It seems that every so often an otherwise reputable journal prints a report or a study that directly counters the scientific consensus, but gee—it just happens to dovetail perfectly with some anti-industry screed one (or more) of the researchers secretly harbors.
Usually, the report contains some kernels of truth, a few nuggets of wisdom and at least a semblance of the scientific method.
However, a new study titled, “Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize” published in the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology, “does not follow universal standards for a scientific experiment,” according to a statement released by the American Society of Animal Science Board of Directors.
That’s putting it mildly.
Here’s what the controversy’s all about, as an excerpt from the actual study graphically depicts:
“The health effects of a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize (from 11% in the diet), cultivated with or without Roundup, and Roundup alone (from 0.1 ppb in water), were studied 2 years in rats,” the authors wrote. “In females, all treated groups died 2 to 3 times more than controls, and more rapidly. This difference was visible in 3 male groups fed GMOs. All results were hormone- and sex-dependent, and the pathological profiles were comparable. Females developed large mammary tumors almost always more often than and before controls, the pituitary was the second most disabled organ; the sex hormonal balance was modified by GMO and Roundup treatments.”
The writing isn’t very elegant, but the conclusions are stark. If this research were credible, all of us who have been consuming genetically engineered corn, soy and other food ingredients for the last decade-plus would be in serious trouble.
Only one problem: The study is bunk.
In this study, the control group of rats was fed non-GM corn and Roundup-free water. Unfortunately, the control group had only 10 rats of each sex. Testing just 20 rats cannot generate statistically significant results.The researchers’ conclusions are thus “based on a poorly designed experiment and unreliable statistics,” according to the ASAS statement.
An expert in animal genomics and biotechnology was even harsher.o
“What’s wrong with this study? I can’t even count the ways,” said Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam, a Cooperative Extension Specialist at the University of California-Davis. “The authors refused to share their data with other scientists, they didn’t perform a statistical analysis of the data and the strain of rats they used is known to spontaneously develop tumors.
“Basically, the paper is garbage.”
Indeed, the researchers used the Sprague-Dawley line that is bred to be highly susceptible to the development of tumors. That particular strain has a more than 80% chance of growing tumors within two years under non-experimental conditions.
“You can’t draw any conclusions from that small of a population,” Van Eenennaam said. “To suggest that the tumors were the result of Roundup, the GMOs or an interaction between the two is ludicrous. It’s Fantasyland stuff. How was this study was even published in the first place?”
The Frankenfoods card
That’s a good question, and one without a good answer. There simply aren’t any data to suggest that the genetic engineering of crops poses any significant threat to human health. Even the staunchest critics of Frankenfoods can only invoke the precautionary principle to support their fevered opposition—that, and vague warnings that “we don’t know about the long-term effects” of consuming genetically engineered foods.
This study won’t add any heft to the activists’ portfolio, that’s for sure.
“I think someone who had taken a basic biology or statistics class could have rejected this paper,” said Dr. Bruce Chassy, Professor Emeritus in Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois.
Chassy noted there have been more than 200 studies comparing GM foodswith non-GM foods in at least 15 animal species, and almost every one shows no difference in animal health. He suggested that the researchers have a political agenda and noted that the primary author of the study is the leader of an anti-GM lobbying group called CRIIGEN (Committee for Research and Independent Information on Genetic Engineering).
If all that isn’t damning enough, Dr. Van Eenennaam raised one final point that identifies perhaps the most egregious departure from scientific protocol.
“What really concerned me were the photos of the rats with abnormally large tumors,” she said. “I realize that they were trying to prove a point, but you don’t make animals suffer to do it. At our lab, once a tumor exceeds 40 millimeters, the animal is sacrificed. We take animal welfare very seriously, and for these researchers to allow the [treated] rats to grow tumors as large as the ones they photographed is absolutely appalling.”
As are their methods, their conclusions and their betrayal of the most critical aspect of scientific inquiry: Its credibility.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.