Too little, too late. The damage is done by having the study published at all. Now the anti-GMO crowds are crying conspiracy and the authors of the study have been defending themselves vigorously -http://gmoseralini.org/category/critics-answered/ . I don’t think the retraction of this study will help promote the idea that GMO’s are safe, but will energize the anti-GMO movement. Similar thing happened when they retracted the MMR/autism study – the damage was done by having the study published in the first place. When it was retracted, the anti-vaccers were crying conspiracy as well. There has to be better screening at the front end for these journals – the editors need to realize that what they publish can serious impact people’s lives and they have a responsibility to screen out the quacks and shoddy science to protect the public.
Really, the paper should have been rejected for the underpowered design. If you had this few animals, this design is absurd and evinces a lack of knowledge on how to do a simple experiment – or worse.
If you wanted to plan your fishing trip early with plenty of possible comparisons and huge variability due to the lowered n/cell of the design, well, it’s perfect. The design itself almost suggests future malfeasance.
I think that Elsevier is being disingenuous by saying the study is being retracted because it is inconclusive. They are covering their ass.
It should not have been published and is being retracted because the design was terrible – underpowered for sure, and then the statistical analysis was simply left out, again most likely to hide the fact that the results are not significant. I think uninterpretable is a better term, and more damning.
A good study with adequate power with negative or equivocal results is fine. Also, the conclusion should reflect the results.
This study was used as if it were evidence that GMO has risks and to fear-monger about GMO. It was not presented as “equivocal.”
Ultimately, the results presented (while not incorrect) are inconclusive, and therefore do not reach the threshold of publication for Food and Chemical Toxicology.
Do they really think is sounds better to selectively publish based on results rather than being careless? It’s not as bad as ignoring actual negative results (which is not the same as inconclusive results), but not especially great either.
If we go to wacko world and pretend that the study was not horribly designed, it is still worth knowing that a study design which was thought to be adequate is producing inconclusive results for a particular subject. Future researchers would need to know that so they know that the variability of a particular subject makes that specific design a waste of time.
“… and I’m still very much against the business practices of companies like Monsanto.”
Not long ago, on the SGU, Steve said that he took a fairly deep dive into the allegations against Monsanto. IIRC, he found nothing that was clearly unethical about their business practices. Did he ever write about this? If so, where can I find it?; if not, I hope that he will.
There is so much vague animosity against Monsanto and it would be nice to have somewhere to point people for an objective defense of their practices (assuming their business practices are indeed defensible).
Is there something out there for GMO like Skeptical Science is for global warming? If not… well, it’s something we skeptics should create.
Apparently Seralini is not going down without a (legal) fight:
Seralini, who works in Caen with a group called CRIIGEN, the Committee for Research and Independent Information on Genetic Engineering, said the journal’s criticisms of his work were “unacceptable”.
“Were FCT to persist in its decision to retract our study, CRIIGEN would attack with lawyers, including in the United States, to require financial compensation for the huge damage to our group,” he said in a statement.
“… and I’m still very much against the business practices of companies like Monsanto.”
Monsanto has a long history as a giant, litigious polluter from way before their GMO days. I also disagree with their patent rights to cleaned seeds for second planting, thought legally I’m obviously wrong – I just think the law should not be so tilted toward them re: patent rights.
I think this is one of the most under-appreciated problems in the skeptic movement: many of the people we rail against actually have good reason to be suspicious of some of these groups.
It’s not crazy to think that Big Pharma or Monsanto are dealing dirty. It’s crazy to use that at every turn to defend bad reasoning and assume conspiracies not in evidence. But most of these people know they’re being screwed by Oligarchy & Co. They’re just not good with the details and then get preyed upon by some other scheme claiming to be the antidote to Oligarchy & Co. (Mercola, Chopra, Wakefield, etc.)
But maybe for every time we say that people are stupid to believe X,Y & Z, we should acknowledge that the powerful in our society do as much to drive these people to believe nonsense as the scammers who take them in with open arms.
We definitely need to be watch dogs on corporate abuse. Any large institution will tend to look after its own interests. When there is a culture of profit, all the more so.
But Monsanto does not appear to be different than any other large corporation in this regard. The big stories of Monsanto evil, on close inspection, all appear to be anti-GMO propaganda bullshit.
The patent issue is complex,and goes deeper than Monsanto. What we can say is that Monsanto legally and reasonably defends their patents. Once a GM seed they own is outside the reach of their patent, then their market is gone. Seeds can reproduce themselves.
So – you have to be against biotech patents in general, or patents in general. That is a different conversation. There is no absolute good and evil here – just trade-offs. Right now, the laws allow for patents so that companies that invest millions in innovation can profit from their investment. If you think a different compromise would work better, then I think you have a difficult case to make, but I’m listening.
That’s right. Monsanto may have been quick at the draw on occasion, but they have never pursued a legal action for inadvertent contamination. Only those deliberately trying to steal their seeds, or subvert their patent. Most people, however, believe this lie until you dig deep on the actual facts of these cases.
Patent law is a MESS. And it’s a mess because big entities like Monsanto can keep it that way. I purposefully stayed away from accidental contamination – I already knew that was BS. It’s not a choice between patents or not, it’s the specific terms, time limits, etc., which are all loaded in favor of the major players. E.g., I don’t think Monsanto should be able to go to sue over cleaned seeds for second planting. And Look at Mosanto and PCBs. Not pretty. That’s the historical polluting I’m talking about.
My bigger point is that the skeptic community should not have some common cause with a given entity (corporate or otherwise) simply because the unreasonable hate them. We’re not on “sides” like it’s sports, or at least we shouldn’t be
For example, drug companies are not better or worse because morons blame them for things that are not their responsibility. And we should not forget that every time a study finds its way to the file drawer, the industry ignores real needs for profits, or lobbying goes to prevent greater gov’t funding of pharmaceuticals for those needs, Big Pharma (there, I said it) helps create it’s own opposition. And we should speak out as loudly as we do against any other unreasonable action.
Some of these people aren’t quick with logic, but they know they’re getting rogered by the Oligarchy – they’re just not real clear at figuring out how.
I agree. We criticize corporate nonsense as much as any other. You are right – it is important not to let criticizing the nonsense turn into apologizing for any entity (corporate, government, whatever). There is a lot to criticize, just not the nonsense of the anti-science activists.
Whenever you defend a moderate evidence-based position, however, it is easy to be portrayed as defending one side from the more extreme position.
What I find funny is that anti-GMO people, who, in my experience, typically believe in man made climate change, will use the same conspiratorial arguments against GMOs as climate change deniers use against climate science.
Both believe there’s a powerful conspiracy. In one case it’s perpetrated by governments or supra national organizations. In the other case it’s the evil and all powerful corporations, sometimes in cahoots with government agencies.
In both cases majority of academics are more than willing to sacrifice their integrity for research dollars. While a few brave mavericks and martyrs (often with dubious academic credentials) will battle on in search for “The Truth”.
Both groups will get offended if you point out the similarity.
I think it starts with preconceived notions coupled with conspiratorial thinking. In neither case are rational arguments likely to work well.
In his answers to critics (http://bit.ly/1hwkgn6), Séralini starts the ball rolling in the abstract by stating that “GM NK603 and R cannot be regarded as safe to date” and then trashing critics as Monsanto shills in his intro before saying “We must firstly focus on science”.
To see what “focus on science” means to him, check out his website (http://gmoseralini.org/en/) where the banner includes: “Roundup: The Ultimate Killing Machine”, “Isn’t Séralini just a maverick?”, “Smelling a corporate rat: Séralini’s critics answered”, and “Top scientists support Séralini”.
I bet he will be able to milk an entire career out of this single study.
As a total lay person, I often wonder what it must be like for honest, hard-working scientists to see the notoriety charlatans like G-ES gather about themselves. They get the interviews, the book contracts, the articles.
Like I said, depressing.
On a less depressing note…an ebook about GMOs called “The Lowdown on GMOs” has been released for free downloading here:
I bet he will be able to milk an entire career out of this single study.
What a depressing thought.
As a total lay person, I often wonder what it must be like for honest, hard-working scientists to see the notoriety charlatans like G-ES gather about themselves. They get the interviews, the book contracts, the articles.
Like I said, depressing.
On a less depressing note…an ebook about GMOs called “The Lowdown on GMOs” has been released for free downloading here:
There “apologizing” for a company and then there’s speaking out to counter outright fabrications and slanted “facts”. While no company should get a free pass on errors, we as skeptics do have a duty to point out when misinformation is being used by anti-science groups.
