Can the Damage from Agenda-driven Junk Science be Undone?

Unfortunately, junk science can be generated by people with agendas, and the editorial process does not always prevent it from getting the undeserved legitimacy of publication.  In extreme cases the legitimate scientific community responds, but can it undo the damage?  Recently a group of scientists led by Gilles-Eric Seralini of the University of Caen published a feeding study which purported to find tumorigenic effects of GMO corn and glyphosate. It was so blatantly flawed in design and interpretation that it elicited a rapid and overwhelmingly negative response.

The Scientific Community Responds

In an unprecedented move, the French academies of agriculture, medicine, pharmacy, science, technology and veterinary studies released a joint statement calling the Seralini paper a “scientific non-event” and the overall assessment that:

“This work does not enable any reliable conclusion to be drawn.”   

This follows a similar critique by the German, Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) which concluded:

“The study shows both shortcomings in study design and in the presentation of the collected data.  This means that the conclusions drawn by the authors are not supported by the available data.”  

This sort of rapid rejection by such an agency was also unusual.  Today, ANSES, the French agency responsible for risk assessments with biotech crops, published an opinion that:

“The study’s central weakness lies in the fact that the conclusions advanced by the authors are not sufficiently supported by the data published.”  

These statements are in the civil and precise tone of scientific communication, but they amount to about as much of a “smack down” as is possible from the restrained, academic and regulatory communities.  The currency of respect in the scientific community is solid data from objective, well designed, well executed, and properly interpreted experiments.  The “Seralini study” met none of those standards and should rightly be ignored by the broader society unless someday confirmed by more objective research.  Unfortunately, that is not a likely scenario.

How This Controversy Will Play in the Anti-Science World

It is far more probable that this “cancer link” will become another permanent entry in the lexicon of anti-GMO “evidence.”   It will join toxic lectins-in-potatoes, Monarch butterfly toxicity, and Indian farmer suicides as endlessly repeated, mythic narratives in the echo-chambers of groups and publications which oppose crop biotechnology.  It matters little how much good, respectable research has been published to document the safety of biotech crops, such as a review of 12, independent, long-term feeding studies published in the same Journal as the Seralini study just this April.  It matters little how many major scientific bodies conclude that biotech crops are safe.  To the true believers, this will stand as irrefutable evidence that they have always been right to oppose this technology.  All criticism of the Seralini study will be written off as part of the grand, profit-driven conspiracy to kill everyone with GMO crops.

The Real Fallout of Fear-Mongering

It would be bad enough if something like the Seralini study simply contributed to the unnecessary angst amongst consumers around the world.  It also has very real political, economic and practical effects.  For instance brand conscious food companies have used their leverage to prevent the development of GMO versions of potatoes, bananas, coffee and other crops because they fear controversy.  Apple growers worried about the market response are opposing the introduction of a non-browning apple even though it was developed by one of their own fruit companies.  French activists destroyed a government-run field trial of a virus-resistant root stock which could have made it possible to produce good wine on sites that have become useless because of contamination with sting nematodes and the virus they vector. More importantly, European and Japanese importers of wheat essentially blackmailed the North American wheat producers into blocking biotech wheat development because those companies were nervous about consumer response in countries where GMO angst is so high.  This has delayed by decades not only specific desirable trait development, but also what might have been an enormous private investment in a crop that is critically important for feeding a lot more people than just those in those rich countries.  There is a huge cost of “precaution” based on poor science.

Trash can image from Montgomery Cty Division of Solid Waste Services

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com

 

Steve Savage is an agricultural scientist (plant pathology) with >30 years of experience in agricultural technology. He has worked for Colorado State University, DuPont (fungicide development), Mycogen (biocontrol development), and for the past 13 years as an independent. He also has a little vineyard in his back yard near San Diego. His speaking websiet is :"His blogging website is Applied Mythology. You can follow him on Twitter @grapedoc


Commentary   , , , , ,  


Want to write for The Biofortified Blog? Click here to find out more!

