Don’t believe everything you read

Claire Robinson and Jonathan Latham at Earth Open Source (EOS) advise us to beware of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI). Each of those organisations is proudly not for profit.

According to Drs Robinson and Latham, ‘The life science industry… has increasingly moved to influence and control science publishing.’ They’re not impressed by the appointment of Richard E. Goodman as Associate Editor for Biotechnology at the peer-reviewed journal Food and Chemical Toxicology (FCT).

Prof Goodman is an expert on food safety at the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program, University of Nebraska. He used to work for the biotech giant Monsanto. So does his role at FCT involve a conflict of interest?

Perhaps it does. According to Drs Robinson and Latham, ‘Goodman has an active and ongoing involvement with… ILSI [which] is funded by the multinational GM and agrochemical companies, including Monsanto. It develops industry-friendly risk assessment methods for GM foods and chemical food contaminants and inserts them into government regulations.’ GM crops are genetically modified crops, also called genetically engineered (GE) crops.

Drs Robinson and Latham also write about a controversial paper published in FCT. It’s one of the most famous, or infamous, pieces of research about GM crops. Here it is. In that paper, Gilles-Eric Séralini claimed to show evidence of harm from a herbicide-resistant GM maize (corn, Zea mays) called NK603 fed to laboratory rats (Rattus norvegicus). [Edit: I’m unsure whether the maize was NK603 or a cross between that and another GM maize called MON863.]

When I’ve mentioned the Séralini paper, I’ve called it ‘discredited’. But after reading the article by Drs Robinson and Latham I’m no longer sure. You can follow my tag ‘Séralini_Gilles-Eric’ for more about this controversy.

I’m an academic, trained to trust the peer review system. Here’s a summary of how science works, from my fellow blogger manuelinor at Ecology is Not a Dirty Word. That’s how science works. When it works. But I’ve seen the peer reviews system fail to spot good science, and fail to reject bad science. On the topics of biotechnology, this is a minefield.

Don’t believe everything you read in blogs like mine. Don’t believe everything you read on websites like the not-for-profits I’ve linked to here. As I say to students, ‘Keep your critical mind switched on.’ Scientists absolutely don’t deal in absolutes.


About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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15 Responses to Don’t believe everything you read

  1. pcawdron says:

    Minefield is absolutely right… conceptually, GMO is an extension of what we’ve been doing for thousands of years anyway, modifying genes to suit our purposes, only in the past this has been done indirectly through selection. When it comes to GMO, we can be much more specific in targeting certain genes to elicit a specific response, so we’re replacing a brute-force, trial-and-error approach with a precision approach. It’s good science.

    Where it turns into a minefield is when corporate interests look to control/monopolize good science for profit, as that leads to decisions being governed by short-term financial gain, and in some cases long-term positioning/monopolization. The reality is, concepts like GMO should be managed as being of global public interest, not corporate interest or even national interest.

    For the first time in our history, we’ve become aware of our impact on the planet. There’s no doubt humanity is an invasive species that has had a radical/disruptive impact on local ecologies. Finally, in the past fifty years, we’ve come to realize that and have started taking steps toward change. GMO is one more product-in-the-mix, one more element that needs to be managed responsibly. At the very least, there should be national, government oversight, but as corporations span borders and their impact is global, even this is not enough. Could the UN help?

    Ah… what a minefield. In the right context, GMO is a brilliant scientific development that holds the potential to revolutionize agriculture for good. In the wrong hands, it could very well be an abuse that is detrimental to both humanity and the environment. I’m not one for big government, but this is a case where good governance is needed.

    Thank you for such a thought-provoking series of posts on this subject.

    • argylesock says:

      You’re welcome! And thank you for being thoughtful back at me. In recent days and weeks, I’ve started to imagine how ‘GM control’ could perhaps be invented. Analogous to gun control. This blog isn’t meant to be a political one but on topics of biotech, things can get political.

      • pcawdron says:

        Like you, I don’t like politics mixing with science, as agendas and egos tend to have more sway than the common good, but this is one area that really does need some oversight beyond trusting corporate self-regulation. Without being alarmist, we shouldn’t wait until the GMO equivalent of Bhopal. If you’ll forgive a cultural movie reference, “with great power comes great responsibility” 🙂

        • argylesock says:

          Yes. For some forgotten reason I unfollowed your blog a while ago but I’ve now refollowed. I’ve also started following Mark Lynas after you brought him back into my mind. Don’t yet know what he’s saying these days.

          • pcawdron says:

            I don’t post that often these days… too busy writing novels, which is a good excuse 🙂

          • pcawdron says:

            As an agricultural scientist, what are your thoughts on Golden Rice?


            I’d love to read a blog article by you on this topic, as I only see it from a distance. I agree with the comments, “No group, regardless of its intentions, has the right to condemn a technology without evidence. It is an unconscionable criminal act to destroy a field trial conducted in accordance to international safety norms.” Science should not be held hostage to thuggery, and the stakes in this case are counted in terms of millions of lives.

            • argylesock says:

              I’ve written about this topic a few times under my ‘Golden Rice’ tag. On the topic of GM, even scientific evidence and international safety norms can be undermined by vested interests. And when children’s health is involved, things can get really emotive.

              Debates about GM have become far too polarised. I’ve seen biotech companies accused of spying, activists accused of thuggery. I keep an open mind. Often on GM, I’m outside my comfort zone. But I think it was Einstein who said that the most exciting word a scientist can say isn’t ‘Eureka’ but ‘Hmm…’

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  4. manuelinor says:

    I love your last paragraph!

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  7. Pingback: Séralini’s rat-feeding trial (part 5) | Science on the Land

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