In the United States and abroad, independent and industry science battle it out on a playing field where testing protocols are still in flux despite a history of efforts to push for standardization.
French food safety officials have decided not to ban a Monsanto variety of genetically engineered corn after dismissing the findings of a recent study that linked the corn to massive tumors in lab rats and set off a firestorm of global controversy, but the announcement was not a straight victory for Monsanto and the biotech industry. The French authorities agreed with one of the study's conclusions - and Monsanto's deepest critics - that more long-term testing of genetically engineered food must be done (Genetically engineered products are also known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.)
In an opinion released on Monday, the French food safety authority ANSES announced that the data offered in a study on Monsanto corn and Roundup herbicide conducted by a team lead by biotech critic Gilles-Eric Séralini did not support its author's controversial claims linking the products to health problems in rats.
ANSES also called attention to the "originality" of the study, which was one of the first long-term feeding studies of its kind, and called for more research on the "rarely investigated" subject of the long-term health effects of consuming genetically engineered crops and the pesticides associated with them.
The two-year study, published in a peer-reviewed US journal in September, found that rats fed a lifetime supply of either Monsanto's NK603 corn, the Roundup herbicide which NK603 is engineered to tolerate, or both suffered organ damage and premature deaths at higher rates than control groups.
Séralini hyped the cancer findings and told the media he stands by his research, but he has also said that more research needs to be done. The study, after all, was a long-term toxicology study modeled from short-term industry studies like those funded by Monsanto to gain regulatory approvals in Europe, not a carcinogenicity study. Similar industry studies span about 90 days, and Séralini's team said that many of the health problems appeared in rats after the 90-day mark.
Michael Hansen, a biotechnology expert for Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, told Truthout that the study does not definitively link Roundup and NK603 to cancer, "but it raises questions that absolutely need to be answered."
If ANSES and Séralini's detractors say the study is flawed, Hansen said, then they must also extend that criticism to the Monsanto-funded studies Séralini mimicked over a longer time period.
In its statement, ANSES claimed that Séralini's study "did not cast doubt on previous assessments of ... NK603," but the agency called for large-scale studies on "insufficiently documented health risks."
In a way, the ANSES announcement dismissing the results of the study while calling for more like it is a victory for Séralini and his supporters. Séralini has publicly wrangled with Monsanto for years over the safety of its products and is supported by an activist group pushing for long-term, mandatory studies of genetically engineered crops, which are not required for regulatory approval in the United States or Europe.
Séralini's Media Fallout
In September, the Séralini study made a splash worldwide and quickly drew sharp criticism from scientists in the United States and the United Kingdom and pro-business publications such as Forbes.com. Monsanto itself recently dismissed the study.
The French and Russian governments, however, quickly launched investigations into the safety of NK603 in light of the study, and Russian authorities placed a temporary ban on NK603 imports. The ANSES announcement this week was the result of the expedited French investigation.
Meanwhile, US regulatory agencies, which have never conducted food safety studies on genetically engineered crops, stayed mum while the debate lit up the blogosphere.
Séralini's study included grotesque pictures of rats with giant tumors and was released to a limited number of journalists under a heavy embargo that prevented them from sharing the report with scientists before its official release, leading some in the media to suspect Séralini's team was more interested in generating media hype than promoting objective science.
Hansen, however, said that there have been "vicious" media attacks against Séralini in the past, and the media embargo may have been used to beat his detractors to the punch.
Regardless of the researcher's motives, the ongoing controversy surrounding the study injected genetic engineering into the headlines during the past month, exposing the inner workings of an ongoing information war over the safety of GMOs and an industry bent on drowning out scientific dissent.
The Information War
When it comes to getting the facts on GMOs, it all depends on whom you talk to. Many of the study's alleged shortcomings that boomed through the media following its release also exist in the industry studies - including Monsanto's own studies - that form the basis of approvals of genetically engineered crops in Europe. Some of the loudest critics of the study, such as the UK-based Science Media Centre, have received funding from agrichemical companies such as Bayer, BASF and - you guessed it - Monsanto.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), a European Union agency and food safety watchdog, also discredited the study on many of the same grounds as the Science Media Centre. GMO critics are quick to point out that the EFSA has come under fire from auditors and the European Parliament for conflicts of interest with the industry.
"When an industry study comes out poorly designed, they don't trash it," said Hansen, who described a "battalion" of pro-industry scientists that stands ready to criticize independent researchers like Séralini whenever their studies are released.
The science surrounding genetically engineered crops is complex, Hansen said, and with the looming deadlines of a 24-hour news cycle, reporters easily succumb to spin from both sides of the debate. In the weeks following the study's release, American bloggers smelled blood and resorted to pot shots to discredit Séralini and reporters who cover his work.
Journalist and blogger Keith Kloor, who is no stranger to controversy, wrote a scathing article for Slate accusing Mother Jones, Grist and, with a generous link, Truthout, of "fear-mongering" and seizing on "pseudoscience" in covering the study. GMO opponents, Kloor writes, are the "climate skeptics of the left." (Truthout's coverage did mention that known biotech critics conducted the study.)
Hansen tells Truthout that independent risk assessments like the Séralini study are often held to a double standard. In an open letter signed by dozens of scientists, Hansen and his colleagues point out that one widely quoted British scientist, Tom Sanders of Kings College, told media outlets that the Sprague-Dawley breed of lab rats used in the study are prone to tumors, and Séralini allowed the rats to eat as much NK603 as they liked. Similar studies by the industry, however, also use the same type of rats, and feed intake was also unrestricted.
