to see ‘disturbed’ livers and kidneys where dozens of others see only normal variation.
The European Food Safety Authority has announced they will give the report a thorough read. Then I hope they will escort it, tout suite, into the ‘circular file’, aka the bin!
In a final note, Andrew Apel notes poignantly that Greenpeace has the option of paying a fee to the journal so that their paper can be freely accessible by the public. They have chosen not to take this option.
I hereby publicly call on Greenpeace to make the full paper publicly and freely accessible – or do they think that their research is rather too weak for that?
Alex Avery is director of global food research at the Hudson Institute in the USA and author of The Truth About Organic Foods, to be released in the UK in June. spiked has a limited number of copies at the special price of £15 inc p&p (Europe only). Contact Rob Lyons to order a copy.
spiked has run two online debates on GM food: Should labelling be mandatory? and Do we need farm-scale trials? CS Prakash wrote about GM foods past, present and future. Thomas Deichmann questioned whether Greenpeace should have charitable status. Or read more at: spiked issue GM food
(1) Monsanto Corn Allegedly Toxic, Red Herring, 15 March 2007
(2) GM corn ‘could cause liver and kidney damage’, Daily Mail, 14 March 2007
(3) MON863: Nothing new nor dangerous, AgBioView, 16 March 2007
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