How to Manipulate Science Reporting
October 11, 2012 9:57 AM   Subscribe

Back in September a group of French Biologists published a "ground breaking" study on the impacts of GMO Corn. funded by CRIIGEN.

The study was released around the time the main author, Gilles Eric Seralini had an anti-GMO book being released.

Earlier this week Nature published a short summary of the design flaws in the experiment, many of which have been responded to by the original experimenters.

But what makes this most interesting is this discussion on a Discover Magazine blog post of how the original news was released to the media in such a way that it guaranteed the sort of coverage CRIIGEN was looking for.

Amongst the terms of the press embargo that allowed reporters access to the survey 24 hours before it was made public. was a multi-million Euro fine linked to a confidentiality agreement.
posted by JPD (57 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm on the side of the scientists here. Way to play hardball, les boys!
posted by No Robots at 10:11 AM on October 11, 2012


I'm on the side of the scientists here.

Which ones?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:13 AM on October 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


If there are any health dangers from any of the genetic modifications currently in corn approved for human consumption this study has not found them. Furthermore there really arn't any health risks that are either theoretically conceivable or have been found in the last few decades of enthusiastically funded research.

This work represents either a fundamental misunderstanding of how mouse models work, how statistics work, how to use standard mathematical models, and how to responsibly interact with the media or a craven cash grab by deuchebags who don't care about the damage their dishonesty does. I have my suspicions about which.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:13 AM on October 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm on the side of the scientists here.
Which ones?

The ones that agree with me, the others are obviously corrupt.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 10:15 AM on October 11, 2012 [10 favorites]


The ones that imposed the embargo on pre-release publication.
posted by No Robots at 10:17 AM on October 11, 2012


If Monsanto and gang can afford to fund studies that support their products, it's only fair that their opponents do likewise. Give me the best science money can buy, I say!
posted by Behemoth at 10:18 AM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty ignorant about all of this (as really are most consumers, even those who like to think of themselves as informed). That said, it seems to me that all the talk about whether or not GMO corn/soy/etc causes horrible disease is kind of a distraction from more pernicious things like seed patents and monoculture ecosystems.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:18 AM on October 11, 2012 [16 favorites]


(And speak of the devil, there is a new post about seed patents on the frontpage now.)
posted by Burhanistan at 10:20 AM on October 11, 2012


The New Scientist has a great roundup on the various systemic problems with this 'study'
Are the findings reliable?
There is little to suggest they are. Tom Sanders, head of nutritional research at King's College London, says that the strain of rat the French team used gets breast tumours easily, especially when given unlimited food, or maize contaminated by a common fungus that causes hormone imbalance, or just allowed to age. There were no data on food intake or tests for fungus in the maize, so we don't know whether this was a factor.

But didn't the treated rats get sicker than the untreated rats?
Some did, but that's not the full story. It wasn't that rats fed GM maize or herbicide got tumours, and the control rats did not. Five of the 20 control rats – 25 per cent – got tumours and died, while 60 per cent in "some test groups" that ate GM maize died. Some other test groups, however, were healthier than the controls. Toxicologists do a standard mathematical test, called the standard deviation, on such data to see whether the difference is what you might expect from random variation, or can be considered significant. The French team did not present these tests in their paper. They used a complicated and unconventional analysis that Sanders calls "a statistical fishing trip". Anthony Trewavas of the University of Edinburgh, UK, adds that in any case, there should be at least as many controls as test rats – there were only 20 of the former and 80 of the latter – to show how variably tumours appear. Without those additional controls, "these results are of no value", he says.

Aside from the statistics, are there any other problems?
Yes. Tests like this have been done before, more rigorously, and found no effect of GM food on health. The French team claims to be the first to test for the animal's whole lifespan. But "most toxicology studies are terminated at normal lifespan – 2 years", as this one was, says Sanders. "Immortality is not an alternative." And those tests did not find this effect. Furthermore, the team claims to see the same toxic effects both with actual Roundup, and with the GM maize – whether or not the maize contained any actual herbicide. It is hard to imagine any way in which a herbicide could have identical toxic effects to a gene tweak that gives the maize a gene for an enzyme that actually destroys the herbicide.

