A scientific study suggesting that genetically modified (GM) food killed rats has been “suppressed” because of a successful lobbying operation by multinational biotech corporations, say environmental campaigners.
The study, carried out by a team of researchers under Professor Gilles-Eric Seralini at the University of Caen in northern France, ran into an immediate barrage of condemnation when it was published. As a result, it has been largely ignored by the media, and is mostly unknown in the UK.
But campaign groups are now seeking to redress that by launching a series of public meetings across the UK starring Professor Seralini. He is a molecular biologist and president of the scientific board of the Committee of Independent Research and Information on Genetic Engineering.
The first event, in what been dubbed “GM Health Risk Week”, is due to take place in Edinburgh University on Monday. Then on Tuesday Seralini is giving a briefing in the Scottish Parliament.
Seralini’s study was published in the peer-reviewed journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology, in September last year. It reported the results of feeding groups of laboratory rats GM maize or its associated herbicide, both made by the US company, Monsanto.
The study concluded that over two years the rats suffered increased rates of organ damage, tumours and premature death. The researchers blamed GM organisms and the herbicide, concluding that both “must be evaluated very carefully by long term studies to measure their potential toxic effects.”
But as soon as it appeared, the study was heavily criticised as “absurd”, “inadequate” and “well below standard”. Quotes from scientists were gathered and distributed by the Science Media Centre in London, which has received funding from GM companies like Monsanto, as well as many other sources.
A campaign was mounted to try and persuade the journal to withdraw the study. This was resisted, however, though it has published a series of criticisms by scientists, as well as detailed responses from Seralini.
The Seralini study “threatened the very basis of the multi-billion dollar GM industry”, according to Claire Robinson, from the environmental group, GM Watch. Media coverage “was stamped out by the pro-GM Science Media Centre,” she claimed.
“Attacks on Seralini's study methodology are especially suspect because he simply replicated Monsanto's own study on the same GM maize but extended it in length. Are we expected to believe that this study design is good enough to prove the safety of this GM maize but not good enough to show hazards?”
Robinson, who runs a website dedicated to defending Seralini’s work, accepted that no study is perfect. “But Seralini’s is the longest and most thorough to date on a GM food and its associated pesticide,” she said. “We ignore its findings at our peril.”
But Julian Little, chair of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council representing Monsanto and other GM companies, described the study as “deeply flawed in many ways”. The accusation that it had been suppressed was “totally crazy”, he told the Sunday Herald.
“It’s a conspiracy theory that doesn’t stack up”, he said. “More than three trillion meals with GM ingredients have been eaten by people around the world without any substantiated health issues. The question of whether GM is safe is a dead duck.”
Mike Small, a founder of the prize-winning Fife Diet promoting local, natural food, argued that patented GM seeds destroyed hundreds of years of common knowledge about growing food, and made it the sole property of a company. “This is completely unacceptable,” he said.
Small attacked the UK government for backing GM, and was concerned that this was putting pressure on Scottish ministers to soften their anti-GM stance. The Food Standards Agency Scotland has advised that Seralini’s data did not support his conclusions.
Nevertheless, the Scottish environment minister, Richard Lochhead, reiterated his fundamental opposition to GM crops. ”To grow GM crops would damage the Scottish brand,” he said. “No GM crops are grown in Scotland and we are committed to ensuring that remains the case.”
At the same time as GM Health Risk Week, a new food agency, Nourish Scotland, is conducting a public inquiry in Edinburgh aimed at delivering a blueprint for feeding Scotland’s five million people sustainably. Its vision does not include GM food.
“If there is a 1 in 1,000 chance that Professor Seralini is on to something, we should be replicating and building on his studies as a matter of urgency – even a small risk of harming the health of billions of people should be explored openly,” said Pete Ritchie, the director of Nourish Scotland.
“If we retain our critical faculties and practise sound science, we can feed Scotland well and sustainably into the future without surrendering our autonomy to global corporations and taking risks with public health and biodiversity.”