Dismissing the Seralini GMO Study

Joyce Nelson

For Vancouver Island opponents of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) and genetic-engineering (GE), Robert Wager has become a familiar figure. In March, Mr. Wager gave a presentation at Campbell River’s city hall, debunking what he calls GMO “myths.”

At the packed meeting, city council members voted not to pass a GE-free resolution, disappointing most of the crowd who were hoping that Campbell River would join the Union of BC Municipalities and some 14 communities in asking the province for a GE-free BC.

For Mr. Wager, who is a laboratory demonstrator in the biology department at Nanaimo’s Vancouver Island University, the vote was a personal victory of sorts. According to the National Post (Oct. 4, 2013), “For more than 13 years, he has made it a hobby of driving throughout coastal BC to appear at council meetings, and countering anti-GE on Facebook and in newspaper comment sections.”

Somehow, the word “hobby” seems inadequate for Mr. Wager’s extracurricular activities, especially because in 2013 he was the lead signatory to a letter to the editor published in Food and Chemical Toxicology (FCT) attacking the journal for having published the 2012 Seralini GMO study in its September 2012 issue. The letter, signed by Wager and some 24 professors from around the world, stated that “…the flaws in the study are so obvious that the [Seralini] paper should never have passed [peer] review. This appears to be a case of blatant misrepresentation and misinterpretation of data to advance an anti-GMO agenda by an investigator with a clear vested interest. We find it appalling that a journal with the substantial reputation of FCT published such ‘junk’ science so clearly intended to alarm and mislead.”

I asked Mr. Wager if he had initiated the letter. He responded by email, “In fact I was not the originator of that particular letter. How my name arrived at the top spot is still a mystery to me.”

The 2012 Seralini Study

In its September 2012 issue, Food and Chemical Toxicology published “Long Term Toxicity of a Roundup Herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant Genetically Modified Maize” by Giles-Eric Seralini and his team of researchers at France’s Caen University.  It was the first (and still the only) long-term study of possible effects of a diet of GMO corn treated with Monsanto Roundup (glyphosate) herbicide.

Dr. Thierry Vrain, a retired Agriculture Canada scientist, explains the background to the study, saying  that “in the biotech bubble of North America,” our regulatory agencies don’t require toxicity studies or safety testing of GM crops because “they are considered similar enough to their original non-engineered type that they don’t need to be tested.” But when Monsanto wanted to introduce its GM corn in France, “they were asked to do a toxicity study on laboratory animals.” The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) subsequently approved the “safe” results of Monsanto’s GM corn toxicology study in 2009.

Dr. Vrain says that Seralini “decided to repeat the Monsanto toxicology study, using the same strain of rats and the same research protocol,” but instead of testing for only three months (as industry does), Seralini extended the study “to two years and he included several treatments with the herbicide Roundup. Since the herbicide is sprayed on 90 per cent of all engineered plants [corn, soy, canola] – and consequently most engineered food ingredients contain herbicide residues – he wanted to test separately for the two effects.”

Seralini’s team tested more than 200 rats given a diet of GMO corn and Roundup over a period of a full two years (the average life-span of rats).  The study tested three different diets: GM corn, GM corn with Roundup residue, and Roundup alone (diluted in drinking water) with non-GM corn.

As F. William Engdahl wrote for rt.com (Dec. 2, 2013), “The long-term span proved critical. The first tumors only appeared four to seven months into the study. In the industry’s earlier 90-day study on the same GMO maize Monsanto NK603, signs of toxicity were seen, but were dismissed as ‘not biologically meaningful’ by industry and EFSA alike. It seems they were indeed very biologically meaningful.”

The 2012 published study shocked the world with its images of large tumors on the rats and its findings of “disabled organs” such as the pituitary gland, “liver congestions and necrosis,” and “marked and severe kidney nephropathies.”

According to Dr. Vrain, “After four months of eating 11 percent engineered grain, the rats displayed metabolic stress expressed in damaged organs, particularly kidneys and liver.”  He says that “four months for a rat is 10 years for a human, but if more than 10 per cent of your daily diet is made up of engineered grain, you too are on a Roundup diet.”

As Lucy Sharratt, Coordinator for the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), said at the time, “Health Canada has never looked past the 90 days of Monsanto’s studies. Canadians have been eating this particular GM corn since 2001.” It’s in more than 70 percent of packaged foods and in high-fructose corn syrup used to sweeten drinks and grocery items.

Sharratt told me recently, “The Seralini study was, and should be, a huge threat to the industry because, if this research is validated, almost all industry science used to approve GM crops is exposed as inadequate.”

The Guardian (Sept. 28, 2012) called the Seralini study “scientific dynamite.” Within days, the cover-up and censorship began.

Cover-up & Retraction

According to Engdahl’s investigation, “On November 28, 2012, only a few weeks after the study was published, European Food Safety Authority in Brussels issued a press release” claiming that the Seralini study had “serious defects in the design and methodology” and “does not meet acceptable scientific standards.”