Does seeming unlikely mean that this is an invalid result?
Not necessarily. But even more damning from a pharmacological perspective, the team found the same effect at all doses of either herbicide or GM maize. That's unusual, because nearly all toxic effects worsen as the dose increases – it is considered essential for proving that the agent causes the effect. Even the smallest dose that the team applied resulted in alleged effects on the rats. That is sometimes seen with other toxic agents. The team suggests that the effect kicks in at some very low dose, hits its maximum extent immediately, and stays the same at any higher dose. But it could more simply mean the GM maize and the herbicide had no measured effect, and that is why the dose made no difference. "They show that old rats get tumours and die," says Mark Tester of the University of Adelaide, Australia. "That is all that can be concluded."

Why would scientists do this?
The research group has long been opposed to GM crops. It claimed in 2010 to have found evidence of toxicity in tests by the GM-crops giant Monsanto of its own Roundup-resistant maize. Other toxicologists, however, said the supposedly damning data revealed only insignificant fluctuations in the physiology of normal rats. French blogger Anton Suwalki, who campaigns against pseudoscience, has a long list of complaints about the group, including what he calls "fantasy statistics".

And who funded the work?
The group was funded by the Committee for Research and Independent Information on Genetic Engineering, or CRIIGEN, based in Paris, France. The lead author on today's study, Séralini, is head of its scientific board, and it pledges to "make every effort towards the removal of the status of secrecy prevailing in genetic engineering experiments and concerning genetically modified crops (GMOs), both being likely to have an impact on the environment and/or on health".

Don't they realise that other scientists criticise their methods?
They might. The paper is supposed to have been reviewed by other scientists before it was allowed for publication. But the team refused to allow journalists to show the paper to other scientists before the news reports were due to be published.
No Robots, These guys arn't scientists in any meaningful sense of the word, what they do is theater - performance art at best. They have been performing studies like this that are not designed to answer meaningful questions with appropriate evidence, but instead designed to appear to do so, for a long time now. They are not taken seriously in the scientific community and are funded by a non-profit they built themselves to fleece the scientifically illiterate through their performances and book sales.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:26 AM on October 11, 2012 [24 favorites]


...all the talk about whether or not GMO corn/soy/etc causes horrible disease is kind of a distraction from more pernicious things like seed patents and monoculture ecosystems.

BING! And (over)use of pesticides/herbicides/fertilizers, effects of GMOs on ecology (as, e.g. invasive species), etc, etc.
posted by DU at 10:31 AM on October 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


As an opponent of GM, I am on the side of the French authors of the study. Monsanto-boosters can scream all they want.
posted by No Robots at 10:33 AM on October 11, 2012


Shouldn't you be on the side of scientific truth, regardless of your personal opinions?
posted by notme at 10:42 AM on October 11, 2012 [16 favorites]


The "scientific truth" of whether GMO is harmful by itself is one issue. Whether GMO, when wielded by vast, greedy multinationals is harmful is another issue.
posted by DU at 10:44 AM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


No Robots: "As an opponent of GM, I am on the side of the French authors of the study. Monsanto-boosters can scream all they want."

These are two honest questions, as someone who is anything but a 'Monstanto-booster',

-Have you gotten a chance to look at the study itself or any of the many many criticisms of it yet?

-If you were to find that, regardless of whether or not there are any real health dangers from approved genetic modifications, that these guys designed the study not to find any but to appear to find them - would that change your mind about supporting them?
posted by Blasdelb at 10:44 AM on October 11, 2012


*sticks fingers in ears* lalalalalala...I can't hear you, notme...lalalalalalalala
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:44 AM on October 11, 2012


I don't know about the validity of the study. What I support is the use of an embargo. No one forced the reporters to sign it.
posted by No Robots at 10:46 AM on October 11, 2012


I don't know what to think. Someone make up my mind, I've got things to do today.
posted by TwelveTwo at 10:48 AM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Bad science is bad science. Wishing flaws away because a result agrees with one's own prejudices or worldview is not science, it is faith.
posted by fallingbadgers at 10:48 AM on October 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


What I support is the use of an embargo.

What do you suppose the purpose of the embargo was?
posted by JPD at 10:48 AM on October 11, 2012


The amount of ignorance, propaganda, and general hysteria around GMOs is terrifying to me. The discussion is pure tribalism, and the anti-GMO community I experience weekly functions pretty much like a less hierarchical NRA or GOP by riling up their base with fact-free hysteria and lies to cause people to band together against a common exaggerated or non-existent threat. In California we're voting on Prop. 39 which would require that GMOs have to be labelled, and I think it's a great idea, because it will drive down prices on GMOs even further, and if somebody wants to avoid GMOs, that's just fine by me as long as it doesn't endanger the public. But damn it, if I have to deal with another ignorant fool at the farmer's market who thinks that they're somehow enlightening me with their lies, I may as well seek out some Mormon missionaries on the way to get my kale. At least they're more polite and less pushy.