Far too many of the claims about Monsanto being tossed out by the ant-GMO crowd are false and put out simply to create a evil image to link GMOs with because there are no fact based arguments to field about their safety. Hence we get claims like MOnsanto suing over naturally pollinated crops (actually the only case remotely like that was a group of organic producers trying to preemptively sue Monsanto for damages just in case it ever happened) or the silliness that is the “Monsanto Protection Act” claim.
If a farmer decides to purchase seed from Monsanto, then Monsanto is fully within their rights to ask the farmer to sign a contract prohibiting them from replanting seeds from the harvest. The farmer is not forced to sign this contract and take the seeds. If the farmer does, it is likely the farmer sees greater value in Monsanto seeds (i.e., the cost to buy new seeds each year is offset by greater yields and/or lower production cost of plants from Monsanto’s seeds). So both players win – farmers get more value and Monsanto profits from their innovation. Why is this troubling?
I also don’t see why this is so troubling, if it is transparent up front and in the contract.
But – I do also think that patent laws need to be reviewed and tweaked as necessary to balance different interests. The same goes for the pharmaceutical industry. There are probably a range of patent details that could work, and these details should be hammered out. I can also see how big corporations with expensive lawyers would have an advantage in this, but it is the job of regulators and judges to level the playing field, and watchdogs to report on the whole thing, and industry groups (like farmers) to look after their interests.
In fact, I think that groups like Greenpeace do a disservice to the role of industry watchdog by squandering their credibility with lies and propaganda, discrediting the general practice of criticizing biotech companies. In the same way Big Pharma conspiracy nutjobs do a disservice to the legitimate need for pharmaceutical company watching. And conspiracy theorists, anti-AGW pseudoscientists, etc. all taint the legitimate job of keeping an eye on government, having a healthy debate about policies and their effects, etc.
Skeptics have the task of balancing all this in a logical and evidence-based manner.
The important thing to remember is to always reduce the problem to the evidence.
When I see a top down trend of some facts always being right, or some accusations always being false, I must not assume continuation of the trend. I must pursue the evidence, both pro and con, to their conclusion, nevermind what others will perceive of my general opinion.
“When I see a top down trend of some facts always being right, or some accusations always being false, I must not assume continuation of the trend.”
I think this hits the nail on the head, and is generally a problem for people. I know that it’s a problem for me – something I have to consciously fight.
This is all the more difficult in that credibility does matter. If Joe Mercola says that Monsanto is sending goons to threaten him, I’m not going to believe that even though I suppose there is some chance that it could be true and I could look at the evidence. But our limited time and resources make this particular cognitive bias that much more insidious and difficult to navigate (although, not really in this example!)
Plant patents have been around since the Plant Patent Act of 1930. That act protected the intellectual property of plant breeders from asexual reproduction of their patented varieties (This was around the time when Luther Burbank was doing his thing). The Plant Variety Protection act of 1970 provided similar protections to sexually reproduced plant varieties. The stated purpose of the latter was to “encourage the development of novel varieties of sexually reproduced plants”. More recently, as I believe Mr. Novella has already pointed out in one of his blog posts, the Supremes in Bowman v. Monsanto, unanimously decided that a farmer may not reproduce seeds of a patented variety without the patent holder’s permission.
I don’t agree that patent laws as they relate to traditional plant breeding or GM plants are a mess (steve12) or that they need to be tweaked to balance different interests (Steven Novella). To do so would only weaken the prime directive of applicable patent law, which is to encourage development. Whether I am a farmer who discovers and patents a variety derived from a spontaneous mutation found in my orchard or a private company spending millions on GM technology, why should I dilute my intellectual property rights? And if I was compelled to do so, why would I continue to develop novel varieties? I don’t understand why there is a debate about this; because we are talking about living things rather than widgets?
As an aside: I am in the tree fruit business and I am familiar with cases where farmers have asexually propagated varieties purchased from traditional private plant breeders, raised an orchard not covered under the original sales contract from that material, and was compelled to bulldoze the orchard once it started to bear fruit. Every honest farmer I know condemns that sort of thing as stealing, there is no gray area to us. Other than the technology involved, I don’t see the distinction between that principle and patent law protecting proprietary GM varieties.
“And if I was compelled to do so, why would I continue to develop novel varieties? I don’t understand why there is a debate about this; because we are talking about living things rather than widgets?”
Well. yeah. Food is a basic public need – it’s not a widget. Laws should balance public need and incentive.
This is similar to saying that if someone can’t make a $1M in a given business venture because of taxes, $800K is no longer an incentive. I don’t think this is true.
We already achieve this balance in limiting patent life.
All this said, I am no plant patent expert! I know that general patent law is a mess (patents give too easily that exist only for lawsuits – this is well known) and maybe there are less problems with plants, even if I don’t think they should be treated the same. I was swayed when reading about buying seeds for second plantings, but again, there’s probably I don’t know.
Hold on. The retracted study used the same type and number of rats Monsanto used to get authorization for its GMO maize. Yet these are the main “problems” with the study? Clearly the bad science is with the gullible Monsanto apologists.
steve12 on 03 Dec 2013 at 5:05 pm
It’s not a choice between patents or not, it’s the specific terms, time limits, etc., which are all loaded in favor of the major players. E.g., I don’t think Monsanto should be able to go to sue over cleaned seeds for second planting.
Not allowing them to sue over copies of their product is effectively an awful lot like just saying there isn’t a patent. That’s like saying you aren’t opposed to all movie copyrights, but nobody can sue over copied movies as long as they all derive from at least one guy who once purchased the movie and then made a billion copies.
This issue has nothing to do with the various patent system issues affecting other things at the moment (much of which is the USPTO simply not trying very hard to find prior art). If you create a plant which lives under conditions which kill previous plants, that is clearly a new, useful, etc, invention. If you want to declare that plants cannot be patented, you aren’t arguing against a loaded system. You are arguing FOR a loaded system which treats one category differently (to be fair, you seem to acknowledge that in a later post). And maybe that’s a good conclusion for a specific category, but it is a request for a biased system which I think should have a very high burden of argument.
>it is standard practice in such studies to establish an endpoint, such as tumor number and size, at which point the animal with be euthanized. In this study the rats were allow to die of their tumors.
I glanced through the paper, and took issue with this. According to their methods
>Animals were sacrificed during the course of the study only if necessary because of suffering according to ethical rules (such as 25% body weight loss, tumors over 25% body weight, hemorrhagic bleeding, or prostration)
I can’t really comment on the rest of the study, it’s not my field. Using tumour prone rats to evaluate the ability of compound to promote new tumour growth seems not thought out.
“the data do not show anything, especially absent any statistical analysis.”
Per the site GMOSeralini, “in Séralini’s study all treatments in both sexes increased large tumour incidence 2-3-fold in comparison to controls within the experiment. By the beginning of the 24th month, 50-80% of female animals had developed tumours in all treated groups, with up to 3 tumours per animal. In the control group, in contrast, only 30% of the rats had tumours.”
“a questionable selection of rat strain which maximizes noise in the data”
Per GMOSeralini, “the SD rat is also often used by industry in its 90-day tests on GMOs submitted to gain regulatory authorization. This includes Monsanto’s 90-day test on NK603 maize… “The fact is, rats in treatment groups had a higher chance of getting tumours than rats than the control rats that did not get the treatment.”"
“The Seralini study suffers from small sample size”
Per GMOSeralini, Monsanto’s 90-day feeding trial on NK603 maize, which EFSA accepted as proof of safety, also used rats in “groups of 20″
“If you want to declare that plants cannot be patented, you aren’t arguing against a loaded system.”
Maybe I’m misunderstanding you or vice-versa, but I never argued for this. I’m very skeptical of having something as important as our food supply under corporate control indefinitely. The specific number would require expertise that I do not have, but an example would be like drugs: an X year patent to make your cash, then the patent runs out.
I think I need to revisit the second planting issue, but when I’ve read this in the past I thought that Monsanto was acting unfairly. I’ll try to do some more research on this though, as it seems many reasonable people disagree with me.
“but it is a request for a biased system which I think should have a very high burden of argument.”
This I don’t think that I need more research for. The more important to society the product, the more differently I would treat the patent process. I see no reason why patents cannot balance incentive and societal considerations, and this balance may change (or be biased) depending on the nature of the product.
