Questions arise about upcoming “Factor GMO” study

posted in: News | 52
The Factor GMO logo
The Factor GMO logo

Last week, Henry Rowlands at Sustainable Pulse announced the upcoming launch of a study on genetically engineered crops, which was later picked up by GM Watch. At a staggering $25 million budget, it promises to be “the largest and most comprehensive long-term experiment ever conducted on a GM food and its associated pesticide.” The press release (PDF) also claimed that the scientists involved in the study would come from a “neutral” background and not be from the biotech industry or the anti-GMO movement either. This would be a promising development, however, the announcement was short on important details, specifically, the sponsors, funding sources, and scientific expertise. “Factor GMO” didn’t even show up in search engines. However, they did say that the announcement of some of these details would occur on November 11 at The Farmers Club in London, England. So I contacted the venue to see if I could find out more information – and that’s where it got interesting.

I promptly heard back from my initial inquiry, and Air Commodore Stephen Skinner, the Chief Executive of The Farmers Club was certain that what I had heard was incorrect. “We are a members club that is apolitical and non-lobbying,” he said.

farmersclub
The Farmers Club, London

I provided the link to the Sustainable Pulse story, thinking that maybe there was a miscommunication and that someone had booked a room without specifically saying ‘this is for a GM crop study announcement.’ Then I might still be able to get in touch with the organizers to find out more about it. And indeed I was correct – the event was going to take place at The Farmers Club – but without their knowledge that such a big media announcement was coming. Commodore Skinner said he would get back to me about how to get in touch with them. (The GM Watch article has one contact identified, but this article was not located until Monday.)

Over the weekend, however, both Sustainable Pulse and GM Watch reported that the venue for the Factor GMO study announcement was changing – and would no longer be held at The Farmers Club. Sustainable Pulse claimed that it was “due to the amount of interest.” On Monday, Commodore Skinner confirmed that the event would no longer be held at The Farmers Club. We had a brief and cordial conversation about it, and he expressed how The Farmers Club is certainly open to having events from multiple sides of this issue gather at their facilities. He was able to forward to me their press release and website so I could get in contact with the organizers. One organizer did not want to be named, which I will explore below.

elena sharoykina
Elena A Sharoykina

The website of the “Factor GMO” project contains only an image* advertising its future launch on the 11th, and a contact email. The domain is registered to  Elena A Sharoykina, who runs the National Association for Genetic Safety (NAGS) in Russia, an NGO that campaigns against GMOs.

The NAGS has a questionable history when it comes to scientific claims about genetically engineered crops. They organized the conference where Russian scientist Irina Ermakova publicized her heavily-criticized claims that rats fed genetically engineered soy were infertile. The NAGS is also the source for a second “study” (translated) claiming that hamsters had altered sex ratios and infertility. The second one was publicized by Jeffrey Smith, who said that they also found hair growing in the mouths of these hamsters. Neither study has ever been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, and the history of producing far-reaching claims based on these science-by-press-release studies does not inspire confidence.

Study previously proposed

Perhaps the NAGS has changed its approach since 2010. In 2012, following the now-retracted Seralini study, the NAGS announced that they planned to conduct a $1 million study that would be live-broadcasted and have a transparent study design to instill confidence in the approach and results. Here is what they proposed:

These researchers will install web cameras in the cages of four groups of rats.

  • Group 1 will be fed a diet high in GM soybeans and corn.
  • Group 2 will be fed a diet low in GM soybeans and corn.
  • Group 3 will be fed a diet with no GMOs.
  • Group 4 will be fed a diet with standard rat feed.

To ensure integrity in the experiment, individuals assigned to tend to the rats will not know what food they are feeding them.

“This is a unique experiment,” says project Elena Sharoykina, who is spearheading the project. “There hasn’t been anything like it before—open, public research by opponents and supporters of GMO.”

The study design publicized in 2012, though only basic in its description, has obvious confounding variables. Groups 1 and 2 would have been fed both transgenic corn and soy, which would be the result of two different genetic “events” – two unique changes to the two crops, and there would be no way to know if any possible changes would be due to one or the other. The idea of broadcasting the study may be an interesting and unique aspect for their proposed project, but a good study design should have come first.

A page on their website also gives some early musings on such a study, with a call for contributions. According to the Web Archive, this page has been up since at least 2007.

No word was heard about the NAGS (also calling itself the GSPA) conducting a study until the spring of this year, when Sharoykina mentioned it in an interview with Russia Today.

The GSPA director confesses it was a modest, underfunded experiment and a more serious and comprehensive one is needed and is going to be conducted in Russia. The NGO has already enrolled a team of researchers from the US, France, the UK, China and Russia and will make sure the experiment will comply with all international standards. It’s also going to be available for everyone to follow online.

The GSPA is raising funds from as many sources as possible for the experiment to come up to the group’s claims – the first-ever independent international research on GMO.

A Contribution to the Literature

GENERA Safety
Studies cataloged in GENERA that focus on the safety of GMOs for consumption, showing both industry-funded and independent studies.

Sustainable Pulse and the media advisory for the Factor GMO study both** claimed that this will be the first ever independent international study. Except that it is not the first. There are a great many international studies that have been conducted on genetically engineered crops, some of which you can currently find in our GENERA database. Collaborative, international research is a common feature, and studies that are independent of commercial conflicts of interest make up approximately half of the studies that we have surveyed. Independent research is more common than is often claimed, and anyone can see this for themselves.

Nevertheless, if they conduct the study and publish it in the peer-reviewed literature, it can make a contribution to the existing literature. They frame the need for this study by saying that “there has never been a scientific study that is comprehensive enough to give them a clear answer regarding the safety for human health of any one GM food – until now.” The study has not been done yet, so this is putting the cart before the horse. Lots of things can happen with the experiment, from accidents, to flaws in the study design and analysis that are later discovered. Clear answers to scientific questions are found through confirmation and repetition through multiple independent lines of evidence, rather than results of single studies.

The 2012 article indicated something interesting – the NAGS was proposing to have opponents and supporters of GMOs come together to collaborate on the study, which may help bridge the divide between the two camps. However in the media advisory, they indicate that the scientists involved have no history or affiliation with pro and anti-GMO movements, which would appear to be an abandonment of their earlier proposal. How were these scientists selected?

As for the organizers – here is the strange part. The individual who registered the space for the event at The Farmers Club wished to remain anonymous, and did not want his name to be published or publicly associated with the study. Why is someone who is involved with organizing this project trying to remain incognito? Why did the world first hear about this study from Sustainable Pulse, which runs sites that advertise the Seralini and Carman studies? Many questions arise about the details and organization of this study.

I sent an interview request to the Factor GMO media contacts, and today I heard back from them that they will be able to communicate with me… next week. Maybe then we might be able to find out more. But I think for now they need to find a new venue that can handle the interest the study has generated. Incidentally, I was invited to attend, but I’ll be 6 time zones too far away. Anyone local want to go?

*At the time that this was published, the Factor GMO website was inaccessible. A copy of the “coming soon” image was retrieved from the browser cache.

**This article incorrectly stated that the media advisory from Factor GMO claimed that this would be the first ever international study. However, it was only the Sustainable Pulse that seems to have made claims about it being the ‘first’ international study. Their Facebook post still hints at this claim: “The first ever long term internationally collaborated safety study on GMOs and the related pesticides.”

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:
Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.