How Anti-GMO Activists Are Polluting Science Communication

The state of the universe.
Sept. 26 2012 5:15 AM

GMO Opponents Are the Climate Skeptics of the Left

Don’t worry. Genetically modified corn isn’t going to give you cancer.

Bt-corn is a GMO (genetically modified organism) crop that offers growers an alternative.
Genetically modified corn harvested near Rockton, Ill.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

I used to think that nothing rivaled the misinformation spewed by climate change skeptics and spinmeisters.

Then I started paying attention to how anti-GMO campaigners have distorted the science on genetically modified foods. You might be surprised at how successful they've been and who has helped them pull it off.

I’ve found that 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.

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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.

The latest audacious example of scientific distortion came last week, in the form of a controversial (but peer reviewed!) study that generated worldwide headlines. A French research team purportedly found that GMO corn fed to rats caused them to develop giant tumors and die prematurely.

Within 24 hours, the study's credibility was shredded by scores of scientists. The consensus judgment was swift and damning: The study was riddled with errors—serious, blatantly obvious flaws that should have been caught by peer reviewers. Many critics pointed out that the researchers chose a strain of rodents extremely prone to tumors. Other key aspects of the study, such as its sample size and statistical analysis, have also been highly criticized. One University of Florida scientist suggests the study was "designed to frighten" the public.*

That's no stretch of the imagination, considering the history of the lead author, Gilles-Eric Seralini, who, as NPR reports, "has been campaigning against GM crops since 1997," and whose research methods have been "questioned before," according to the New York Times.

The circumstances surrounding Seralini's GMO rat-tumor study range from bizarre (as a French magazine breathlessly reports, it was conducted in clandestine conditions) to dubious (funding was provided by an anti-biotechnology organization whose scientific board Seralini heads).

Another big red flag: Seralini and his co-authors manipulated some members of the media to prevent outside scrutiny of their study. (The strategy appears to have worked like a charm in Europe.) Some reporters allowed themselves to be stenographers by signing nondisclosure agreements stipulating they not solicit independent expert opinion before the paper was released. That has riled up  science journalists such as Carl Zimmer, who wrote on his Discover magazine blog: "This is a rancid, corrupt way to report about science. It speaks badly for the scientists involved, but we journalists have to grant that it speaks badly to our profession, too. ... If someone hands you confidentiality agreements to sign, so that you will have no choice but to produce a one-sided article, WALK AWAY. Otherwise, you are being played."

Speaking of being played, have I mentioned yet that Seralini's book on GMOs, All Guinea Pigs! is being published (in French) this week? Oh, and there's also a documentary based on his book coming out simultaneously. You can get details on both at the website of the anti-biotetch organization that sponsored his study. The site features gross-out pictures of those GMO corn-fed rats with ping-pong-ball-size tumors.

It's all very convenient, isn't it?

None of this seems to bother Tom Philpott, the popular food blogger for Mother Jones, who writes that Seralini's results "shine a harsh light on the ag-biotech industry's mantra that GMOs have indisputably proven safe to eat."

Philpott often trumpets the ecological and public-health dangers posed by genetically modified crops. But such concerns about GMOs, which are regularly echoed at other left-leaning media outlets, have little merit. As Pamela Ronald, a UC-Davis plant geneticist, pointed out last year in Scientific American: "There is broad scientific consensus that genetically engineered crops currently on the market are safe to eat. After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted, no adverse health or environmental effects have resulted from commercialization of genetically engineered crops."

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