I don't think that GMOs are a panacea, and I don't trust Monsanto, but I think it's a huge mistake for anyone to poison the discussion by actively being against the truth and being willing to do any rhetorical/PR/psychology trick to advance your cause. "The other side does it" does not justify such actions either. It destroys trust, and I can't be "on the side" of anyone I don't trust; if I reach similar conclusions it will be despite their efforts rather than because of their efforts.

When people abandon all principles in the service of a momentary political goal, any good that might eventually result is an accident, you don't get credit for doing good if you were unnecessarily bad in the process.
posted by Llama-Lime at 10:53 AM on October 11, 2012 [21 favorites]


Apparently, the embargo was designed to force reporters to publish the study as news without comments from opposing authorities. That's politics. Sorry your white-gloved sciency hands got a little mud-spattered.
posted by No Robots at 10:53 AM on October 11, 2012


They aren't opposing authorities. They are people capable of examining the study. Basically its the equivalent of telling a lie to someone incapable of figuring out it is a lie.
posted by JPD at 10:57 AM on October 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


These guys arn't scientists in any meaningful sense of the word.

Gilles-Éric Séralini, whose Wiki biography was not the subject of controversy until recently (I know because I read it when the first French reports about this GMO study came out, before English translations were available, feel free to check its edit history as well), is professor of molecular biology at the Université de Caen and co-director of its Risks pole, which is partnered with the CNRS, France's National Centre for Scientific Research. Since 1998, he's been a scientific expert for the French government, the EU, and also, more recently, for Canada and India.
posted by fraula at 10:57 AM on October 11, 2012


That's nice. When did he give that up in favor of fake science?
posted by darksasami at 11:00 AM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


"The "scientific truth" of whether GMO is harmful by itself is one issue. Whether GMO, when wielded by vast, greedy multinationals is harmful is another issue."

There is conveniently another thread open that addresses precisely this very important question. What we have here is an awfully interesting story of how international journalism is so profoundly broken as to be taken so whole-hartedly by these transparent quacks - giving them exactly the publicity they want to stroke their twisted egos and inflated bank accounts with.

"Apparently, the embargo was designed to force reporters to publish the study as news without comments from opposing authorities. That's politics. Sorry your white-gloved sciency hands got a little mud-spattered."

The only problem with that is that the study was not news any of those reporters, who were unethical enough to take the deal, were in any way qualified to report on without help from people who know what they are talking about. There are vanishingly few journalists with a meaningful science education these days, and if you've got one it shows.

Incidentally those gloves pretty much only come in either blue nitrile or, if your PI is cheap, ivory latex.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:02 AM on October 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


GM is to biology what nuclear power is to physics: a chance for science fanboys to get their tech on, and to hell with everything else. It's got billions of dollars behind it, too. Opponents have to play a little close to the edge.
posted by No Robots at 11:06 AM on October 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Apparently, the embargo was designed to force reporters to publish the study as news without comments from opposing authorities. That's politics. Sorry your white-gloved sciency hands got a little mud-spattered.
Usually, this isn't politics, it's just the the terrible way that the media covers science. Silly embargoes are how things like that "arsenic-based life form" crap got so much attention from the general public when anybody in the field could have easily said it was crap if they'd had a chance too look at it. But that some people so nakedly see this broken process as a positive thing, or even approve of intentionally misinforming people, that really turns my stomach. When you talk with people in person, almost no one will say that they approve of such tactics, even if their reactions might lead one to think so. I think your comment has actually pushed me into the "no" on the GMO-labelling prop, because I don't know what other non-obvious consequences are hidden in there, and it's really scaring me.
posted by Llama-Lime at 11:13 AM on October 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


What we have here is an awfully interesting story of how international journalism is so profoundly broken as to be taken so whole-hartedly by these transparent quacks

I don't think it's quite so one-sided as that. Journalists know that sensational/controversial stories sell their product and their employers are more interested in making money than educating the public. I must agree that journalism is broken -- not because journalists are gullible or ignorant of science but because they are as cynically manipulative as their industry and government sources. Or just lazy. (Not all, of course)
posted by binturong at 11:28 AM on October 11, 2012


A rough translation of the Le Monde article. My glosses are in italics, Le Monde's are in [square brackets]:
Breast tumors in the females, liver and kidney trouble in the males, quality of life reduced in both sexes... The study conducted by biologist Gilles-Eric Séralini (University of Caen), to be published in the next edition of Food and Chemical Toxicology has attracted a lot of attention. This is the first (study) to suggest deleterious effects in rats caused by the consumption of genetically modified corn (maise), termed NK603, sold by Monsanto, both with and without Roundup, the herbicide to which the corn has been made tolerant.

