In a topic as politically charged as GMO’s, bad science can make good headlines and it’s crucial to check out the science before taking it at face value. Recently, two pieces of research add to that controversy.
Both of them reported potential dangers of GMO’s, but were they really just about biotechnology?
The first paper came out on 19th September, and it’s entitled “Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize”. Its main author is the French researcher Gilles-Eric Séralini of the University of Caen.
After a two year experiment on rats fed GM maize, he claimed that this kind of food would increase the occurrence of cancer.
As the paper’s abstract says:
“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 [parts per billion] in water), were studied 2 years in rats. In females, all treated groups died 2–3 times more than controls, and more rapidly.”
The study was strongly criticised in the scientific world. For instance, in a 4th October press release, the European Food Safety Authority concluded that:
“[…] a recent paper raising concerns about the potential toxicity of genetically modified (GM) maize NK603 and of a herbicide containing glyphosate is of insufficient scientific quality to be considered as valid for risk assessment”.
Some commentators, such as Forbes contributor Tim Worstall, argued that the paper was more politics than science, as the research was scientifically inaccurate. However, even if considered poor by scientists, it made a number of headlines, especially in newspapers with an anti-GM stance, as bad news is always attractive for the media.
The second paper was published on 28th September on the peer-reviewed Environmental Sciences Europe. The author is Chuck Benbrook, research professor at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. He supports the idea that genetically engineered crops would increase pesticides usage instead of reducing it, as was previously thought. In the ongoing political battle about possible risks for environment and biodiversity, one of the strongest arguments in favour of the herbicide-resistant corn is its potential to reduce chemicals usage, preserving both local ecosystems and farmers health. The relevance of this paper lies in the contradiction of this common assumption about GMO’s. [Good]
As the abstract concludes:
“Herbicide-resistant crop technology has led to a 239 million kilogrammes (527 million pounds) increase in herbicide use in the United States between 1996 and 2011, while Bt crops have reduced insecticide applications by 56 million kilogrammes (123 million pounds). Overall, pesticide use increased by an estimated 183 million kilogrammes (404 million pounds), or about 7%”.
However, Benbrook’s study has been criticized for misuse of data, as he uses forecasting and interpolation inaccurately, according to some analysts. Further, it is worth noting that Dr Benbrook is Chief Science Consultant for the Organic Center, which could mean that he has a conflict of interest.
GMO’s are certainly a fashionable topic for newspapers, but as the two cases above demonstrates it is liable to ideology, bias and economic interests. Thus, it is important to understand how science is not only lab coats and why each scientific breaking news should be approached with a healthy scepticism.