A scientific study of Monsanto’s GM corn has caused a huge row in France after the scientists released shocking pictures of rats distorted by tennis ball-sized tumours.
The study has put the debate about genetically modified crops back on centre stage after the methods used were widely attacked by the wider scientific community.
The two-year study was carried out by Professor Gilles-Eric Seralini from the University of Caen.
It looked at a Monsanto engineered maize known as NK603, which is modified to resist the company’s herbicide, Roundup. The product allows farmers to spray their fields to keep them free from weeds without harming the crop.
Professor Seralini tested the product on more than 200 rats divided into nine groups: three groups were given GM corn, three GM corn exposed to the herbicide Roundup and three received regular corn exposed to Roundup.
After a year, the team concluded that liver necrosis and congestion were significantly higher among the rats in all the tested groups compared to the control group. Those groups were also more likely to develop kidney damage.
Among all the rats exposed to GM corn, 50% of the male and 70% of the females died prematurely, as opposed to 30% and 20% in the control group.
Last week Professor Seralini published his findings in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Food and Chemical Toxicology and held a press conference in which he detailed his work.
Along with the study the professor also announced the release of a book and a film on September 26 both entitled ‘Tous Cobayes?’ (All Guinea Pigs?).
The study was widely reported on by the French press and further afield, not least because it was accompanied by graphic pictures of rats covered in large tumours – which were published by the press.
Three ministers – the ministers of health, ecology and agriculture – published a joint press release announcing that the Anses would look at the study. They added that if the Anses considered that the NK 603 product presented any potential risk they would instantly block the imports of Monsanto’s GM corn to the European Union until further studies were done. Russia immediately took moves to block imports of Monsanto corn.
But within hours of its publication, Professor Seralini faced a barrage of criticism from the scientific community. His methods were fiercely attacked and it was suggested he had used rats that were prone to tumours.
Besides his scientific methods there was much fuss made about the way Professor Seralini had presented his paper. Le Monde newspaper reported that only journalists who had signed up to an embargo were given advance copies of the study. This meant that they were unable to consult other scientists for comment. As a result the story focused on the ‘emotive’ photos released by the scientist.
Professor Seralini is an anti-GM food activist and a prominent member of the CRIIGEN – the committee for research and independent information on genetics. However, the CRIIGEN’s independence has long been questioned as it is financed by NGOs, such as Greenpeace and WWF, and food retailing corporations like Auchan and Carrefour.
His now notorious rat tumour study has re-opened the debate around GM in France.
Professor Seralini defends his work arguing that his was the most detailed long-term study carried out on GM crops.
He told the Bureau: ‘I don’t consider myself “anti-GM food”. I am simply demonstrating that if we do long-term studies, there is a possibility we will find something.’
‘I used the same strain of rats that have been used in all the studies on GMO. I couldn’t have used an animal like a guinea pig that would not develop tumours because I need a strain of rat, whose organism is sufficiently similar to the one of a human being.’
The criticism continues.
‘The problem is not so much about the strain he used. It is about how few rats he used. When you only have 10 rats in the control group the results can be a complete coincidence,’ says Gerard Pascal, toxicologist at the INRA (National Institute for Agronomical Research) and one of France’s leading experts on GM.
He is also critical of how the pictures of rats had been used. ‘The rats in the control group who developed tumours as well would look exactly the same,’ he added.
Professor Seralini admits that it would have been better to have more rats, but that would have required a lot more money and he suggests that much of the criticism has come from pro-GM food lobbies.
‘The first ones who cry wolf are the ones who have authorised GMO without proper long-term studies. Industrial companies have always funded their own researches, yet what is troubling is how supposedly independent experts have now given up on their integrity.’
Several committees will review in the coming days Seralini’s study and evaluate its reliability. Yet this new ‘Monsanto controversy’ highlights an everlasting issue: the lack of clarity and transparency on the issue of GMO, as the media has become a hostage to both pro and anti GM food lobbies.
This story was originally published by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.