“Clearly the bad science is with the gullible Monsanto apologists.”
I’ve read this a few places. I don’t know if it’s true (my suspicion is this may have been one in a series of studies) – but if it IS it doesn’t matter. Two bad studies do not make a good one.
This study is inconclusive and sold as otherwise. Is he simply pointing out that Monsanto doesn’t know how to conduct a study by conducting one as bad? That’s an odd way to do science! Waste your time repeating the mistakes of others for the hipster irony effect?
What Seralini did with the rats and what Monsanto studies may have done are two different things. Seralini raised their rats for two years, while the typical trial for testing new GE crop types is 90 days. In two years, Sprague-Dawley rats are highly prone to tumors no matter how their fed – this is why that type of rat is so often used in cancer studies. 90 days, on the other hand, isn’t long enough to expect cancerous tumors to grow.
Furthermore, the hypotheses Seralini and Monsanto tested were different. With Seralini, he was basing his hypothesis on the (unsubstantiated) claim that GM maize is harmful. Monsanto studies perform basic safety testing such as allergies and to determine whether the expected desired trait is indeed what is observed, and nothing unexpected has developed.
So, they aren’t equally invalid, no. As far as I can tell, Monsanto studies are valid, even if the use the same rat. The are just under different conditions and circumstances.
Keep in mind that there have been hundreds of independent studies with no industry ties performed on GM crops that have all come up with the same conclusion: that GM foods are as safe as their non-GM counterparts.
Also, it’s not Monsanto apologia to call out bogus claims and accusations made against them. Most of the time, the claims made against them are part of the cacophony of anti-GMO hysterics. They must have their bogeyman, afterall.
Let’s keep in mind that GMO patents in regards to crops are specific to the programmed genetic traits, not the plants themselves. In other words, patents only apply to a specific GMO plant, not all plants of that species. As mentioned before, trait patents have been used on plants since the 1930s, and are continued today. So, it’s irrational to specifically target Monsanto and other biotech companies on plant patents when plant patents are present in most other forms of agriculture, including within organic agriculture.
Patents have their place in that it protects the time, resources, and financial investment companies have put into a product. How long and far that patent goes for before expiration, on the other hand, is a source of debate.
Industry studies still far outweigh publicly funded. That doesn’t need to be significant but it probably is. The FDA and USDA rely on company assurances that GM is safe and “equivalent”. But the companies aren’t required to examine every little thing about each one, and we have seen that it’s not unusual for a GM plant to express some unforeseen characteristic once it becomes widely grown. Sometimes those unforeseen characteristics are good. Sometimes bad. The operative word in my critique is: unforeseen. In general, the industry supports the claim that as long as “equivalence” is established, feeding trials add little to safety evaluation. But the technology poses problems that traditional breeding does not, and some feeding trials do reveal deleterious effects.
I think the following is a good paper on the current state of affairs. It includes a reiteration of what many scientists are saying we can do to improve the situation. The paper also lists highlights from a number of feeding studies done on various GM food plants.
“A main issue in the risk assessment of GM foods has been the consideration that unintended consequences appear no more likely in GM crops than in conventional crops, as if GM technology is an extension of traditional plant breeding. However, unintended changes in GM crops may affect other metabolites differently than those directly related to the transgene. Examples of these changes in some GM crops are a higher lignin content in Bt maize than in non-Bt maize, depleted plant flavonoids in herbicide-tolerant soybeans, and others reviewed by Kuiper et al.
Therefore, substantial equivalence is not an acceptable method for GM evaluation because of its inability to detect unintended effects. Theoretically, unintended changes can be predicted from information about the insertion site of the genetic construct, gene regulation, gene-gene interactions, and possible interferences in metabolic pathways. Thus, appropriate detection methods such as DNA analysis, DNA/mRNA microarray hybridization, and proteomics and chemical fingerprinting (metabolomics) are needed. These methods were not available at the beginning of GM production and are still not widely applied to its risk evaluation.”
And here we have a little research into conflict of interest in GM studies:
“…it was found that the existence of either financial or professional conflict of interest was associated to study outcomes that cast genetically modified products in a favorable light (p= 0.005). While financial conflict of interest alone did not correlate with research results (p= 0.631), a strong association was found between author affiliation to industry (professional conflict of interest) and study outcome (p< 0.001)."
But I can't really venture a critical evaluation of this article – so perhaps someone with more "statistical inclinations" would like to do that.
You make some pretty big claims here, or at least some big leaps in interpretations. Little of what you have said has been borne in reality. In essence, what you’re suggesting is Nirvana Fallacy, or the requirement that every single contingency be accounted for, which is impossible. Furthermore, the same requirements aren’t required for other agriculture types, which is tantamount to an irrationality.
You claim that GM crops hold more risk than conventional crops because there is more uncertainty. This has not what has been observed empirically or theoretically. While there is always uncertainty when it comes to manipulating the genetic structure of organisms, the testing of them has yielded no hypothesis to test against.
You claim that companies aren’t required to examine “every little thing” for each seed type that is developed. This is not a requirement for any genetic modification, whether it’s from gene insertion or manipulation from hybridization. However, you are incorrect when it comes to testing – regulation requires that safety and functional testing are done before GM crops are released to market. Where you are in error is that there is no resultant hypothesis to test when the initial testing is done. Further, the expectation that “every little thing” be accounted for is not realistic – every substance in the universe cannot be tested for “every little thing”, known or unknown. In other words, what you seem to be ignoring is that every substance in the world has some risk associated with it, and that also comes in the form of unknowns that cannot be accounted for. This is true even for substances that are essential for life.
One of the tactics of anti-GMO activists like yourself is to claim that not all effects of GM evaluations can be detected. Again, this ignores the fact that there is no way to detect any and every contingency or effect of ANY substance, GM or otherwise. This is, again, the equivalent to the Nirvana Fallacy, and it’s irrational to demand it for GM products but not for other products. By extension, ALL products will have a level of uncertainty to them that should be respected, but that is not the case when it comes to anti-GMO activists.
“Conflict of interest”. While this is a consideration, this is not an argument in and of itself. Studies stand on their merits, not on how they are financed. While it’s prudent to be cognizant regarding conflict of interest, this by itself does not negate the merits of the study by its own right. Furthermore, considering the fact that independent studies have had a correlative effect on the conclusions of “conflict of interest” studies, there is little to substantiate your concern. If these studies did not exist, you may have a point. Since they do, it negates your point.
The most important point is the claim that regulatory agencies “rely on company assurances” when it comes to safety studies. This is untrue. There have been numerous independent safety studies (not to mention efficacy studies) that negate this claim. In other words, it’s simply untrue that regulatory agencies merely rely on company assessments.
Responding to the link to the paper you posted, it ignores the fact that there are thousands of safety studies that all conclude that GM foods are as safe as their non-GM food counterparts, and considering the decades of consumption of GM foods with no documented adverse effects, there is no reason to conclude that GM foods are unsafe. This is a purely empirical conclusion that does not take into consideration the scientific conclusion that GM foods are safe.
“I don’t agree that patent laws as they relate to traditional plant breeding or GM plants are a mess (steve12) or that they need to be tweaked to balance different interests (Steven Novella). To do so would only weaken the prime directive of applicable patent law, which is to encourage development.”
I don’t to be tied to the phrase “mess” but there are significant problems with intellectual property laws more generally, and specifically with regards to gene patents. Its a big topic, however, and I don’t want to get too deep in the topic because of its complexity but I do want to mention a few things regarding your disagreement regarding competing interests. I will discuss technology more generally because genetic information and biology adds another layer to this already complex issue.
There ARE competing interests regarding intellectual property, and only looking at incentivizing development for a patent holder misses part of the equation – the free flow of ideas in the larketplace, and broad access to those developments are also concerns. More broadly such laws should incentivize innovation, but not obstruct the flow of ideas, yet encourage access to these products and ideas.
If laws go too far in the direction of protectionism or make it too easy to claim intellectual property (and shift the burden of proof to the potential infringer), you hinder innovation and development. You also often reduce the access to those developments, and disincentivize improvements since there is additional protection from competition. Do you disagree that these are problems currently to some degree?
Patent trolls are a real problem, and large companies such as Apple, Sumsung, and Google deal with this everyday. If you are a small company you may ‘fly under the radar,’ until you get so big then… patent trolls can shake you down. Not that patent trolls are the only issue, those same large companies are also suing each other constantly. Is this not a problem with the law?