19 comments to Can the Damage from Agenda-driven Junk Science be Undone?

  • I think the damage will persist. But there’s certainly hope as well. I really was certain Prop37 was going to win, based on the polling numbers early on. And then the Seralini tumorgate on top of that support–figured there was no way they could lose.

    But they did. A lot of people have seen through the BS, apparently.

    That said, I think they are going to have to keep hammering on wild health claims because the existing bogeymen are working less well, and are going to be supplanted by new products that aren’t about herbicide or farmer-level benefits. I hope that it will be even harder to make the case when non-corporate projects (like Golden Rice + that bean from Brazil) get to the developing world consumers and farmers.

  • Mary,
    Prop 37 was encouraging, as was the heft fines for greenpeace vandalism, but just like vaccine/autism nonsense (congressional hearing on it last week!), conspiratorial thinking is immune to logic.

    What I think will be interesting, and I plan to write about it soon, will be how food companies and restaurants react to the new, high oleic soybean oils that are coming out from Pioneer and from Monsanto. These would be great, lower cost ways to avoid transfats and saturated fats in foods and cooking. That is definitely a “consumer trait” but to communicate that would require some guts on the part of companies with brands – something that has not tended to happen.

    From an environmental viewpoint, there is a new transgenic tomato from Two Blades Foundation that is simply a pepper gene for bacterial blight resistance moved to the close relative, tomato (but not by conventional breeding – they are not that related). It could dramatically reduce the need for copper bactericides in the field – something that would be very positive for aquatic invertebrates and the food systems that rely on them.

  • I liked this article a lot Steve. Good job. Mary, I certainly hope you are right, but I have serious doubts when this kind of thing pops up: J. Greenberg, HufflePuff). Prop37 lost because they weren’t crazy enough and were financially mismanaged.

    You are probably right in that the wild health claims angle will be the most productive and robust. That hits consumers directly and they have been conditioned to respond positively to such claims. One step forward, ten steps backwards…..

    • Yeah, I know. In the short term that stuff will work and get eyeballs. But–I think that stuff mostly just aerates the base, the choir, the true beleeevers, ya know? And there are 2 other things that are important about that movement in general:

      1. Conspiracy theorists make terrible allies in the long term. If you are someone who wants to think everything is CT, you are no someone trustworthy because your reasoning isn’t sound. And it’s prone to infighting. I love the foodie fights–where OCA goes after Stonyfield. Where NaturalNutbags goes after Dr. Oz. That’s inherently unstable and unsustainable.

      2. Science wins in the long run. The real stuff, not the sleight-of-hand stuff. The Benbrook style, Seralini style, Heinemann style, it won’t stand long term scrutiny because it’s unsound. Again–it’s hard to watch it inflame the social media field for a week or two. But it won’t matter to the regulatory agencies and science bodies at the end of the drama.

      • pdiff

        Thanks for the thoughts Mary. I agree with your points, but on point 2, reg agencies and science bodies aren’t controlling things like consumer perception or voter initiatives. In fact, consumer perception often moves against those entities. Emotions seem to rule more there and they can be long lasting. If P37 had gone through (and survived legal challenges), it would have been very hard to undo legislatively. I say again though, I hope you’re right :)

        • Yeah, that’s true on the consumer perception. But so far on voter initiatives and other state-level attempts they really haven’t delivered.

          And if it had gone to court, there has to be an evaluation of the evidence. That’s also not always perfect, but at least they have to be exposed to both sides. Even still occasionally you get a wacky creationism law, but they get swatted (usually).

          The arc of science is long but it bends towards reality.

          I am by nature an optimist.

  • Junk science has broader impacts– it serves to justify dangerous behaviors and attitudes.