The authors have conducted an ambitious set of experiments. They have tested---for over 200 rats over a period of two years---the effects of feeding three different doses of transgenic corn (11%, 22% and 33%), cultivated both with and without the companion herbicide (Round-up).

Three groups were also tested with phytosanitary feed, which did not contain GM organisms. In total, therefore, there were 9 groups of 20 rats each---3 groups with GMO, 3 groups with GMO and roundup, 3 groups with roundup only---which were compared with one control group, fed with a verity of non-GMO corn, of type similar to the GMO variety, grown without herbicide.

Growing Mortality (that's not a pun in French)
In the collection of treated groups, the greatest significant differences compared to the control group appeared in about one year. In males, congestions and necroses of the liver were 2.5 to 5.5 times more frequent. These last also suffered 1.3 to 2.3 times more kidney problems. Breast tumors were also more frequently observed in all of the treated groups, but not always in a statistically significant manner.

Increased mortality was also found in the collection of treated groups. In the control group, the lifetime of males had an average of 624 days, for females, 701 days. "For the time period following average (control) survival, all deaths were largely considered to be from old age, write the authors. In the periods prior to these average lifetimes, 30% of the males and 20% of the females of the control group spontaneously died, while up to 50% of the males and 70% of the females died [prematurely] in the groups fed with GMO corn".

The authors of this work noted that most of the effects observed were not proportional to the doses of GMO or the herbicide to which the animals were exposed. this absence of proportionality between dose and biological response---a small dose producing stronger effects than higher doses---has been now(?) documented in the cases of substances which perturb the hormonal system.

According to the authors, Round-up can therefore be termed an endocrine disruptor. However, this does not explain the effects observed in animals fed GMO corn only. The authors note that the genetic construction of the GMO involves the modification of an enzyme (called ESPS synthase) involved in the synthesis of aromatic amino acids which offer protection from cancer growth. According to the authors, the fact that these amino acids are reduced could explain the pathologies more frequently observed in the rats exposed to the GMO corn only.

A budget of 3 million euros
The publication of Mr. Seralini will without a doubt reignite the debate between the pro- and anti-GMO groups. This study, published in an important journal will not be published until passing peer-review, the standard of practice for scientific results. Meanwhile, and unusually, Le Monde cannot know (cannot read?) the results of the embargoed study without signing an confidentiality agreement which expires the 19th of September in the afternoon. Le Monde could not therefore seek other scientific opinion on the study of Mr. Seralini. Asking the opinion of other specialists is general practice, doubly so when the study conclusions will have significant public interest.

At present, many scientific studies of the toxicity of a variety of GMOs and species of animals have been conducted, without showing significant biological differences between control animals and those which have been fed the modified vegetables. However, most of these studies, recently collected and reviewed by Chelsea Snell (University of Nottingham, UK), published in the january issue of Food and Chemical Toxicology, were conducted over periods of much less than two years, and with fewer numbers of biological parameters controlled for the test animals. Further, all or almost all were financed or directly conducted by the agrochemical firms themselves.

The work of Mr. Seralini---whose budget exceeded 3 million Euros---was funded, for the most part, by the Foundation of Charles-Léopold Mayer, in association with CERES, the French Ministry of Research and Criigen (the Committee for research and independent information on genetic research), an association which agitates against biotechnology.