Now, I agree that we must have intellectual property laws that encourage development, but this must be balanced to actually achieve the goals of those laws. Those goals not only include incentivizing innovation and development, but to not hinder the flow of ideas and access to those innovations.
“So, it’s irrational to specifically target Monsanto and other biotech companies on plant patents when plant patents are present in most other forms of agriculture, including within organic agriculture.”
Not sure if this is in reference t me, but if so I don’t think that I did this. I don’t like Monsanto, but I generally see the model of unchecked coporate power in many realms (financial, ecological, etc) as unacceptable. So ditto for any company that’s polluted the planet (PCBs, etc) and then used their influence to evade responsibility.
Just becasue GMOs are being regarded irrationally does not mean Monsanto is good and righteous. I see too much of this sort of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ sentiment in the skeptic movement.
The ability of private companies to profit from their patentable products should not be diminished by establishing some sort of mandate for the “free flow of ideas in the marketplace, and broad access to those developments”. I don’t agree that is part of the patent law equation; more like something that comes under the heading of “social responsibility”, which is generally voluntary, and as we all know, varies greatly among commercial enterprises. I see patent law very simply as a means for one to profit from their ideas and thereby encourage more ideas. While social responsibility is important and noble, governments should tread lightly in any attempt to legislate it. Much the same as when governments compel their citizens to “donate” to certain causes through taxation, as a group, people tend to give more when they do so voluntarily. Of course, there are also selfish individuals who never donate under any circumstance, but I would rather tolerate them than compel them to donate against their will.
However, you make a good point about patent trolls and patents that should have never been granted in the first place. The accepted criteria for what constitutes a “novel” idea were far too broad in Apple v. Samsung, so what prevents that from happening in the GMO business? I don’t know, but I am not aware of it being an issue. If plant patent laws are vulnerable to similar abuse, then perhaps they need to be refined, but I am not convinced that is the case and it may not be appropriate to judge them as if they were the same as other patent laws.
I’m also annoyed with the knee-jerk association with Monsanto trolls make because I defend GM food against pseudoscience and bad logic. I’ve had a similar experience in the political sphere when trolls assume I worship the ground Obama walks on because I argue against conspiracy theories and urban legends about him. I do the latter partly because I have more reality-based complaints about him I’d rather see addressed (on an entirely different blog). Mostly, though, I don’t like it when people tell tall tales to influence other people’s decisions. The truth doesn’t take sides, the sides just vary in how truth-based they are.
It’s definitely black-and-white thinking at work, and I think one aspect I see in it is authoritarian projection. They think we’re taking marching orders from some central authority we idolize because it’s easier than dealing with the nuanced grays of risk management, or acknowledging a balance of power between multiple sides flying different colors.
I suppose the best way to deal with it is to flatly reject their framing. Having a position on GMOs should never imply a corresponding position on Monsanto, therefore talking about Monsanto in a general GMO thread is off-topic and evasive. I want to talk about the science behind the technology and how to effectively manage risks in our food supply. If GM food carries a risk that is not also present in non-GM food, they should be able to point it out without referring to a corporate boogeyman.
Do you have examples of “unchecked corporate power” displayed by Monsanto? For myself, I simply have not seen them act or be any different than any other corporation, and I have yet to see them do anything that’s particularly “bad” (unless one thinks ALL corporations are “bad” just by default). Again, it would be irrational to specifically target Monsanto without simultaneously targeting, say, big organic, or big “natural supplement”.
To answer your question about studies, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of independent studies done on GMOs, including assessments done by regulatory agencies around the world.
Consider this – would there be overwhelming global scientific consensus about the safety and efficacy of GMOs if independent scientists had not had a chance to evaluate GMOs for themselves, and it was nothing but industry funded studies?
“The ability of private companies to profit from their patentable products should not be diminished by establishing some sort of mandate for the “free flow of ideas in the marketplace, and broad access to those developments”. I don’t agree that is part of the patent law equation; more like something that comes under the heading of ‘social responsibility’, which is generally voluntary, and as we all know, varies greatly among commercial enterprises.”
I disagree. Patent laws (or more broadly intellectual property laws) are protections put in place by a government to provide some level of exclusivity to the ‘owner’ of the intellectual property. This a protection that has the force of law, and there are many careful decisions that need to be made by the government who creates these laws. I cannot view it so narrowly as you imply, just thinking about incentivizing profit and innovation for it’s own sake (without broader benefit I wouldn’t care as much about that in-and-of itself).
In this case ‘social responsibility,’ as you call it (but that is not how I would frame it) is not just voluntary, it is the duty of the government on behalf of the people. This is not unique to these types of laws, but any law that a government creates.
I would reframe your use of ‘social responsibility,’ since that idea bothers you… it is just considering the downstream effects of laws, and the intended or unintended consequences. Let me give you examples of how these things may matter with questions that need to be answered in creating such laws:
How novel should an idea be to qualify for protection? What types of things should qualify as intellectual property? How long should the exclusivity last? What types of behaviors qualify as infringing? How novel or different should an idea be to considered a new one? etc, etc.
All of these types of questions will have signficant effects on those things I mentioned (such as impacts on incentive, the ability of markets to function/form, and the general public and access to these innovations). If these is not the concern of the government, who is it the concern of? It seems clear to me that it must be their concern. Keep in mind that these are decisions that are made (and need to be made) by the government when such laws are created, so really there is no way around it. Its not like the answers to those questions are self apparent. These are decisions that have major implications from many angles and they all have to be considered.
“Do you have examples of “unchecked corporate power” displayed by Monsanto? ”
Look at their track record for pollution – PCB, DDT, etc., – and how they tried at every turn to shirk responsibility in the first world. Then go take a look at how they behaved in the developing world. This company has placed as much toxic shit on this planet as anyone, yet they exist.
Somehow, though, those sins are lessened in the eyes of some because anti-GMO people are wrong?
“Consider this – would there be overwhelming global scientific consensus about the safety and efficacy of GMOs if independent scientists had not had a chance to evaluate GMOs for themselves, and it was nothing but industry funded studies?”
I’ll be honest – I don’t know much about GMOs. Without knowing much, I wasn’t sure what was left to debate. Obviously, I figure that the consensus must be that GMOs are safe because the studies refuting it are such trash. But that should not stop us from asking for good, conflict free research while constantly assessing this consensus as new GMOs or GMO technologies become available.
I am, however, a bit disturbed as what I see as something close to advocacy for companies who make GMOs. I don’t trust Monsanto, or any large entity with power to wield regardless of any kind of identity politics that might develop.
Steve, I think it would help to take a step back and look at what the actual science is doing and saying. What is the null hypothesis, and is there an actual hypothesis to test against this?
The basic safety studies, as well as prior probability gathered from the scientific body of knowledge, simply yield no hypothesis to test. Neither do the real-world use of GMOs (it’s hard to imagine two decades of marketed product not indicating health or safety issues by now).
Also, it’s often forgotten that GE has been in development as a technology since the late 1960s and has been carefully vetted by regulatory agencies and concerned bodies of scientists. A little digging in Wikipedia on the history of GMOs and the genetic engineering of food types will yield some interesting and enlightening reads.
Unfortunately, the memes have by far dominated the discussion, and not only do they vastly oversimplify it, most of the time they’re dead wrong. For most, it takes a while to get past the misinformation and scary rhetoric. to me, it’s surprising to see normally highly skeptical people fall so easily for this, but we are as prone to bias as anyone else when it comes to complementary ideologies.
I hope you got a chance to take a look at the links I provided to assure you that industry is not the only place where studies and safety assessments come from. Hundreds of studies have also originated from independent organizations and universities from around the world, and as mentioned before, considering the scientific consensus is overwhelming should speak for itself.
As far as Monsanto is concerned, it’s easy to demonize them. Again, there has been a LOT of memes and rhetoric surrounding them with little thought about what people are actually saying.
While I maintain that the “past sins” are debatable, the first thing to realize is that the Monsanto of today is not the Monsanto of the 1940s or even the 1960s (one of the biggest marketing mistakes they ever made was retaining the brand name). The former chemical company was sold of in the early 90s into a company called Solutia, after spending the last part of the 80s and the early 90s acquiring biotech seed companies. In essence, they aren’t the same company. The “past sins” argument can be a pretty involved debate.
