The Los Angeles Times has published an article by its business columnist Michael Hiltzik about Seralini's study, calling it “junk science” and “shoddy” and claiming that its use by supporters of Proposition 37, the ballot initiative to require GMO labelling, is “ignorance and anti-intellectualism”.
According to Hiltzik, “...where science is at the heart of a campaign, as it is for Proposition 37, the promotion of manifestly shoddy research is especially shameful. That goes double where multibillion-dollar industries, tens of thousands of jobs, and the health and well-being of millions of consumers are at stake.” http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-hiltzik-20121014,0,573516.column
Hiltzik's article is being promoted with glee by the No on 37 campaign backed by Monsanto (see their campaign email reproduced below). But Michael Hiltzik is a Pulitzer prize winner so his vitriolic attacks on a peer-reviewed publication must surely have some truth behind them, right? Well, let's see.
1. Hiltzik says, “The Seralini paper attracted almost instantaneous derision from the research establishment, on multiple counts”.
Hiltzik's source for this claim is the quotations from “experts” that were circulated by the Science Media Centre, a lobby group that has taken funding from GM giants Monsanto and Syngenta, as well as the GM lobby group CropLife International. As GMWatch has shown, seven out of eight of the SMC's named “experts” are very far from independent, with most either being evangelical advocates of GM food or having business, research or lobbying connections with major GM corporations or investors. http://www.gmwatch.org/latest-listing/51-2012/14224
And most of their criticisms of Seralini's paper were ill-informed and misleading:
- Science Media Centre "experts" who attacked Seralini's study: (2) Maurice Moloney
- Science Media Centre "experts" who attacked Seralini's study: (2) Maurice Moloney
- Science Media Centre "experts" who attacked Seralini's study: (3)
2. Hiltzik says EFSA condemned Seralini's study, yet it “is not known as an industry-friendly agency”.
EFSA's over-friendly relations with industry have been under fire for nearly a decade, and particularly in the last year. The criticism has come not just from NGOs but also from Members of the European Parliament who earlier this year postponed signing off on EFSA's budget because of its problems with conflicts of interest. The head of EFSA's board of management even had to resign earlier this year over her own conflicts of interest with industry, and this is just one of the ongoing controversies affecting EFSA on this issue.
Of course, Americans may be forgiven their ignorance of European institutions, but Hiltzik is a highly experienced journalist. Yet it seems that this Pulitzer prize winner is incapable of making even a single search on “EFSA” on Google News. If he had, he would have immediately turned up headlines like:
- EFSA criticised by auditors over conflict of interest
- EFSA slammed for “not robust enough” screening
- Court of Auditors denounces conflicts of interest
- EU auditors accuse ECHA and EFSA of failing to manage conflict of interest
These headlines were prompted by a report from the European Court of Auditors that found a whole series of problems at EFSA, including not screening thoroughly enough the declared conflicts of interests of the scientists it appointed, and the presence of industry figures on its management board. http://corporateeurope.org/pressreleases/2012/efsa-criticised-auditors-over-conflicts-interest
Earlier this year, the European Parliament postponed approval of EFSA's budget over conflicts of interest, and there were protests when the European Commission recommended that one of Europe's chief food lobbyists, and a former Monsanto employee, join EFSA's management board. http://www.testbiotech.org/en/node/631
And, as we said, the controversy over EFSA's closeness to industry is nothing new, with repeated charges being made that EFSA has consistently sided with the biotech industry.
Court of Auditors slams EFSA
But just as importantly in this case, EFSA is not an independent judge when it comes to Monsanto's NK603 maize. EFSA's previous opinion that the NK603 GM maize that Seralini tested was “safe” led to its EU approval. EFSA has also argued against the need for feeding trials and claims that if they are done, 90 days is long enough to see any ill effects. ALL these decisions by EFSA would be overturned if it were to admit that Seralini's study has any merit at all. So how likely is it that EFSA will, as Corinne Lepage MEP put it, cut off the branch on which it sits?
What makes Hiltzik's apparent ignorance of all these issues particularly odd is that in writing his article he actually spoke to Seralini, who has consistently flagged up his and others' concerns about EFSA's conflicts of interest over its GM approvals and NK603.
3. Hiltzik says, “The same journal that published Seralini's paper published a survey of 12 studies of genetically modified corn, soybeans and rice tested on rats, cows, salmon or monkeys for up to two years, and in general found no evidence of any health hazards.”
As is common with this type of “attack” article, Hiltzik avoids citing sources, but he's probably talking about the review by Snell et al (2011), which is widely cited by GM pushers to claim safety. Unfortunately it doesn't show that.
The review looked at 12 long-term feeding studies and 12 multigenerational studies on GM crops and concluded, “Results from all the 24 studies do not suggest any health hazards".
However, many of these studies did find significant differences in the GM-fed animals compared with non-GM-fed animals. Nevertheless the authors of the Snell review concluded, without justification, that these were of “no biological or toxicological significance”.
In addition, many of the studies were not toxicological studies looking at health effects, but feeding studies to see how much weight an animal gained in relation to how much feed they consumed.
And the review authors applied strange double standards. They drew attention to numerous weaknesses in the study designs. But while they failed to draw appropriate conclusions from the studies that found toxic effects, they accepted at face value the conclusions of those studies that reported no adverse effects, as proof of safety!
4. Hiltzik says, “Peer reviews are known to fail, and it's not uncommon for published papers to be retracted when their data are shown to be unreliable.”
