GM Maize, Rats and the lil Paper that Thought it Could

I’ve been following the whole GM and rat tumour rumble with great interest. It’s a shame that most of the discussions are within science literature not easily obtained by the general public, a fact which, in itself, opens up doors of concern to be discussed below.

Many alarms bells seem to have been triggered within the relevant scientific community in relation to the study, Séralini et al. (2012).[1] The first of which centred around the unusual process the authors of this paper undertook in going public. Rather than discussing the limitations of the study itself in a reasoned and reflective manner, the approach encouraged wild gossip; through the creation of an embargo to avoid critical evaluation of the study by unrelated researchers within the initial media reports… oh, and it also coincided with the upcoming release of a book and movie on the study.[2]

It sounds more sensational than good science, don’t you think?

It is made even more delicious by the book and movie covers of Tous Cobayes; the former, an apple cut open, revealing a portion of a human skull and the latter, a mother and child walking towards a power-station along a dirt road within a vast monoculture (not forgetting the human skull – this time replacing the “o” in Cobayes – which is also chewing on a grain straw).[3]

Far from objective, the meaning is clear; from this one study, we’re all guinea pigs, with deadly consequences.

Before I go any further, I should clarify my standing on GM food. Like any chemical compounds to be exposed to our species, I believe they should be studied through critical clinical trialling. If it passes, all good. We have been in the business of genetic modification long before we knew what it was. I object entirely to genetic ownership and imposed sterility however. I just look at the tobacco and fossil fuel industries to mount my case of concern regarding profitable environmental ownership which compromises human flourishing.

That said, the backlash to Séralini et al. (2012) has continued, suggesting in itself why the embargo imposed on journalists was fundamental; the conclusions were not as strong as the researchers have allowed to permeate pop-media.

First of all, it was a two year study using a breed of rats, Sprague-Dawley rats, that “are prone to developing spontaneous tumours” and Harlan Laboratories (who supplied the rats) “show that only one-third of males, and less than one-half of females, live to 104 weeks.”[4]

You heard right; a two year study with a breed of rats known to be highly susceptible to tumour development and are more likely than not to be dead within two years was undertaken to demonstrate high tumour development… hmmm.

“But the study was comparing two groups of the same rat breed (ie. control vs. exposure to GM maize) – surely this would counter such criticism?”

Fair point… Alas, Séralini et al. (2012) only used ten males and ten females for each treatment group.[4] With a breed of rat known to spontaneously produce tumours and is more likely than not to be dead within your research period, comparing treatment size of a mere ten rats is likely to be compounded by statistical errors!

“[The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] recommends at least 20 rats of each sex per group for chemical-toxicity studies, and at least 50 for carcinogenicity studies.”[4] Talk about a lightweight study!

If critical review was allowed with the media release of the study, it’s obvious that the study would have had far less impact and the accompanying book and movie, perhaps a waste of effort.

Here is where the real concern comes to play; the media has probably done its damage.

If we need evidence to suggest this, all we need to do is look at the thoroughly discredited Wakefield et al. (1988) study which suggested a link between autism and the MMR vaccine.[5] Even though the study has been retracted and is considered and “elaborate fraud”, the damage has been done with anti-vaccination groups committed to the “Truth” of a causal relationship between vaccination and autism, which remains unshakable regardless how strong the contrary evidence is.[5][6][7]

While Séralini et al. (2012) does not necessarily represent dishonestly as Wakefield et al. (1988) does, the conclusions of the paper are clearer weaker than have been trumpeted.

The resolve that all GM is bad is probably solidified even further from this study, regardless of its shortcomings and all the other contrary evidence. My only suggest is; link back here or follow up the links I’ve referenced to below. Hammer the point and don’t give credence to individuals whom bombastically pronounce Séralini et al. (2012) to be ‘the final nail in the GM coffin’. Do this because the argument is not a balanced by weighty evidence that deserves equal credibility. It is one lightweight study that stands today on its lonesome, alongside a rush to hush criticism and to advertise a book and movie.


[1] Séralini et al. (2012) Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize. Food and Chemical Toxicology. 50.11 Link
[2] Nature Editorial (25th Sept 2012) Poison postures. Link
[3] see Google Images search of “tous cobayes”
[4] Butler (2012) Hyped GM maize study faces growing scrutiny. Nature. Link
[5] Wakefield et al. (1988) Lleal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet 351 (9103) Link
[6] CNN Medical journal: Study linking autism, vaccines is ‘elaborate fraud’. Link
[7] Moth:  Anti-Vaccination vs. AGW denial. Link

3 responses to “GM Maize, Rats and the lil Paper that Thought it Could

  1. Thank you for giving us this critical review. I was going to write one, but you’ve already done it. I’ll go now and post a link to this on my own blog.

  2. Pingback: GM crops | Science on the Land

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