Also, while I think it’s good to have a healthy skepticism with companies, IMO there is a fine line between that and conspiracy theorizing (I’m not suggesting that’s what you’re doing, but I suspect that perhaps some of your opinions may have come from people who do, I can’t say). I prefer to judge companies by what they do and what evidence of wrongdoing they have actually done. As far as I can tell, Monsanto hasn’t done anything particularly untoward in the past several decades that I can differentiate between them and any other large corporation.
I do believe in regulation. Companies need to be kept in check and held accountable. I don’t think it’s rational to judge companies from half a century ago when how they were run, and our very culture, were different (by our standards, they may not be right, but that’s how it was then).
Let’s not forget that there are over a dozen larger companies that deal with biotech. In a way, anti-GMO hysteria has helped create this scenario by making deregulation of seeds from development a very expensive and time-consuming process (which, incidentally, is NOT demanded on other seed technologies) where only large companies have the resources to handle.
As you may be aware, “big biotech” is dwarfed by “big organic”. If we’re going to be critical of big companies for being big, we need to apply that to all big companies. According to TMR, biotech is projected to be valued at $12 billion by 2015. The organic market is projected to be $104.7 billion by 2015.
rezistnzisfutl, I think you’re making my bigger point:
“Steve, I think it would help to take a step back and look at what the actual science is doing and saying. What is the null hypothesis, and is there an actual hypothesis to test against this?”
When did I NOT look at the science? When did I say there was good evidence that GMO’s were anything other than safe? Not being aware of the literature in detail (while ceding the consensus) is not understanding classical hypothesis testing?
“it’s surprising to see normally highly skeptical people fall so easily for this, but we are as prone to bias as anyone else when it comes to complementary ideologies.”
Is this in reference to me?
If you’ll pardon me the sports analogy, this reminds me of discussing Derek Jeter’s place in baseball history with a Yankees fan. I say Jeter is a first ballot HOFer, maybe the greatest player of his generation – but I don’t think he’s the greatest SS ever. They look at me an ask why I’m dogging Jeter so hard.
“As far as Monsanto is concerned, it’s easy to demonize them.”
Yes it is.
“While I maintain that the “past sins” are debatable,”
How are they debatable? They may not have knowingly dumped poison on the market? PCBs may be safe to drink? All that cancer was really internal Halloween makeup? No, they are sins. It’s OK – no one is goig to take your skeptic card away if you admit that Monsanto one time did something that was sort of not OK.
IF you think I’m making some sort of genetic fallacy with Monsanto, you may have a point to the extent that the evil label is no longer fair (THAT is where debate might come in). Remember, though: I didn’t say that we shouldn’t trust GMO science because Monsanto was an evil corporation. I simply said that I don’t trust them – along with most big corporations.
“Also, while I think it’s good to have a healthy skepticism with companies, IMO there is a fine line between that and conspiracy theorizing (I’m not suggesting that’s what you’re doing, but I suspect that perhaps some of your opinions may have come from people who do, I can’t say).”
I really disagree here. I think we can need 10^100 x more (reasoned) criticism of corporations, and I feel the skeptic movement is failing on that level because of the reasons I site above with side-taking, and because there’s a reticence to get political. While I think staying away form politics is largely a good idea, this can be done w/o taking political sides so long as one can shrug off accusations from political entities that one is becoming political.
Look at the financial sector and their nonsense economic models and what that cost society in 2008.
What non-war event in our lifetime affected as many people as that, with economists shoveling more shit than widgets explaining how that happened. Still, there’s been a relative pittance of skeptic involvement to put holes into the theories that helped it happen OR the BS explanation of what happened.
“Social responsibility” means something specific to businesses; it is how they deal with the environmental, social, and economic impacts of their enterprise. For instance, our customers perform social responsibility audits, and if we do not pass their standards, they don’t buy from us. That is why I referenced the term in the context of patent law; there is the core rationale for patent law, which is to incentivize R&D and bring innovation and novel products into the public domain, and yes, I acknowledge there is a “social responsibility” component, but there is danger if SR becomes explicit in the drafting of patent laws.
Patent laws need to be written in a manner that satisfies the prime directive without feeding the trolls, but I am afraid that, if given the motivation, legislators will use patent law as they do tax law to advance political agendas under the guise of social responsibility or social justice.
Inherent in the core rationale for patent law is the understanding that bringing novel ideas and products that would otherwise not see the light of day into the marketplace serves a common good. Intentions don’t matter. If a company brings a new and wonderful product into the public domain, it doesn’t matter if they are doing it only for profit or for some other reason, the public benefits either way, and patent law should be agnostic in that regard.
The duty of a CEO is to make money for the shareholders.
Scientific experimental data is sometimes at odds with what the company does to make money– think power bands.
The CEO is supposed to make money– it is not his duty to accurately portrait the current state of scientific knowledge.
Perhaps this helps explain some current marketing campaigns.
I agree with what you say about patent laws. Especially this-
“… legislators will use patent law as they do tax law to advance political agendas under the guise of social responsibility or social justice.”
It seems there is a group of scientists in Europe who have a different opinion on this–
“In short, the decision to retract Séralini’s paper is a flagrant abuse of science and a blow to its credibility and independence. It is damaging for the reputation of both the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology and its publisher Elsevier. It will decrease public trust in science. And it will not succeed in eliminating critical independent science from public view and scrutiny. Such days and times are definitively over. Prof. Séralini’s findings stand today more than before, as even this secret review found that there is nothing wrong with either technicalities, conduct or transparency of the data – the foundations on which independent science rests. The conclusiveness of their data will be decided by future independent science, not by a secret circle of people.”
When there is scientific consensus, there will always be outliers outside of the consensus. There are young-earth creationist biologists and geologists out there. ENSSER is openly critical of GMOs as a technology – in essence, they are an anti-GMO organization who are outside of the consensus.
Furthermore, it’s not surprising that they posted an article critical of the Elsevier retraction – Seralini is a founding member of ENSSER and his own organization, CRIIGEN, the organization founded by Seralini and the one who funded the study, is a current member.
There is a reason why most of the scientific community has rebuked the study – it was a bad study with dubious results, the best interpretation of them being that it’s inconclusive (the worst being that was outright fraud designed to help Seralini sell DVDs and other products).
Most scientists in Europe, including those in universities, regulatory agencies, and government, have also condemned the study.
It seems to me that your objections have far more to do with corporations, and perhaps capitalism in general, than Monsanto directly.
Let me preface further discussion by saying that most of what I said before wasn’t necessarily aimed at you, but as generalized statements.
MANY companies “make poisons”. There are “poisons” all around us. Everyday people are throwing out plastic garbage bags all the time that are contributing to landfills and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch all the time. Chlorine bleach is “poison”. Young children get into the cleaning supplies all the time. “Poisons” are being manufactured every day, including carcinogens. It’s irrational to hold any one company’s feet to the flame without doing it to all. Furthermore, what are we supposed to do with all the “poisons” that are currently being manufactured all the time?
You have to realize that, before the 70s, there was no environmental movement. Worker safety was a concept developed in the latter half of the 20th century. It just wasn’t part of the public consciousness back then.
I have no dog in the fight when it comes to Monsanto. I think nearly all of the objections of them are irrational and poorly thought out. It would be better if people simply admit that they distrust ALL corporations, and perhaps even have problems with capitalism in general, than to select a relatively random corporation out of the mix and demonize them.
This is why many skeptics are hesitant to join your voice on this. The only reason Monsanto has been chosen is that some very loud anti-GMO activists have chosen them as a target because of their association with GMOs, not because of anything else, otherwise we would have heard of them before now.
Keep in mind that PCBs have been banned since the 70s, so targeting modern Monsanto because of that is similar to the bogus agent orange argument. It would be the same as someone holding a guy accountable because his great grandfather fought on the Axis side in WW2, or for someone to hate modern Boeing because they produced the Enola Gay.
“MANY companies “make poisons”. There are “poisons” all around us. Everyday people are throwing out plastic garbage bags all the time that are contributing to landfills and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch all the time. Chlorine bleach is “poison”. Young children get into the cleaning supplies all the time. “Poisons” are being manufactured every day, including carcinogens. It’s irrational to hold any one company’s feet to the flame without doing it to all. Furthermore, what are we supposed to do with all the “poisons” that are currently being manufactured all the time?”
I was using poison colloquially in that post, so there really is no need to talk down to me for it by pointing out what poison means. I referenced the PCB and DDT mess and Monsanto’s role in that several times.
The notion that distinctions can’t be made in the amount of pollution companies produce is bizarre, and it’s a straw man anyway because I never said that only Monsanto should be criticized in this regard.