Séralini was also widely criticized for using small test groups of ten male and ten female rats each. Séralini and his supporters have said that the sample size meets international protocols for toxicology studies, and Monsanto's own 90-day studies analyzed test groups of the same size. EFSA and other European regulators, however, said Séralini's study did not meet these same protocols.
"Where were you people when Monsanto was submitting studies with the same sample size and saying they that they were valid to show that this crop is safe?" Hansen asks of Séralini's detractors.
Séralini and his colleagues have been sparring with Monsanto for years, and in 2009, they released a study re-analyzing the data in three Monsanto-funded safety studies on NK603 and two other corn varieties that were submitted to European regulators. Like Séralini's own embattled study, Monsanto analyzed 10 out of a group of 20 Sprague-Dawley rats from each test group. Séralini's team was forced to fight legal battles in court in order to secure Monsanto's data for the comparative analysis, but once they did, they found that Monsanto somehow missed evidence that linked pesticide residue on the corn to toxic side effects.
EFSA also dismissed Séralini's 2009 review of the Monsanto studies, which the regulators had accepted from the company as part if its approval process for the genetically engineered corn varieties.
The European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER), which routinely defends Séralini and other independent researchers, explained in a statement that Séralini's latest study attempted to replicate the previous Monsanto studies over an extended time period. ENSSER agrees with Séralini's critics that a sample size of ten rats is too small for a long-term study and protocols should be tightened, but if regulators like ESFA dismiss the study on such grounds, then the studies submitted by Monsanto for regulatory approval must be dismissed, as well. Regulators, ENSSER and Hansen claim, fail to turn such a critical eye when the industry studies show no harm.
ENSSER admits Séralini's rat study is not perfect, but the group welcomed it into the scientific debate over GMOs. The group argues that the controversy Séralini has stirred up reveals an underlying lack of scientific standards for conducting safety studies. Concerned scientists have demanded international authorities agree on a set of standard methodologies since the introduction of genetically engineered crops, but industry lobbyists routinely block such efforts, ENSSER argues.
Crushing Scientific Dissent
Hansen and watchdogs like the Union of Concerned Scientists say the biotech industry has a long history of suppressing and discrediting independent research on its genetically engineered products. The open letter Hansen co-authored details a legacy of scientists who faced intimidation after releasing research on suspected dangers of GMOs. Most recently, the Argentinian embryologist Andres Carrasco survived an attack by a violent mob in 2010 while on his way to present to members of a small farming community on the findings of a study linking Roundup herbicide to birth defects in Argentina's agriculture areas.
Patents on genetically engineered seeds set up a blockade prohibiting independent scientists from using the seeds for research. In 2009, a group of 26 corn entomologists sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) complaining that "no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions" regarding genetically engineered crops due to patent restrictions. The restrictions "inhibit public scientists from pursuing their mandated role on behalf of the public good unless the research is approved by industry," the scientists claimed.
Christian Krupke, a Purdue University entomologist who signed the letter, told a scientific journal at the time, "Industry is completely driving the bus."
The scientists were involved in research projects on corn rootworms and other crop pests. Since then, corn rootworms have become an agricultural epidemic for farmers as they developed a resistance to pesticides produced by Monsanto's genetically engineered crops.
In the wake of the letter, Monsanto and other companies set up voluntary deals with universities, and an industry trade group is developing guidelines to improve access to new seeds, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. The Union warns, however, that these deals are voluntary and too opaque to assure the public that independent researchers have access to biotech seeds. Researchers who are not involved in the deals are still left in the dark.
So whom can consumers believe? In one corner sits Monsanto and the rest of the biotech industry, armed with its own studies and well-funded scientists, claiming over and over that its patented genetically engineered crops are safe. In the other corner sits an international network of activists and independent scientists who, like Séralini, say more testing must be done on GMO safety but are often accused of operating with an anti-GMO bias. Anti-GMO alarmists and pro-industry pundits further cloud the waters.
Hansen and other consumer advocates are pushing for regulatory reforms in the United States that would require agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to conduct long-term safety studies on genetically engineered crops instead of simply relying on data voluntarily submitted from the industry, as US regulators have for years.
"People are shocked when they find out that the FDA has never done a safety study on these products," Hansen said.
Until reforms are made, Hansen fears consumers will have to sort out the GMO information war on their own.
"People are guinea pigs, and if you want to be part of this experiment, that's fine, but you have a right to choose not too," Hansen said.
For this reason, Hansen and the Consumers Union support Proposition 37, a California ballot initiative that would require groceries containing genetically engineered ingredients to be labeled as such. While the Séralini controversy exploded across France and Europe, Proposition 37 has sparked a GMO information war of its own, complete with millions of dollars worth of television ads paid for by Monsanto, DuPont and other agrichemical companies pushing to defeat the initiative.
Some anti-37 ads feature Henry Miller, an expert who's resume includes arguing for the reintroduction of the pesticide DDT and founding a Phillip Morris-backed front group to discredit the links between tobacco products and health problems. Several California newspapers have complained that the ads are misleading and the pro-37 campaign claims their well-funded opponents are subverting the election with "a massive campaign of lies and deception."
Meanwhile, the pro-37 campaign has taken heat for trumpeting the embattled Séralini study and using scare tactics to woo voters.
At home and abroad, the Monsanto information war continues.