The website spinwatch.org (Dec. 11, 2012) reported that the UK-based Science Media Centre immediately “began spoon-feeding journalists [worldwide] with ready-made quotes from scientists savaging the study,” while Forbes magazine in the ten days following the study’s release “published no less than six separate attack pieces targeting not just the research but also the researchers.”

Then, writes Engdahl, “out of the blue, in May 2013, six months after the Seralini study release, Elsevier [the company which publishes the journal] announced that it had created a new position, ‘Associate Editor for Biotechnology.’ The person they hired to fill it was Richard E. Goodman, a former Monsanto employee who was with the Monsanto pro-GMO lobby organization, the International Life Sciences Institute.”

Six months after Goodman was hired by the journal, Dr. A. Wallace Hayes, the editor of Food and Chemical Toxicology, retracted the Seralini paper in November 2013, a full year after its publication.

As Engdahl wrote, “Rigid criteria exist for a serious scientific journal to accept a peer-reviewed paper and to publish it. As well, there exists strict criteria by which such an article can be withdrawn after publication.”  Those criteria, set out by the Committee on Publication Ethics, are: clear evidence that the findings are unreliable due to misconduct or honest error; plagiarism or redundant publication; unethical research. “Seralini’s paper meets none of these criteria and Hayes admits as much. In his letter informing the professor of his decision, Hayes concedes that examination of Seralini’s raw data showed no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of the data.”

So what was the reason for the retraction? According to E. Ann Clark, a retired professor from University of Guelph and an early critic of genetic modification, FCT Editor Hayes justified his decision to retract the paper by saying “…the results presented (while not incorrect) are inconclusive, and therefore do not reach the threshold of publication for FCT.” But as Clark stated in her Open Letter to Canada Consumers, “It is simply unheard of to retract an accepted, peer reviewed, published paper just because results are not conclusive.  Most scientific papers are not conclusive…”

The rationale was widely criticized as an act of censorship. By April 2014, 150 scientists from around the world had condemned the FCT journal’s retraction.

Seralini’s study has been re-published (as of June) in Environmental Sciences Europe, after its third peer-review. While industry continues to debunk the study, the need for independent research on GMO crops and glyphosate herbicides is escalating.

The CKDu Epidemic

According to truth-out.org (July 10), Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup has been potentially linked to a fatal kidney disease epidemic that has hit El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, India and Sri Lanka. The disease is known as CKDu (Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown etiology, or origin). The victims are farmers who have been exposed to glyphosate herbicides (used in abundance in all five countries), along with heavy metals in their environment.

In Spring 2014, Dr. Channa Jayasumana and two colleagues at the Rajarata University in Sri Lanka released a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The study proposes “a unifying hypothesis” that could explain the origin of CKDu through something called the glyphosate-heavy metal complex.
Writing for truth-out.org, Dr. Jeff Ritterman summarized:  “Glyphosate was not originally designed for use as an herbicide. Patented by the Stauffer Chemical Company in 1964, it was introduced as a chelating agent. It avidly binds to metals. Glyphosate was first used as a descaling agent to clean out mineral desposits [like calcium] from the pipes in boilers and other hot water systems.” (Monsanto patented glyphosate as the herbicide Roundup in 1969 after it was accidentally found to kill weeds.) “It is this chelating property that allows glyphosate to form complexes with the arsenic, cadmium and other heavy metals found in the groundwater and soil in Central America, India and Sri Lanka. The glyphosate-heavy metal complex can enter the human body in a variety of ways. The complex can be ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin.  Glyphosate acts like a Trojan horse, allowing the bound heavy metal to avoid detection by the liver, since the glyphosate occupies the binding sites that the liver would normally latch onto.

The glyphosate-heavy metal complex reaches the kidney tubules, where the high acidity allows the metal to break free of the glyphosate.” The heavy metals then damage the kidneys.

Noting that this “elegant theory” needs further scientific studies, Dr. Ritterman nonetheless says it may be the best explanation for the CKDu epidemic.

Dr. Jayasumana recently told Pesticide Action Network, “Glyphosate alone is a weak nephrotoxic [kidney-damaging] substance.  When it combines with arsenic or heavy metal, its nephrotoxic property is enhanced a thousand times.  Glyphosate alone is not the cause for CKDu but it seems to have acquired the ability to destroy the renal tissues of thousands of farmers when it forms complexes with nephrotoxic metals.”

In March 2014 Sri Lanka banned glyphosate herbicides, but weeks later suddenly lifted the ban, while Ceylon Today called Dr. Jayasumana’s study “quack science.” El Salvador, however, has adopted the precautionary principle and is taking action to ban Roundup, which is also being linked to birth defects across Latin America and elsewhere. In late July, India put its testing of GM crops on hold.


Joyce Nelson is an award-winning freelance writer/researcher and the author of five books.

This article is sponsored by Glasswaters Foundation

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