“It would be better if people simply admit that they distrust ALL corporations, and perhaps even have problems with capitalism in general, than to select a relatively random corporation out of the mix and demonize them.”
This is odd on several levels. No one should “trust” any corporation, yet any reading of history indicates unequivocally that capitalism is the only economic system that works with large amounts of people. The two have noting to do with each other.
“Keep in mind that PCBs have been banned since the 70s, so targeting modern Monsanto because of that is similar to the bogus agent orange argument.”
This is good point. You should stick to it to the exclusion of the others.
On October 21, 2013 the ENSSER put out a press release claiming there is no consensus about GMO safety from 93 scientists and academics…
By Oct 30, the number of signers had grown to 230.
“A recent signatory is Dr Belinda Martineau, former member of the Michelmore Lab at the UC Davis Genome Center, University of California, who helped commercialise the world’s first GM whole food, the Flavr Savr tomato. Dr Martineau said:
“I wholeheartedly support this thorough, thoughtful and professional statement describing the lack of scientific consensus on the safety of genetically engineered (GM/GE) crops and other GM/GE organisms (also referred to as GMOs). Society’s debate over how best to utilize the powerful technology of genetic engineering is clearly not over. For its supporters to assume it is, is little more than wishful thinking.” ”
I am more convinced by this than your statement of ‘consensus’. Can you back your claim?
When science meets corporate interests– http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/20/business/20crop.html?_r=0
Biotechnology companies are keeping university scientists from fully researching the effectiveness and environmental impact of the industry’s genetically modified crops, according to an unusual complaint issued by a group of those scientists.
“No truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions,” the scientists wrote…”
In the ongoing battle to take the poison out of our food, the state of Hawaii has banned Genetically Modified Organisms, also known as GMOs. The longest running studies on GMOs have shown results linking them to greatly shortening life and increasing your risk of cancer. The people of Hawaii voiced their concerns, forcing the Hawaii County Council to draft and dispatched Bill 113 Draft 3 to Mayor William P. Kenoi.
This is the best critique of Séralini’s work I have read so far, and on page 262, you will find selected references under “Apparent author bias” including mention of a meta-analysis in Food and Chemical Toxicology.
I think there are a lot of problems due to the lack of standardized protocols and poorly designed studies. There remains a lack of research in general in this area largely due to industry’s claim that it will add nothing to safety evaluation. Right now industry determines what kind of research establishes safety requirements for commercialization. Thankfully, we continue to add independent research to our body of knowledge.
The meta-study you linked to actually identifies a number of issues. It seems the major problem in the majority of the studies is not using an isogenic line to compare to the transgenic plant in order to eliminate the influence of genetic and environmental factors.
In general, we don’t really know the significance of the findings.
The studies reviewed were also criticized as not meeting National Agency for Food Safety or European Food Safety Authority guidelines – although I can’t tell you what the significance of that is.
Yet, despite the lack of robust data, the meta-study concludes that “gmos are safe”. I fail to see how the conclusion is justified by the findings.
Apparently there are only a handful of meta-studies on safety that are based on feeding trials. In fact, only four that I can find. One is by Seralini, so I won’t bother linking to that. Another is the one you link to. Third is the one I linked to in an earlier comment on this page:
Thousands of safety studies that conclude GM food is safe?
No. Hundreds of industry pundits saying that they’ve concluded that it’s safe because we’ve been eating it for years and nothing’s happened.
It hurts my ears to hear a fellow skeptic say something so unscientific.
And you seem to think I’ve said “GMOs are unsafe” And that’s why you keep saying to me: “No! GMOs are safe!”
I have never never never said Gmos are unsafe. I think it’s impossible to assess them in that way. It’s always about what we can know and what we can’t know. It’s always about balancing risk and benefit.
Personally, I think GE in medicine is invaluable. Risk outweighed by benefit, and manufacture and regulation strictly controlled. That’s how you apply the science imho.
If you ever decide you want to talk about particulars, like the unpredicted consequences that actually do “crop up” in our GM plantings, then we’ll do that. But your screwy accusations of “Nirvana fallacy” and “anti-gmo activist”, or your unintelligible statement “While there is always uncertainty when it comes to manipulating the genetic structure of organisms, the testing of them has yielded no hypothesis to test against”, are something to which I have no response.
Absent strong, reproducible results that prove the null hypothesis false in this case, what are we to conclude? If we were talking about an actual toxic agent that belonged to a class of compounds that have been demonstrated to do harm, and if research involving that agent was equivocal, then one would probably be wise to err on the side of caution until more evidence was collected. However, as Arjó, et al., observe: “…there is no evidence that any novel toxin has been produced de novo by gene insertion.”
What is there about GMOs that is supposed to cause harm? If you can’t prove the null hypothesis to be false and you haven’t identified some sort of causal agent or interaction of concern, and if a significant body of good research plus two decades of use does not produce evidence of harm, then isn’t fair to say that there are no reasons to conclude GMOs are not safe?
While it may not be wise to hang one’s hat on any one factor like history as proof of safety, in the case of GMOs, there are multiple lines of evidence that are consistent with the conclusion that GMOs should not be considered a threat to one’s health.
The Seralini paper isn’t good- the sample size is too small for the conclusion, for example, but it seems the paper doesn’t meet the usual standards for revocation.
Both those statements can be true, but it seems this is a special case because of the consequences of the report.
In other words, the paper is a fine example of poor research that is published regularly where the conclusions don’t fit the evidence very well– I believe Dr. N. writes about this situation regularly.
This paper is special due to business/political ramifications.
Some people think this report caused some countries to ban GMO’s, for example.
And apparently that is a bad thing for a country to do.
For me if a country bans GMO’s, I find that to be mildly interesting or amusing. I can understand the seed makers being upset about a country saying no, but I’m not a seed maker, it seems fine to me if a country wants to do that.
Perhaps some countries are using this study as an excuse to ban GMO and are therefore basing a decision on misinformation. Or perhaps some people are more leery of GMOs than they would be if not for this study.
I think if this is the best evidence the ‘anti-GMO’ people can come up with that GMO’s aren’t safe… well eventually people will realize it isn’t evidence at all.
And people know smoking isn’t healthy– and eventually they stopped advertising trans fats as a ‘healthy alternative’, right?
I picked those cases because it took many years for those things to shake out.
I doubt this is different– we won’t really know what happens to humans who eat large amounts of GMOs over a lifetime until someone actually does it- right?
Dr. Novella has written a number of posts about GMOs. One thing skeptics seem to agree on is: you can’t say GMOS are “safe” or “unsafe”. instead, each must be evaluated with regard to safety. Right now GM crops are tested to be substantially equivalent to their parent plant, and the safety of the transgene is evaluated. If the plant and the new protein are both safe, and the resultant plant evidences no known plant toxicity, no anti-nutritional component, and seems to provide roughly equivalent nutrition components, it’s deemed safe. Unfortunately, the technology can and does show unexpected and undesirable results. This is inherent in transgenic technology. One problem is that the tested protein is often synthesized in bacteria, which have a much simpler secondary metabolism than plants. Once the transgene is in the plant and it’s commercialized, manifestations of changes in gene regulation have shown up.
Examples: increased lignin in bt corn, drought intolerance in RR soy, an isomer of linoleic acid in non-hydrogenated soybean oil that is normally only in hydrogenated soybean oil, and, possibly, reduced flavonoids in RR soy. The industry works very hard to prevent such problems, and would never intentionally allow any toxin to be a part of a new product. Nor would it wish for undesirable changes. But with so many years and dollars invested in development, changes apart from those that fail “substantial equivalency” (an unscientific and subjective term) are unlikely to prevent approval. But, unless and until we insist that more extensive evaluations are done, we risk human health problems when manufacturers begin to alter nutritional components of plants. Currently, humans consume GM products mostly limited to highly processed foods which contain little of those elements scientists warn may contribute to allergies, inflammatory disease, auto-immune problems or even cancer. Most GM crops are used as animal feed. Apparently, in 2012, Monsanto GM sweet corn appeared in stores as frozen and canned corn products. This would be something new because it means direct consumption of the whole product by humans. Since the sweet corn is manufactured for glyphosate resistance and bt toxin, i myself will avoid it. These pesticides, or their metabolites, have been found in human blood (even when the humans didn’t eat anything that contained it). They are apparently ubiquitous in our environment and so i don’t need to eat them directly until we know the consequences.