This new publication will focus attention of the collective scientific community and agrochemists who will search for possible biases and weaknesses in the experiments. Questioned by Le Monde, Mr. Seralini has provided to the scientific community the bare facts of his experiments---not done by the agrochemists who do similar studies---so that his data can be reanalyzed by those who do not agree with him.
My apologies for the quality of the translation. This was done on the fly.
posted by bonehead at 11:39 AM on October 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


I for one do not understand the hysteria about GMO's. It should be labeled if used in products destined for consumption so that consumers have a choice. I don't see GMO's as being bad for our health as much as bad for the environment. Like the indiscriminate use of antibiotics have created strains of resistant bacteria. Use of GMO's to preserve crops from natural enemies you are just evolving more resistant pests. Nature finds away.
posted by pdxpogo at 11:41 AM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


pdxpogo: "I for one do not understand the hysteria about GMO's. It should be labeled if used in products destined for consumption so that consumers have a choice. I don't see GMO's as being bad for our health as much as bad for the environment. "

The problem is that there's basically no such thing as non-GMO corn. It's not a black-and-white issue by a very long stretch, which makes it very difficult to present a binary "Good/Bad" label to the consumer.

The presence of a GM label basically sends the "Bad" message to the consumer, and I think that you could make a good scientific argument that this is unfair in many cases.
posted by schmod at 12:26 PM on October 11, 2012


It's just bad marketing on the part of the GM producers. They should be able to say "hey, look, our product is really, really safe and effective and _cheaper_ than organic/non-GM food" etc., etc. They aren't attacking their critics properly. That, in itself, makes me wonder just how "safe" GM foods really are. I wonder just how many of the scientists who developed said GM foods actually avoid eating it. Or do they just chow down on anything they make, you know, for science.

I mean, really, it would be great if we could develop a genetically modified grain product that was actually a nontoxic and hypo-allergenic food product that could solve the worlds food problems, grow in almost any environment, replace nutrients in the soil that it consumes while being grown, and tasted like bacon. Instead we have crops that you can spray herbicide on that don't die. Herbicide that, if it isn't cleaned off the crop properly, will make you sick if you eat enough of it. Gee, I wonder why people have a problem with the idea of GM food.

Though, also, this study doesn't prove anything that we already didn't know about this kind of herbicide ingestion. It's a poison. Do you really want to eat poison? I mean, seriously. Maybe the fundamental thing we should be questioning isn't the GM crop, but the whole purpose of said GM crop. It's not better food. It's just more resistant to poisoning. Poisoning that we do to it on purpose to get better crop yields. Not better crops. Crop yields. Sure, that equates to more food availability, but it also equates to more profits. And as we all know, money has a distinctive corrupting power, especially when humans are involved anywhere along the line. So really, anyone who argues against GM foods should run with these facts more than the stupid idea that GM is evil or "frankenfood" (god, I hate when someone tries to use that line). It really isn't the food itself that's going to kill you. It's what they put on the food and what they treat it with because of the genetic modifications you have to worry about. And again, it's poison.

To quote another source, Monsanto itself, they used to claim that Round Up is "safe as table salt". Really? Have they never heard the phrase "burn their lands to ashes and salt the lands so that nothing may grow"? Yeah, that's right, SALT the lands. As in table salt. It has this wonderful effect where it absorbs moisture and bonds to other chemicals in soil that plants kinds of like to try and absorb for nutritional purposes. Salt disrupts that process. Good idea there.

Anyway, that's my random posting on the internet for this week. Tune in next time for Daq's random thoughts on something wrong on the internet.
posted by daq at 12:46 PM on October 11, 2012


More random daq plz.
posted by No Robots at 12:53 PM on October 11, 2012


"Gilles-Éric Séralini, whose Wiki biography was not the subject of controversy until recently (I know because I read it when the first French reports about this GMO study came out, before English translations were available, feel free to check its edit history as well), is professor of molecular biology at the Université de Caen and co-director of its Risks pole, which is partnered with the CNRS, France's National Centre for Scientific Research. Since 1998, he's been a scientific expert for the French government, the EU, and also, more recently, for Canada and India."

My impression has been that a lot of his success was due to the SHOCKINGLY* large gap between the anglophone and francophone scientific literature, where he initially marketed his crazy in English, and now he is politically to big to touch. It is important to keep in mind that, especially in Europe, academic positions generally aren't as big of a signifier of legitimacy as they are a lot more divorced from access to funding than equivalent American ones. CNRS is also just generally set up in such a way as to be able to continue funding folks who piss off their colleagues in a way that the NSF is not, which has its benefits - but this is not one of them. Regardless, this clown can't get funding - the meaningful signifier of legitimacy - from any scientific society or even CNRS anymore.

*Seriously, at least in the biomedical sciences there a fuck ton of duplicated work, entire communities of researchers working on identical problems that barely know each other exist, and amazing work that is just hidden to folks who don't speak French. That my French is just good enough to read papers has been a shockingly important asset in my career.