Since Seralini basically recorded what he found in the treated rats, the only way to show that Seralini's data are unreliable is to repeat his experiments and get different results. Try it, Mr Hiltzik, and let us know in a few years' time how you got on.
5. Hiltzik says, “The chief overall criticism of his experiment is that it seemed designed to prove a specific conclusion, rather than objectively test a hypothesis”, since Seralini is “a campaigner against genetically modified foods”.
It's interesting that EFSA's criticism of the paper was exactly the opposite: “The study objectives are unclear.” It's difficult to know how Seralini could keep both Hiltzik and EFSA happy.
Perhaps EFSA would have been happy if Seralini had followed the lead of Monsanto in its 90-day study on the same GM maize (Hammond 2004). The Monsanto authors called their study a “safety assurance study". Indeed, that is a clear objective and conclusion all in one, with the apparent aim to “assure” people that the GM food is safe. But Hiltzik, if he applied the same standards to Monsanto studies as to Seralini's, would not approve.
6. Hiltzik says, “Seralini used an insufficient number of control rats.”
The rodents in the experiment were divided into 10 groups of 20 animals (10 male + 10 female), with nine of those groups exposed to Roundup or NK603. Standard practice is for the control group to be matched in size to the experimental groups. The experimental groups were 20 animals and therefore the control group should be 20 animals.
It has become common practice for industry to introduce extra “reference" control groups in its feeding trials on GM foods, with each control group being fed a different diet. This results in the trial having far more control animals than treated animals – unbalancing the trial in favour of a “no effect” finding from the GM diet. It is not good scientific practice as it only serves to introduce data “noise” that masks the effect of the genetic modification. But seemingly that's what Hiltzik wants.
7. Hiltzik says, “The researchers identified no dose-related response.”
Seralini dealt with this issue in his paper. Many toxins, especially those that affect the hormonal system (endocrine disruptors), have nonlinear dose-response patterns. Roundup is one. Scientists have published papers about nonlinear dose-response patterns since the 1990s, so people who repeat this criticism have had plenty of time to catch up. But still, industry and some risk assessment bodies cling to the outdated toxicological model of linear dose-response. There is no scientific justification for doing so, but only an economic one – to keep toxins with nonlinear dose-response effects on the market.
8. Hiltzik says there's no “plausible biochemical or molecular mechanism for the effect.”
There is no requirement in any regulatory system to establish mechanism of action for a toxin before regulatory action can be taken and there is no burden of proof on scientists who find toxic effects to establish a mechanism before they report their findings. This is fortunate because it can take decades to establish mechanism, and sometimes a mechanism is never found.
For example, it is known that DDT insecticide thins birds' eggs, but the mechanism is not fully understood. Nevertheless DDT is restricted in most countries for most uses.
Seralini does put forward a hypothetical explanation for the effects he found, which were similar between NK603 maize and Roundup. He thinks they might involve disturbance of the hormonal system (an endocrine disruptive effect). It would require further research to confirm this.
Whether Hiltzik finds this mechanism “plausible” is neither here nor there. Science relies on empirical investigation, not personal belief.
9. Hiltzik says, “The strain of lab rat Seralini used is predisposed to tumours. By about 2 years of age, 80% of these rats will have them, on average. Therefore, the longer the experiment proceeds, the cloudier the data become, because most of the rats would eventually be tumour-ridden anyway. In other words, the length of the study isn't a virtue, as Seralini contends, but may be a flaw.”
While Hiltzik again fails to cite a source for his 80% figure, the “tumour-prone rat” argument has been extensively dealt with here:
The SD rat is about as tumour-ridden as humans living in industrialised countries like the UK, which is why it's an excellent human-equivalent model for tumour-causing and cancer-causing effects.
If we accept Hiltzik's argument that 2-year studies on the Sprague-Dawley (SD) strain of rat are unreliable, then we have to dismiss numerous other toxicity and carcinogenicity studies of a similar length that used the same rat. That includes Monsanto's 2-year studies on glyphosate that led to its regulatory approval, and many other studies by industry and independent scientists on pesticides and chemicals. Hiltzik's logic means we have to ban all the pesticides and chemicals that were approved on the basis of long-term studies on the SD rat – including glyphosate.
Overall, Hiltzik calls Seralini's study “weapons-grade junk science.” Unfortunately, launching such a superficial and misleading polemic that so plays into one side of an election issue can only be described as weapons-grade junk journalism. And from a Pulitzer prize winner that is unforgivable.
Weapons-grade junk science [campaign email]
Subject: Weapons-grade junk science
Date: Saturday, October 13, 2012, 2:11 PM
Tomorrow, the Los Angeles Times will print an article revealing what we already know – junk science is being used to promote Prop 37. No doubt, the anti-science crusaders promoting the proposition will attack the article in every way they can, so we must act. Now.
It says, “Manifestly shoddy research is being used to promote Proposition 37, the ballot measure mandating the labeling of genetically modified food.” As a respected voice in the fight to protect scientific integrity and California families, you can speak out to why this article is so important for understanding Prop 37. We need you to comment on the article, share it on Facebook and Twitter, and send it to everyone you know.
With only 23 days until Election Day, there isn't a minute to waste. Stand up to junk science and stand for California.
Paid for by No on 37: Coalition Against the Deceptive Food Labeling Scheme, sponsored by Farmers, Food Producers, and Grocers. Major funding by Monsanto Company, E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and more than 40 food company members. For a full list of donors visit www.NoProp37.com/donors.