Regarding safety studies, i would think that comparing one plant fed to fish against another plant fed to chickens or cows wouldn’t really be a good way to assess safety for human consumption of GMOs in general. We probably need to use rats, use the proper controls, and set specific parameters – and apply this test to each GMO. Some good animal trials have suggested that we do need more research into feeding safety.
This abstract from “Risk assessment of genetically modified crops for nutrition and health” (link above) really sums it up:
“The risk assessment of genetically modified (GM) crops for human nutrition and health has not been systematic. Evaluations for each GM crop or trait have been conducted using different feeding periods, animal models, and parameters. The most common result is that GM and conventional sources induce similar nutritional performance and growth in animals. However, adverse microscopic and molecular effects of some GM foods in different organs or tissues have been reported. Diversity among the methods and results of the risk assessments reflects the complexity of the
subject. While there are currently no standardized methods to evaluate the safety of GM foods, attempts towards harmonization are on the way. More scientific effort is necessary in order to build confidence in the evaluation and acceptance of GM foods.”
So I guess my question to you would be: what are the “multiple lines of evidence”?
I think my final statement on this would be: by skeptical standards we don’t really have a conclusion to be drawn from even these feeding meta-studies, but we can’t say that’s because there are no problems to be found.
PS – these questions will become even more important with the advent of “nutritionally-enhanced” GMOs. We should avoid the complacency of beliefs like “I’ve been eating GMOs for years and I’m fine”. You’re not really eating anything now that would be highly likely cause a health problem. But there are a number of topics to explore with regards to safety as these newer products are developed.
There are many aspects to GMO agriculture and biotech. Currently, feeding safety might not even be the most important one.
“Dr. Novella has written a number of posts about GMOs. One thing skeptics seem to agree on is: you can’t say GMOS are ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’.”
One can’t prove a null hypothesis, so not being able to “say GMOs are safe” doesn’t mean that much, but one can say they are not safe if evidence supports the rejection of the null hypothesis. There are lots of things that people eagerly consume without fear that have not been “proven” safe.
“…what are the ‘multiple lines of evidence’?”
1) No clear clinical evidence to support the conclusion that GMOs are not safe (A bone of contention for sure, but my reading of the literature reveals a strong anti-GMO bias in studies that contradict that statement). 2) Substantial history of use without any apparent trends that suggest harmful effects due to GMOs (I understand that this history does not include long-term consumption by humans, but that does not mean this evidence is meaningless). 3) Nothing specific found in GMOs that is regarded as harmful that is not also found in non-transgenic plants. These are the first three that come to mind.
As for the last of the three lines of evidence I have listed above, your statement that “manifestations of changes in gene regulation have shown up” appear to include the sort of changes that also show up in traditional breeding programs. For my own decision-making process, I would have to see stronger evidence that there is actually something “bad” in GMOs before I reject them. For instance, in the case of Bt corn, the Cry proteins found there are very similar (virtually the same in terms of toxicology) to those found in the formulations of Bt insecticides approved for use in organic production systems, so Bt sweet corn does not represent a particular concern to me.
It seems that there are two camps, those who are not convinced that GMOs represent a threat to one’s health or the environment because science does not support that conclusion, and those who are predisposed to reject GMOs because they are not “natural” or represent an economic model that is distasteful to them. It appears to me that the latter will never change their mind until the null hypothesis can be proven, which means never, period.
“EU court annuls approval of BASF’s Amflora GMO potato.”
“While repeated EU scientific assessments have concluded that GMO crops are as safe for humans and the environment as their conventional counterparts, consumer opposition to the technology in Europe remains strong.”
Hi again BBBlue. Did you read the study of feeding trials I linked to? What was your critical response to the study that you yourself linked to? How do we move from “proving a null hypothesis” from: a lack of independent safety studies, along with the scant evidence that does exist, pointing to: “more study needed”?
Do I understand correctly that you believe substantial equivalence is adequate to protect against substantial contraindication. What are the requirements of “substantial equivalence” that cause you to draw this conclusion?
“one can say they are not safe if evidence supports the rejection of the null hypothesis”
I guess we differ on the evidence that exists.
If we agree not to investigate each GMO in measure to the technology employed, are we then justified in saying it’s safe? regardless of whether or not it’s evidenced a change in genetic expression to make it unlike its “parent”? changed it’s composition in a way that isn’t recognized with “substantial equivalence” but then proves to be quantifiably different in planting? The industry doesn’t typically test the newly expressed transproteins from the plant itself because it’s too difficult to extract. They are grown with bacteria, which have a completely different and much simpler metabolism than plants.
“…my reading of the literature reveals a strong anti-GMO bias in studies that contradict that statement”…
This is a curious statement. I can see how you might infer an anti-GMO bias in studies that find safety problems with “GMOs”, but that doesn’t seem any more rational than inferring a pro-GMO bias from studies that show no safety problems. What seems to me to be the case is: there are no studies that look at GMOs all together, except those we’ve linked to above – which mainly show that there are no consistent studies and no conclusions drawn – unless you want to draw a conclusion regardless of your data. Currently the majority of research is backed by industry. Perhaps you can find the industry study that was negative from the study above (actually i will try to do that for us) to see what we can see.
Bt insecticides have been employed in organic farming. By virtue of the fact that the Bt GE trait has spread to a number of other plants and weeds, and resistance has also developed, not only has this organic tool been removed for organic farming in many instances, but manufacturers must stack traits and more toxic pesticides must be used. How many traits will we “stack” while continuing to ignore the effect on the plant’s genome and proteonomic and metabolomic profiles?
“It seems that there are two camps, those who are not convinced that GMOs represent a threat to one’s health or the environment because science does not support that conclusion, and those who are predisposed to reject GMOs because they are not “natural” or represent an economic model that is distasteful to them.”
I would say:
There are a number of camps: Those who aren’t convinced that GMOs represent a threat to one’s health or the environment, (even though GMOs aren’t homogeneous) because they believe that science has shown there’s no reason (they have faith in what they believe the science to be). And there are those who are predisposed to reject GMOs because they are not “natural”. And those who reject because corporate GMOs are creating a monopoly on seeds and reducing biodiversity. And those who remain skeptical because of lack of appropriate evaluation and regulation.
My reply: I think an objection to GMOs based on “they’re not natural” isn’t worth considering. My reading of the literature shows a lack of appropriate safety evaluation and regulation, along with evidence of environmental problems and unpredicted pleiotropic changes which have in some cases substantially altered aspects of some plant components (with unknown effect).
“It appears to me that the latter will never change their mind until the null hypothesis can be proven, which means never, period.”
Is it possible to evaluate the body of research in order to assess its conclusiveness with regards to these various issues we’ve discussed? Who will do that?
If i could ask a personal favor: can you please tell me some of the research articles you read that caused you to conclude that those which contradict the statement “No clear clinical evidence to support the conclusion that GMOs are not safe” are biased? How did you determine bias in each case?
This is an honest request as I continue to try to improve my own skeptical reading of the research.
Sorry – the studies aren’t individually identified in the paper on COI.
There’s a wealth of references attached to all the papers above.
this toxicology survey: http://www.biosafety.ru/ftp/domingo.pdf
seems to be the most recent free version of Domingo’s research (of which I said above “This fourth is probably the definitive analysis to date, but is unreadable to us without payment.”)
I suggest being more selective about what you source. I went through most of what you’ve posted here and either few of them conclude what you do or are worthy scientific publications (not all journals are equal, especially pseudoscience journals and pay to play). Furthermore, many of your own conclusions are just plain wrong – there IS no evidence that GE crops have any increased risk than their conventional counterparts, and regulation does indeed vet problematic technologies before they are deregulated and reach market. Nothing on the market of the GE variety have been linked to any sort of health issues or harm.
Unfortunately, the technology can and does show unexpected and undesirable results. This is inherent in transgenic technology.
Where are you getting this from? While it’s possible to insert a harmful gene, that has yet to be done, companies would not benefit from it if they did, and regulation would catch it. If an unexpected trait is created, it too would be caught by regulation, and even if it somehow passed regulation, it would be caught on the market. In spite of what you’ve claimed in the past, risk IS assessed (which cannot be said about non-GE crops).
In any scientific field or endeavor, there will never be 100% consensus – there will always be outliers. In fields that have a higher percentage consensus, such as with GMOs, outliers tend to be driven by ideology more than data (consensus is driven by data, not mere opinion).