"I don't think it's quite so one-sided as that. Journalists know that sensational/controversial stories sell their product and their employers are more interested in making money than educating the public. I must agree that journalism is broken -- not because journalists are gullible or ignorant of science but because they are as cynically manipulative as their industry and government sources. Or just lazy. (Not all, of course)"

I don't know, that just sounds more broken to me.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:56 PM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also 200 rats for two years should not cost anything like 3 million euro
posted by Blasdelb at 12:58 PM on October 11, 2012


Just fyi, but salting land only kills most plants temporarily. Round up is designed to do essentially the same thing.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:58 PM on October 11, 2012


I like the idea of being killed temporarily.
posted by binturong at 1:23 PM on October 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Nobody would care about GMO's if they were just better seeds. The point is that they insert all these market forces that (it is increasingly perceived) destabilize economies and societies. Remember, the one iron law of social science is that starving people riot.
posted by effugas at 1:46 PM on October 11, 2012


daq: "It's just bad marketing on the part of the GM producers. They should be able to say "hey, look, our product is really, really safe and effective and _cheaper_ than organic/non-GM food" etc., etc. They aren't attacking their critics properly. That, in itself, makes me wonder just how "safe" GM foods really are. I wonder just how many of the scientists who developed said GM foods actually avoid eating it. Or do they just chow down on anything they make, you know, for science. "

I work with genetically modified organisms, I do not work with genetically modified food organisms, but I and every single one of the plant geneticists and molecular biologists I know who do have no trouble eating the stuff ourselves. Most of the food scientists I know do also shop at their local farmers markets and go full out with CSA boxes, but because of various combinations of liking fresh food that tastes like something and supporting local farmers - not because DNA is scary. Labs generally run on ramen and coffee.

daq: "I mean, really, it would be great if we could develop a genetically modified grain product that was actually a nontoxic and hypo-allergenic food product that could solve the worlds food problems, grow in almost any environment, replace nutrients in the soil that it consumes while being grown, and tasted like bacon."

There is a reason why Profs Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer have their pick of the best food scientists in the world. I think the biggest shame in GMOs is that we are all collectively dumb enough to not fund guys like this in such a way as to effectively nationalize the seed industry and instead leave it up to corporate monsters to dominate. Regardless we could make wheat strains much less toxic for a small minority of people by removing gluten, but that'd make it taste terrible and be less healthy for the rest. The ways in which plants replace nutrients into soil are really complicated and not easily manipulatable, regardless, now that we understand what the needed nutrients are we can just put them there - much easier. The taste of bacon is also actually remarkably complicated.

daq: "Instead we have crops that you can spray herbicide on that don't die. Herbicide that, if it isn't cleaned off the crop properly, will make you sick if you eat enough of it. Gee, I wonder why people have a problem with the idea of GM food."

There is a weird contradiction in this, Roundup-Ready corn is designed to allow farmers to grow corn in high yields in environments where broadleaf weeds would otherwise make that impossible - exactly what you've said you want from GMOs. This allows us as a society to not only prevent wildland from being cultivated to replace land that would otherwise need to be left to fallow, incidentally devastating the farmers who own that land, but the high yields allow us to produce more with less land total.

daq: "Though, also, this study doesn't prove anything that we already didn't know about this kind of herbicide ingestion. It's a poison. Do you really want to eat poison?"

So long as we are actually talking about RoundUp here, that is pretty much totally bullshit - Here is the safety information for it (PDF). Good herbicides are poisons of problem plants while safe for both the crop plant and us in the concentrations used, in the same way that a good antibiotic is a poison of bacteria while being safe for us in the concentrations used. Roundup, or Glyphosphate, is pretty much an ideal herbicide, it works by inhibiting an enzyme involved in the synthesis of aromatic amino acids (tyrosine, tryptophan and phenylalanine) that is only found in some plants and certainly not us. Only extraordinarily tiny amounts are needed, which means the very low toxicity means even less while it also breaks down so rapidly in soil, and even more rapidly in water, that it couldn't conceivably cause meaningful environmental damage. Even the Europeans can't find an excuse to ban it, despite the economic and political pressure they regularly bow to.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:59 PM on October 11, 2012 [10 favorites]


"...all the talk about whether or not GMO corn/soy/etc causes horrible disease is kind of a distraction from more pernicious things like seed patents and monoculture ecosystems."