    Over at Nation of Change they regularly refer to the Seralini study, using it as proof positive that GMO crops are deadly. The false fervor whips readers into a frenzy. Here’s just one quote from the comments of a recent article:

    “It’s this type of corporate crap that is bankrupting this country and poisoning its people. Those in charge of Monsanto, and the Dupont GMO industry need to be executed. They are responsible for more death, destruction and corruption that any dictator. They need to be put to death.”

    The anti-science is fomenting a dangerous culture of violent vandals, stoked by fear and hatred for something they can’t understand. Very scary.

    http://www.nationofchange.org/eu-food-safety-agency-please-stop-performing-gmo-research-1354376211

    • And this is why I always flinch when I get home and open my mailbox … :(

    • Wow,

      I think that is is fundamentally sad. There are people like that who are actually that suspicious and fearful!

      Back in Medieval times, people were that frightened about all sorts of things and during the enlightenment people hoped that irrational fear was something that would be eradicated by knowledge. Unfortunately the internet age has supplied us with an excess of “information” which is not the same thing as knowledge. Overwhelmed by it all, most people become selective about their “information” sources and the discomfort of cognitive dissonance drives them to only get information that fits their existing world-view. Once they go down the slippery slope of conspiracy thinking, that base narrows and the ability to reject all other input only intensifies.

      I really have no idea how to address this. From time to time I have the chance to give some basic information to people who have not yet gone off the edge and sometimes that is encouraging. Sometimes I just despair

    • Wow – Anthony Gucciardi is just fabricating those claims out of whole cloth. No one said to stop researching GE crops! Mark Bittman linked to him a while back, I think for an article about Seralini and/or Prop 37. Either way, he’s a poor choice for a reference.

  • What I find disturbing is that the junk science detracts from the real issues. One of the points of Yes on 37 was that GMOs in our food are making us sick. The Round Up in fetuses, rats with tumors, the (non existent) link with increased autism aren’t the real and urgent food safety issues we are facing today. I would guess that listeria monocytogenes is more harmful (amount of people hospitalized, days of work missed, number of deaths, etc.) than Monsanto’s Round Up Ready corn. Do they believe that pathogenic microbes don’t infect organic food because organic food is “wholesome,” “natural,” and “mother approved?” Sometimes I just don’t understand.

  • Ewan R

    http://www.nature.com/news/scientists-torn-over-kenya-s-recent-gm-food-ban-1.11929

    One assumes that the damage from the current batch of junk science isn’t done being done yet, let alone being undone.

    If you know what I mean, and I’m sure that you do. (brownie points for getting the reference)

  • I was watching the response to that TEDx letter that just came out. It’s been going ’round the social media sphere, but if you haven’t seen it, this is what I mean:

    http://blog.tedx.com/post/37405280671/a-letter-to-the-tedx-community-on-tedx-and-bad-science?922dcfc0

    A letter to the TEDx community on TEDx and bad science

    They specifically call out “Food science” as a place to watch out for the red flags of pseudoscience. And they have a really good list of things to watch for about the claims.

    I don’t know if this will really work, but I think this was a win. And I think it should be celebrated as such. It was a pushback on junk and the damage caused.

    TED really listened to the outrage from scientists on this. Of course, it wasn’t just GMOs myths, there were a bunch of other junky things leaking in. But the TED brand has decided to side with science and not with cranks on this. They choose the group whose respect they wanted, and they picked mainstream science.

  • becca

    Well, I think there are few enough people remaining who believe that tobacco is unrelated to lung cancer to answer this question: Yes, eventually, the damage from agenda-driven junk science can be undone. At least in some cases. On the other hand, once something is linked to cancer that reputation can cling like the stink of beta-mercaptoethanol(*ahem* aspartame *ahem*).

    As a practical matter, I would be beyond thrilled if “agenda-driven” could be excluded as a perjorative in reasonable dialog, particularly when it comes to GMO food. Everyone has an agenda, but I’ve seen more egregious mischaracterizations of other people’s agendas than other people’s data

Leave a Reply