Elsevier Journal Retracts Bogus Study on GMOs to the Benefit of Humanity

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.

The journal’s statement:

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.)

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About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

11 responses to “Elsevier Journal Retracts Bogus Study on GMOs to the Benefit of Humanity”

  1. Art Damage says :

    Will you at least bother to hear the other side out or is your head irretrievably in the sand?… http://www.boilingfrogspost.com/2013/12/03/the-eyeopener-report-genetic-fallacy-how-monsanto-silences-scientific-dissent/

  2. Art Damage says :

    Here’s more on Goodman… http://www.independentsciencenews.org/science-media/the-goodman-affair-monsanto-targets-the-heart-of-science/

    So long as people like Goodman are put into the position of “gate-keeper” for scientific findings that their associated industries have a vested interest in suppressing, the general public should have absolutely no confidence in their sincerity or validity. Those who refuse to address these concerns can either be dismissed as intellectually dishonest or, at best, as willfully ignorant.

  3. Art Damage says :

    Why the retraction should be retracted… http://www.gmwatch.org/index.php/news/archive/2013/15184-journal-retraction-of-seralini-study-is-illicit-unscientific-and-unethical

    “GMWatch believes FCT’s retraction of Prof Séralini’s paper to be illicit, unscientific, and unethical. It violates the guidelines for retractions in scientific publishing set out by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), of which FCT is a member.

    COPE guidelines state that the only grounds for a journal to retract a paper are:

    – Clear evidence that the findings are unreliable due to misconduct (eg data fabrication) or honest error
    – Plagiarism or redundant publication
    – Unethical research.

    Prof Séralini’s paper does not meet any of these criteria and Hayes admits as much. In his letter informing Prof Séralini of his decision, Hayes concedes that an examination of Prof Séralini’s raw data showed “no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of the data” and nothing “incorrect” about the data….”

  4. Pete Larson says :

    I’m going to buy stock in Monsanto today just to annoy you.

  5. Pete Larson says :

    It might be a reasonable investment. Looks like they had a crazy run up to the crash, but have had steady gains since then. I will have to consider it.


  6. Art Damage says :

    That makes you intellectually dishonest.

  7. Pete Larson says :

    Please explain how buying stock in Monsanto makes me “intellectually dishonest.”

  8. Art Damage says :

    If you’re invested, then you can no longer claim to be unbiased on the subject -and frankly, given your dismissiveness of the critics, I’ve never believed you were really unbiased.

  9. Art Damage says :

    I think however that your objections are more to the rhetorical style than the substance of the arguments… And indeed the arguments are often overly hyperbolic. I’ll give you that.

  10. Pete Larson says :

    First, none of my paid work has anything to do with agriculture. In general (thought not always), the topics on my blog have little to do with my professional work,

    Second, if I were to propose any research which concerned matters of commercial ag products, I would merely have to state my relevant investments (and those of my spouse) as a potential conflict of interest (COI) to my funders and to my sponsoring institution. Depending on the particular angle of the research topic and the nature of the funders and the sponsoring institution, it might be rejected of I might have to bow out of the project. Journals also require that one list potential COIs. Publication is at the discretion of the journal and it is possible that the reviewers might view the COI as so great that the paper should be rejected.

    Though I do not own stock in Monsanto (or any other ag company, though they might be part of an index fund), mere stock ownership would not discount me from writing about these topics impartially. A determination of whether I could be impartial would be made, again, by my funders and my sponsoring institution. I myself might even back out of a project voluntarily if I sensed a potential conflict.

    I am positive that there are pharma stocks in my stock package, but this doesn’t stop me from doing work on public health. There’s a huge difference between owning a 25% stake in Novartis (a Swiss pharma company which makes anti-malarial drugs), and have .01% of an index fund be occupied by Novartis stocks.

    An aside on my motivations for writing these pieces, OF COURSE I’m biased. I don’t claim not to be. I take very seriously issues of the misuse of science for political gain. I could just as easily write about climate denial, vaccines or any number of other hot button topics.

  11. Ben Brucato says :


    I know that your primary motivation in your position is to ensure that those who are most in need become more capable of fulfilling necessity as a prerequisite for any kind of life, much less one that is desirable. As such, I think some response is in order.

    As an academic researcher, surely you must recognize that your call for more of a certain kind of research in order to provide a specific kind of knowledge, to which you assign a privileged position in the establishment of certainty, is grounded more in your own social position and ideology than anything else. There are many pathways in the production of knowledge, and many of those are guarded by powerful gatekeepers. Those who are pursuing the production of scientific knowledge that would likely fulfill the methodological and other intellectual (and no less cultural) demands of yours have purchased their way through these gateways through the use of their existing economic and status positions — these are the firms and scientists with a filial relationship to the big agricultural industries. All science is biased, and currently the science being done in this area is being done primarily by those with interests rather different from ours.

    It’s not uncommon for precaution to be confused with paranoia. It’s also not uncommon for paranoia to be established when precaution is routinely met with reliable and powerful barriers erected and defended by the powerful. Given the political economic context of this situation your branding of this as paranoia — one that is clearly intended to inspire condemnation of it as such while you use it as a slur — is perhaps unfair.

    My concerns with GMOs is rather different. We should use the precautionary principle in absence of evidence to provide sufficient certainty of low likelihood and low stakes risks of genetically engineered crops to human and environmental health. Therefore, we should work to roll back current use, remediate croplands and adjacent areas, and stall the further diffusion and integration of this technology. But, regardless of the certainty of high likelihood, high stakes risk to human health and environmental harm, genetically engineered crops are an authoritarian technology. Wide diffusion and deep integration of this technology for the purposes of the fulfillment of necessity is certain to produce authoritarian relations around it. So, it’s not fully necessary to aggressively pursue the establishment of certainty of health and environmental risks, because the technology is already known to certainly present unacceptable risk to the structure of communities that we should demand and defend.


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