... or, perhaps, a distraction from whether processed carb / carb heavy diets in general are bad for you, regardless of whether they are GMO or not.

even more damning from a pharmacological perspective, the team found the same effect at all doses of either herbicide or GM maize.

Basically, they're saying that mice are prone to cancers if they are eating x calories of modern corn varieties, whether they're GM or not.

Really, it's a bit like quibbling over which hooker is most likely to give you AIDS.
posted by markkraft at 2:52 PM on October 11, 2012


No Robots: "GM is to biology what nuclear power is to physics:"

and global warming is to climate science, and vaccines are to immunology, and evolution is to biology, and cigarette fears were to medicine. The commercial manufacturing of doubt is amazingly fact resistant.

No Robots: "a chance for science fanboys to get their tech on, and to hell with everything else. It's got billions of dollars behind it, too. Opponents have to play a little close to the edge.

You know this is exactly what I've heard from my various conservative and woo-tastic facebook friends, they wonder why I rarely take them at their word on things they're passionate about.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:55 PM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Basically, they're saying that mice are prone to cancers if they are eating x calories of modern corn varieties, whether they're GM or not.

Really, it's a bit like quibbling over which hooker is most likely to give you AIDS.


That's a pretty weird argument since mice are seed eaters, and to be able to reach that conclusion you'd have to feed a group teosinte or something and the other corn and then see a statistically meaningful relationship between corn a cancer. The mice themselves are already genetically predisposed towards cancer/tumours.
posted by JPD at 3:06 PM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


What is most wrong with this study is the control, I suspect.

What is the control for lab mice? Processed, fortified food pellets, primarily made of corn -- as opposed to raw, unprocessed seeds, nuts, seeds, insects, and roots. (i.e. The natural diet for mice.)

Of course, fortified foods don't necessarily provide the same nutrition that you would get if you ate the nutrients from natural sources. They absolutely don't provide the micronutrients and all the same natural compounds you would expect in a real mouse diet.
posted by markkraft at 3:10 PM on October 11, 2012


On factory planet, genetics modifies you.
posted by No Robots at 3:25 PM on October 11, 2012


"That's a pretty weird argument since mice are seed eaters, and to be able to reach that conclusion you'd have to feed a group teosinte or something and the other corn and then see a statistically meaningful relationship between corn a cancer."

Exactly... assuming that the mice ate teosinte at all, since it wasn't necessarily native to most.

That said, there are obvious big differences between modern corn and teosinte. Natural fiber is greatly reduced, percentage of natural oils, likewise... while starch is significantly higher.

They don't taste alike, for one... which is a big tip-off that modern corn is loaded with all sorts of things that aren't good for us. ;-)
posted by markkraft at 3:30 PM on October 11, 2012


No - you miss my point - there is no information in the tumor rate for the mice with respect to their diet. You just can't assert it is because they were fed a diet of corn.
posted by JPD at 4:35 PM on October 11, 2012


All of these issues should have come up during the review process. So either the referees screwed up (which happens routinely), or the they didn't see these problems as significant enough to prevent publication.

Back in September a group of French Biologists published a "ground breaking" study on the impacts of GMO Corn. funded by CRIIGEN.

According to the acknowledgements in the paper itself funding comes from "the Association CERES, the Foundation “Charles Leopold Mayer pour le Progrès de l’Homme”, the French Ministry of Research, and CRIIGEN". Is there a particular reason that you left those organisations out of the post?
posted by euphorb at 5:39 PM on October 11, 2012


Is there a particular reason that you left those organisations out of the post?

Absolutely not.
posted by JPD at 6:08 PM on October 11, 2012


...nine groups of 20 rats, three groups per set.

Is this a statistically meaningful sample?

I'm having a little trouble parsing the statistical issues here.

Can this be done again to see if they all graph out the same way? I think it would be useful for the scientists who favor each side of this to do the tests and then overlay their data. Each camp can be as free with its lab practices as they see fit.

Maybe that would cut down on the neener factor.

(I'm speaking as a non-scientist, with only common sense and average reasoning skills as a guide.)
posted by mule98J at 10:03 PM on October 11, 2012


"Can this be done again to see if they all graph out the same way? I think it would be useful for the scientists who favor each side of this to do the tests and then overlay their data. Each camp can be as free with its lab practices as they see fit."

This is an excellent question.

