Points to Consider: Republication of Discredited and Retracted Paper on Rats, GMOs, and Cancer

Maize

“Original” Paper: “Republished Study: Long-term Toxicity of a Roundup Herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant Genetically Modified Maize,” by Gilles-Eric Séralini, et. al., June 24, 2014, Environmental Science Europe,

This is a re-framed re-publication of a paper first made public in 2012. That article was subsequently retracted by the journal publisher, followed by an explanatory note from the editor.

Primary Claims:

This paper recycles claims made in the original paper, specifically:

  • Glyphosate (Roundup) tolerant corn (maize) causes cancerous tumors in rats that consume it.
  • Glyphosate itself causes cancerous tumors in rats that consume it.

It adds some related claims as well:

  • That the retraction of the original paper was imposed even though the publisher admitted that “the data were not incorrect, that there was no misconduct, no fraud or intentional misinterpretation in our complete raw data…Our study was however never attended to be a carcinogenicity study”
  • The retraction of the original paper was unjustified, as “Censorship of research into health risks undermines the value and the credibility of science, thus we republish our paper.”
  • They also claim that the retraction illustrates “a historic example of conflicts of interest in the scientific assessments of products commercialized worldwide.”

Salient Facts and Context:  

  • It is true that the explanation offered by the publisher to justify the retraction is weak and illogical. It is widely surmised that this explanation was a calculated response by the publisher to guard against threats of litigation by Séralini, which, however unjustified, would still be expensive to defend. (If this speculation does not persuade, Google “Séralini” and “lawsuit.”)
  • It is also true that this re-publication presents no new data, no new statistical analysis, and no new defenses of the claims the global scientific community found unsupportable in the original paper, and does nothing to correct or justify those numerous fatal flaws.
  • No further peer review was conducted on this recycled Paper to verify the soundness of the added claims, or to determine if defects in the original had been corrected (they were not)  see http://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2014/06/26/seralini-study-republished-with-no-scientific-peer-review/ and http://retractionwatch.com/2014/06/26/republished-seralini-gmo-rat-study-was-not-peer-reviewed-says-editor/.
  • If, as Séralini et al. claim in this new paper that it “was not a carcinogenicity study”, they elsewhere concede that, in fact, it was. See paragraph 10 in their rationalization for withdrawing from European efforts to replicate their original study with proper experimental design. And furthermore, if they were not seeking to study carcinogenesis and carcinogenicity, they should not have used a rat strain designed specifically for that purpose, and widely known to be unsuitable for other studies.
  • This paper does present new arguments that the original critiques were driven by conflicts of interest and other base motives, but there is no concrete evidence presented to support these assertions.

Published Rebuttal:

Further Analysis:

  • Séralini et al. claim in this paper that their original “findings were immediately dismissed by persons involved in the products’ authorizations, or in collaboration with biotech industries.” In this ad hominem attack they dismiss all the substantive comments made, which ITIF has previously summarized and include:
    • European Food Safety Authority: “EFSA is presently unable to regard the authors’ conclusions as scientifically sound.”
    • Six French National Academies of Science (Agriculture, Medicine, Pharmacology, Sciences, Technology, and Veterinary Medicine) condemned  the study, stating “Given the numerous gaps in methods and interpretation, the data presented in this article cannot challenge previous studies which have concluded that NK603 corn is harmless from the health point of view, as are, more generally, genetically modified plants that have been authorized for consumption by animals and humans.” They further dismissed the study as “a scientific nonevent” that served only “to spread fear among the public that is not based on any firm conclusion.” These findings were echoed by the French Higher Biotechnologies Council (HCB) and the National Agency for Food Safety (ANSES).
    • Federal Institute for Risk Assessment:  (BfR, Germany): “The authors’ main statements are not sufficiently corroborated by experimental evidence, due to deficiencies in the study design and in the presentation and interpretation of the study results.”
    • The Australia New Zealand Food Safety Authority stated “On the basis of the many scientific deficiencies identified in the study, FSANZ does not accept the conclusions made by the authors and has therefore found no justification to reconsider the safety of NK603 corn, originally approved in 2002.”
    •  Health Canada concluded “The overwhelming body of scientific evidence continues to support the safety of NK603, genetically modified food and feed products in general, and glyphosate containing herbicides.”
    • Indeed, the condemnation of the Séralini study from the international scientific and regulatory community was so deep, broad, and spontaneous, that even Marion Nestle, NYU Professor of Nutrition and food safety advocate long known for her skepticism of agricultural biotechnology, agreed: “It’s a really bad study.”
    • One blogger distilled the consensus, and coined the “Séralini Rule”: “If you favorably cite the 2012 Séralini rats fed on Roundup ready maize study, you just lost the argument.”
    • Surprisingly, the authors also recycle their assertion from the original paper “…that they have no competing interests” while asserting widespread conflicts of interest (without providing evidence) among their numerous critics. The irony of such charges has been noted by Henry I. Miller and Bruce Chassy in Forbes
      • “Finally, the authors wrongly claim that they have no conflicts of interest. Séralini is president of the scientific board of a self-described anti-genetic engineering NGO which apparently is hosted by his laboratory; he has a long and sordid history of anti-genetic engineering and anti-agricultural chemicals activism; and his research is funded by two large, “GM-free” French supermarket chains, purveyors of organic and homeopathic products, and perhaps other undisclosed parties who stand to profit from the smear campaign against genetically engineered foods.”

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About the author

L. Val Giddings has nearly three decades of experience in science and regulatory policy relating to biotechnology innovations in agriculture and biomedicine. He works with ITIF to bring intellectual leadership to examination of the constraints inhibiting innovations in these areas, and devising remedies to those constraints.
  • RobertWager

    For those who think facts matter, this is an excellent piece.

  • http://ultimateglutenfree.com/ Peter Olins

    A first-rate critique, Val.

    My only comment is that the paper was NOT republished intact; instead, several hundred words of rationalization and interpretation were sneaked in, particularly in the Introduction. The figure showing lumpy rats was also changed, but still failed to show experimental controls. This is contrary to what the Springer editor claimed—that there were no changes. Since flawed interpretation was the ostensible reason that the original version was retracted, why wasn’t it left intact for the public to view? Now we have two flawed papers live on the Internet.

    I cannot understand the reasoning behind “republishing” without peer-review, when the original article is still available online (albeit with a red ‘RETRACTED’ watermark). This is now, nearly two years after the original publication: since Seralini claimed that much important data had to be left out, why didn’t he just re-write the paper, complete with more data, and a more persuasive rationale?