Last week, Food and Chemical Toxicology, an Elsevier publication, retracted a paper testing the hypothesis that genetically modified corn causes cancerous tumors in rats. The paper was often used by GMO opponents as “proof” that genetically modified crops are detrimental to human health.
Unequivocally, the Editor-in-Chief found no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of the data. However, there is a legitimate cause for concern regarding both the number of animals in each study group and the particular strain selected. The low number of animals had been identified as a cause for concern during the initial review process, but the peer review decision ultimately weighed that the work still had merit despite this limitation. A more in-depth look at the raw data revealed that no definitive conclusions can be reached with this small sample size regarding the role of either NK603 or glyphosate in regards to overall mortality or tumor incidence. Given the known high incidence of tumors in the Sprague-Dawley rat, normal variability cannot be excluded as the cause of the higher mortality and incidence observed in the treated groups.
No doubt, this retraction will do little to calm GM opponents, whose paranoiac vitriol prevents the application of reason to issues of biotechnology development. GM foes recently vandalized an experimental farm in the Philippines, for the crime of growing rice enhanced with beta carotene, a precurser to Vitamin A. “Golden rice” is seen as a possibility to mitigate vitamin A deficiencies in developing countries. GM opponents live in constant fear of capitalism, but failed to note that the trials were being performed in a publicly funded facility.
Just as I have no opinion on any other agricultural product, I have no opinion on GM foods. Given their variety and my lack of expertise on agricultural issues, I will restrain comment on the risks or benefits of GM products compared to other ag technologies. However, I do take issue with using shoddy, misinterpreted and fabricated science to support political claims. The anti-GMO panic, which is based in an age old populist fear of development, will only have the effect of dampening research into new agricultural technologies.
Given increasing constraints on land, water and rapid demand to actually feed people, everything has to be on the table to find new ways of feeding people adequately and efficiently. Anti-GMO alarmists have already successfully strangled the potential for development by knocking out the EU, Japan and Kenya, an important leader for African agriculture. (Read about the Kenya GM ban, and prepare to be perplexed)
It is, of course, ironic that anti-GM folks, who are so intent on using science to support (correct) claims of climate change risks, would so willingly toss it aside for this issue.
That Elsevier has retracted this paper will have little effect. GMO opponents will continue to use it anyway rather than looking harder for more intelligent and constructive ways of supporting their positions (and there are economic arguments to be made).
Do I sound angry?
(Updated 7:20 pm, Dec 9, 2013: I originally wrote that Elsevier had retracted the article. This was incorrect, the journal retracted it. I also changed the text stating that I have no opinion on GMO’s. This is true. Lacking expertise on agricultural matters, I cannot comment on the risks and benefits of GMO’s over other products. I have, however, read extensively on issues of human health and GMO’s. I am at least somewhat qualified to comment on that aspect.)