You are right that the sample size is pathetically small, one would expect almost an order of magnitude more and in different proportions for a paper making claims like this, but even if an appropriate number of mice were used I suspect that the test would still find a significant increase in cancer rates because the test was rigged. They also used wildly inappropriate mouse strains, control diets, lifespans and measures of cancer designed to create the result they wanted from the particular biology of the mouse strain, malnutrition, natural death, normal cancer. All things that are well understood. If someone were to feed a more appropriate strain either GMO or non-GMO #2 corn, study them for their natural lifespan, and use appropriate tests for cancer then it would actually be pretty absurd to expect anything. RoundUp is toxicologically one of the better studied compounds out there and is emphatically non-carcinogenic. Similarly the RoundUp-ready strain of corn used was created by taking genes from broad leaf weeds around the Monsanto plant that makes RoundUp that had gained resistance and putting them into the corn. These genes are also really well studied, arn't expressed in the cob, and their gene products are broken down into amino acids pretty instantaneously in mammalian guts. There really isn't a conceivable way the non-GMO corn would outperform the GMO corn. In fairness, even in a better strain of mouse, there would be fantastically high rates of cancer and low general health in both the control and experimental group, because they'd be eating #2 corn. It'd be like feeding them raw potato, #2 corn was not bred for direct consumption but instead for industrial purposes.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:26 AM on October 12, 2012


"That's a pretty weird argument since mice are seed eaters, and to be able to reach that conclusion you'd have to feed a group teosinte or something and the other corn and then see a statistically meaningful relationship between corn a cancer. The mice themselves are already genetically predisposed towards cancer/tumours."

If you are going to call the difference between teosinte and corn genetic modification, I hate to shock you, but you're vanishingly unlikely to have ever eaten an unmodified thing in your life.

"No - you miss my point - there is no information in the tumor rate for the mice with respect to their diet. You just can't assert it is because they were fed a diet of corn."

Excuse me, what?
posted by Blasdelb at 1:14 AM on October 12, 2012


which is a big tip-off that modern corn is loaded with all sorts of things that aren't good for us

Is there any sort of science to back this up? Fish and tomatoes don't taste alike, but that's not a sign of one having toxins in it.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 4:14 AM on October 12, 2012


Excuse me, what?

I think you are misunderstanding me. I'm not asserting anything about the healthfulness of modern corn for mice, I'm simplying saying that you could not conclude from the Seralini GMO studies incidence of cancer in mice, that since the GMO party of the study is flawed the high rates of cancer in the mice are caused by modern corn varieties - not just roundup ready corn.

And yes, the fact that almost everything we eat is hybridized is what I was getting at with the teosinthe joke.
posted by JPD at 6:23 AM on October 12, 2012


#2 corn was not bred for direct consumption but instead for industrial purposes.

You've made excellent points above, but I wouldn't take this line of argument too far. Monsanto NK603 maize was approved for animal and human consumption by the EFSA, meaning that cornmeal could be used for any sort of food, for example. We're not just talking about, say, ethanol or HFCS production, here, but also about direct ingestion by people and animals. The 10% to 30% dosing made sense (perhaps the only thing that did in his experimental design).
posted by bonehead at 7:04 AM on October 12, 2012


Yeah wow, the stats in that article are seriously fishy. Where are the normal tests for survival differences? No Kaplan-Meier, no Cox proportional hazards... The control survival curves aren't even plotted together with the experimental treatments. And that's just from skimming the first few figures.
posted by en forme de poire at 8:50 AM on October 12, 2012


In my view the biggest stats mistake the authors made was completely ignoring the OECD standard for a minimum of 50 animals per group for 2-year/lifetime mutagenic/carcinogenic work (see the Nature summary, for example). That isn't a recommended or optimal number either, just the bare minimum. If they had wanted to test sex-effects, they should have at least doubled that as well: 50+50 male and female.

Numbers alone make this useless. Significance testing can't be done if the sample sizes are too small. I suspect that they weren't done because it would rapidly become clear from the stat test outputs that they had not used enough subjects.
posted by bonehead at 9:00 AM on October 12, 2012


Yeah, when the normal statistical tests are conspicuous in their absence it also suggests to me that they were tried but failed to produce anything significant. It sent up huge red flags as well when they said things like 20% of the treated mice but none of the controls (a group that was incidentally a fraction of the size of the treatment group) got a certain type of tumor (chisq p value = ????).
posted by en forme de poire at 9:14 AM on October 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


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