In the debate over whether genetically modified organisms should be allowed in the food supply or labeled when they’re used, a central question is whether GMOs are any more dangerous to people eating them than other foods. This is far from the only concern raised by GMOs—that list includes things like the dangers of pervasive monoculture over diversity, intellectual property issues about crop ownership, the loss of traditional food sources, and the unintentional spread of modified organisms—but it’s a big one, and a major lever of consumer engagement.
In this debate, a significant piece of evidence frequently cited by the anti-GMO camp was a 2012 study by Seralini et al. that rats fed Roundup-ready corn were more likely to develop cancers (Roundup-ready corn is sold by Monsanto and is resistant to its popular herbicide Roundup). I say was because the journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology, has just retracted the paper. The paper was hugely controversial—which certainly isn’t justification for retraction—but that controversy prompted the editors to take a closer look at the raw data, after which they concluded that the number of rats studied was too low to justify the paper’s conclusions.
This episode unfortunately illustrates, among other things, the problems with intense media attention to early scientific reports, and with research-as-weapon rather than research-as-information. Part of the hubbub came from the draconian embargo imposed on journalists before the article was published: because journalists weren’t permitted to seek any independent evaluation before publication of the article, many media reports ran enthusiastic coverage of the article before the scientific community started pointing out the many flaws in the research. The eventual feedback from the scientific community—part two of peer review, when publications are criticized in the literature and addressed by letters and other publications—was certainly powerful, and led to the retraction. But that doesn’t change the fact of its initial publication, and I’d bet quite a bit that the article will be cited for years to come as evidence that there’s not scientific consensus on this issue. In fact, in a depressingly unsurprising development, Seralini is threatening to sue the journal over the retraction.
(For more on GMOs on Bill of Health, Kuei-Jung Ni just posted about the failure of the GMO-labeling initiative in Washington state, Glenn Cohen has written on the frankenburger, and I’ve written briefly about GMO crops spreading and intellectual property issues with GMO seeds.)