The Séralini affair: weedkiller and a GM crop

Professor Gilles-Eric Séralini is famous or notorious depending on your point of view. He’s a French scientist researching pesticides and GM (genetically modified, genetically engineered) crops.

For a few months by now, I’ve been gestating a blog post about the controversy called the ‘Séralini affair’. Now I’m glad that I didn’t finish that post because things have changed. A research paper was published in 2012, retracted (withdrawn) in 2013 and republished in 2014. Here it is.

In November 2012 Prof Séralini and his team reported a feeding trial in which rats (Rattus norvegicus) got tumours and high mortality after eating a GM maize (corn, Zea mays) called NK603 from Monsanto and the weedkiller Roundup (glyphosate) which maize NK603 had been engineered to resist. Different groups of rats ate maize NK603 grown with or without Roundup, or Roundup itself.

A year after Food and Chemical Toxicology (FCT) published that paper, the journal retracted it. That was unusual. Academia relies on fellow experts to weed out dodgy research in the peer review system. But this science, after surviving peer review, was retracted.

I’ll show you what remains of the retracted paper, but beware! Scrolling past the first page won’t work and it might freeze your computer. At your own risk, here it is. It’s Séralini , G.-E., E. Claire, et al. (2012). “Long-term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize.” Food and Chemical Toxicity 50: 4221-4231.

Plenty of the Séralini affair does remain available. Here’s how the publishing giant Elsevier, which owns FCT, announced the retraction. FCT’s Editor-in-Chief, Wallace Hayes, had examined Prof Séralini’s raw data. There was ‘no evidence of fraud… However, there is a legitimate cause for concern regarding both the [low] number of animals in each study group and the particular strain… no definitive conclusions can be reached… regarding the role of either NK603 or glyphosate in regards to overall mortality or tumor incidence… [FCT] is committed to getting the peer-review process right… Letters to the Editor, both pro and con, serve as a post-publication peer-review… The retraction is only on the inconclusiveness of this one paper.’

So many people agree about ‘post-publication peer-review’ that five journals offered to republish the retracted paper. Prof Séralini and his team chose an open-access journal, Environmental Sciences Europe, so that everybody can see their science. They gave us this report of the rat-feeding study three days ago.

Continuing with post-publication peer-review, Barbara Casassus at Nature gave us this opinion. ‘Change of journal does not convince critics that rat diseases were caused by genetically modified maize.’

Changing to a different journal won’t convince many people, but the science might convince. Or not. I’ll tell you my opinion when I’ve read the republished paper. Have you read it yet? What do you think?

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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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14 Responses to The Séralini affair: weedkiller and a GM crop

  1. Debra says:

    I love the title Science on the Land for what it is worth. Does a study have to be conclusive to be of value or can it just offer a point to build on? The whole retraction thing just looks like censorship to me but I don’t really know how these things work.

    • argylesock says:

      They generally don’t work like this! Prof Seralini has said that he thinks his work was censored. I agree with him and so do the editors of the 5 journals who offered to republish his paper.

      If it’s bad science, knock it down. I will. Except that, so far, it’s looking like good science to me. Better than some of the dross that makes it into the peer-reviewed literature.

      I’m inclined to compare Prof Seralini’s rat-feeding paper to some of the art that’s been censored over the years. One of the best ways to get people looking is to have your work banned..

      • Debra says:

        I was wondering because I’ve read reports that end with little statements like “Future directions … or limitations of this study …” It is definitely an example of censorship.

  2. Pingback: Séralini’s rat-feeding trial (part 2) | Science on the Land

  3. Pingback: Séralini’s rat-feeding trial (part 1) | Science on the Land

  4. Pingback: Toxic pesticides | Science on the Land

  5. Pingback: Séralini’s rat-feeding trial (part 3) | Science on the Land

  6. Pingback: Séralini’s rat-feeding trial (part 4) | Science on the Land

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

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