There is a big difference between precautionary principle and Nirvana Fallacy. It seems that many anti-GMO activists are waiting for the perfect set of studies to come out. The problem is, that displays a lack of understanding about science, in that there simply is no hypothesis to test against. A study cannot be created without a question to answer (beyond general safety assessments, which are already done in the deregulation process). As it stands now, there simply is little to hand most of the anti-GMO claims on, and much of the problems they have have little to do with the actual technology (and are erroneously conflated with GMOs).
This isn’t about inserting a harmful gene. It’s about the way the tools of insertion, and the mechanisms used to force the resultant mutation to persist, affect the resultant genome and gene regulation. And in nutritionally-enhanced plants, it’s about the complexity of secondary metabolism and how that’s effected by the transgene insertion.
“A study cannot be created without a question to answer (beyond general safety assessments, which are already done in the deregulation process)”
Studies ARE being done, in an attempt to determine what changes occur (since the industry doesn’t look for unwanted changes, or even necessarily test the transgenic plant for equivalency beyond the basic tests for know plant toxins, nutritional differences, etc.)
Perhaps you can briefly describe the deregulation process, what sort of assessment it entails and why you feel it’s adequate to the challenge of characterizing the safety of transgenic crops? Please include environmental considerations.
Regarding your links:
The chart is a perfect example of how industry advocates make meaningless comparisons between different breeding technologies in order to convince the general public that transgenics (and new cisgenics) are equivalent, or even safer than conventional breeding. Example: the “number of genes affected” is listed, as if that were an important consideration (I also contest the accuracy of this chart).
The Pamela Ronald Blog post is poorly supported. I commented there on Oct 29th (mine is currently the last comment).
PS – Pamela Ronald has retracted two papers this year: from PLoS One of a 2011 study, and from Science of a 2009 study. Another paper is currently in question. You might want to reconsider referencing her work.
Example of one paper revealing toxicity of a GM yeast:
I guess we do. I have not seen enough evidence to convince me that all GMOs should be excluded from commercial production. That is not to say there is proof that they are safe, but then that takes us back to not being able to prove the null hypothesis.
Most of my interactions with those who debate this issue are policy makers at the state level, not scientists, and among them, this is a B&W issue; they are ideologues pure and simple. They do not care if OPLS-DA was used incorrectly or if a certain pig feeding study was a statistical fishing trip, they only know that the constituents they care about are anti-GMOs and they parrot whatever talking points they are fed.
When it comes to GE and genetics in general, I am a layperson, my expertise is in the production and handling of certain fruit crops, and we do not grow or market any transgenic produce. I generally follow the principle Mr. Novella’s used in his comments about Monsanto in an attempt to form an opinion about whether a general claim is credible or not, and that is to consider the most prominent evidence cited first. The Séralini study is a good example. I read as much information as I had time for and wound up leaning towards critics of Séralini. Then I visited Team Séralini’s website and that pretty much sealed the deal; I have concluded that Mr. Séralini is not an objective scientist in this field.
It seems like every time I scratch the surface of those being quoted by anti-GMO interests, I find an ideologue…
William (Bill) Freese, Science Policy Analyst, Center for Food Safety: “Monsanto critics worry that the company will use its financial heft to pry open new markets in Africa and Asia for patented, transgenic crops. ‘They are trying to exploit the food crisis as a means to win acceptance for their products,’ says Bill Freese, a policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, a Washington group that opposes GMOs.”
David R. Schubert, Professor, Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory CNB-S, Salk Institute for Biological Studies: Absent evidence, accuses Monsanto of “having” political appointees who dictate national and agricultural policy, advances what I consider to be irresponsible claims connecting lignin production in Bt corn to Parkinson’s-like disease in animals, and defends Pusztai as a victim of harassment by the plant biotech industry; yet another conspiracy theory.
I understand there is plenty of bias to go around, perceived or otherwise, but I don’t count myself among those who think wanton exploitation of third-world countries and a disregard for people’s health and the environment is a standard feature of all corporations. In fact, I have more confidence in private enterprise doing the right thing in these matters than I do in anti-GMO interests telling the truth. If that makes me a corporate shill, then so be it, but that is the opinion I have formed after 30 years in agriculture and watching this technology develop. Monsanto does not have a monopoly, there are several large players, and most have a long and respected presence in agribusiness. The imprudent release of a GE product that results in significant harm would be a painful cost to any corporation. It is not often viewed this way, but profit is a very effective motivator for doing the right thing. For instance, Pioneer stopped development on a GE soybean variety back in 1993 when it became apparent that allergenicity was an issue.
In my world, there are only two camps, those who look at the evidence objectively and those who are ideologues. In policy discussions, I have yet to meet an objective observer who has concluded that there is no place for GMOs in agriculture. Some are more cautious than others, but all have agreed that it is possible to grow and market specific GMOs given appropriate oversight and management techniques. Perhaps you fall among the objective group who are advocating for greater oversight. Fair enough, I certainly have no problem with that, that’s part of the process. My disdain is reserved for ideologues who masquerade as scientists, and who are often brought to my attention by Mr. Novella and other skeptics, and motivate me to share my comments.
BBBlue, thank you for the holiday wishes. likewise I’m sure.
I don’t wish to defend one side or the other in this issue. My original comment on this page was to share the view (which is shared by a number of independent scientists) that GM food crops aren’t well researched for safety of human consumption, and that most of the studies that have been done are industry-backed, which may bias goals and conclusions.
If you want to discard from consideration the “Safety Testing and Regulation of Genetically Engineered Foods” paper because Freese is co-author, I respect that. I included it as a discussion on regulation, which is poorly understood by many who claim (regardless of their understanding) that GM foods are highly regulated for safety.
I will talk about the various websites you’ve linked to and what they say, because I see an interesting web of “relatedness”. If anybody seeks to form their opinions on GM food/crops from surfing the web, it’s an interesting exercise in deconstructing the info. I myself have formed my opinions this way, but I’ve tried to learn what I can about the science itself to help me “translate” the info (I have some background that helps me do that to a certain extent, but I am no expert either)
But, regarding “GMO pundit”/Academics Review: that website was created by David Tribe and Bruce Chassy. Bruce Chassy writes for journals like “New Biotechnology”, a publication of the European Federation of Biotechnology. The EFB has an extensive corporate membership of around 100 Public and Private Companies with direct biotech interests. Monsanto Europe is one of those.. He’s also a scientific and policy advisor with the American Council on Science and Health. The ACSH is an industry front-group. It’s a non-profit organization that receives the majority of its funding from chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturers, tobacco, biotech, oil, etc. Last public record showed Monsanto to be its biggest contributor (although last public record was a long time ago.) It asks for money to fund favorable science reports on new products. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/10/american-council-science-health-leaked-documents-fundraising
if you don’t like Mother Jones, you may explore the links here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Council_on_Science_and_Health#Funding
Also, from a letter to the Journal “Nature” from the Center for Science in the Public Interest with a GM conflict-of-interest complaint:
“Bruce Chassy has received research grants from major food companies and has conducted seminars for Mosanto, Mills Labs, Unilever, Genencor, Amgen, Connaught Labs and Transgene.” http://cspinet.org/new/pdf/letter_to_nature.pdf
What was the context of that letter? It was written to call out the journal “Nature” on its habit (at that time) of non-disclosure of financial ties of letters authors’. The CSPI contends that with an issue like GMOs, and the evidence for industry influence in research conclusions, disclosure is important. What does it the letter reference? The industry/financial ties of 18 scientists who disputed the arguments made by David Schubert in this piece: http://www.stopogm.net/sites/stopogm.net/files/DifferentPerspective.pdf
So, we’re back to Dr. Schubert! the same scientist whose article in the SanDiego paper is also incompletely posted on GMO Pundit and whose reliability as a commentator on the science is questioned. Likewise the Schubert “Nature” Letter is criticized on that same site, without any link to the letter’s content. I surmise that the job of GMO pundit is to discredit any scientist or research that voices criticism or even caution with regard to the transgenic organisms being planted on many millions of acres around the world, or to the genetically nutritionally enhanced foods in development – which are intended to displace staple foods in the same way corn, soy and cotton transgenics have displaced non-GMO in those plants.
So, if you’re to dismiss the article on regulation because Freese may be an anti-gmo ideologue, I think I must question the GMO pundit as promoting corporate ideology.
It is really difficult to approach the issue in this way I think. We have those who just don’t like “unnatural” things on one side, and those who are financially interdependent on the other. Where’s the objective analysis of the science? Who can you trust?