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French GM study raises red flags on both sides

Controversy has erupted over new French scientific research claiming that genetically modified corn and the herbicide Roundup increases the chance of lab rats developing tumours and dying prematurely.

Controversy has erupted over new French scientific research claiming that genetically modified corn and the herbicide Roundup increases the chance of lab rats developing tumours and dying prematurely. Photo: Reuters

Controversy has erupted over new French scientific research claiming that genetically modified corn and the herbicide Roundup increases the chance of lab rats developing tumours and dying prematurely.

The paper, published by journal Food and Chemical Toxicology overnight, prompted the French government to ask a health watchdog to investigate whether the strain of GM corn posed a threat to human health and imports should be suspended.

But independent scientists criticised the researchers for conducting the tests on rats highly prone to tumours and using an unconventional analysis described by one academic as a "statistical fishing trip".

The paper found low levels of both GM corn strain known as NK603 and Roundup — the world's best selling weed-killer — could cause severe health effects over a rats' 2-year life-time, including mammary tumours and kidney and liver damage.

Up to 50 per cent of males and 70 per cent of females tested in the study died prematurely, compared with 30 per cent of rats in a control group.

The engineered corn, which is resistant to Roundup, and the herbicide itself are both products of agricultural biotechnology multi-national Monsanto.

But critics pointed to a 1979 study on the same type of rat that found an overwhelming proportion developed tumours before the age of two, even if otherwise healthy.

They questioned the researchers  failure to use a standard statistical analysis to examine whether the results differed from what might be expected through random variation.

The French government responded to the paper by asking the National Agency for Health Safety to investigate the finding.

"Depending on [its] opinion, the government will urge the European authorities to take all necessary measures to protect human and animal health," three ministers said in a statement.

In a press conference at the University of Caen in Normandy, lead scientist Gilles-Eric Seralini said the study was the first look at rats over their normal lifespan of two years.

"For the first time ever, a GM organism and a herbicide have been evaluated for their long-term impact on health, and more thoroughly than by governments or the industry," he said. "The results are alarming."

Professor Seralini is a long-time critic of genetically modified foods and has previously attacked Australian authorities for failing to get independent assessments of GM foods.

Earlier this year he drew criticism for posting on his website a certificate declaring he had been named the International Scientist of the Year 2011.

The certificate was removed from his website after it was revealed it was issued by the International Biographical Centre of Cambridge, which invites scientists and professionals to buy certificates declaring they are world leaders.

The strain of GM corn at the centre of the new study is sold, but not grown, in Australia. It is used in products such as corn oil, corn syrup and cornflour.

Regulator Food Standards Australia and New Zealand has approved more than 50 GM products to be imported into the two countries. Farmers in some Australian states — particularly Western Australia, but also Victoria and NSW — grow GM cotton and canola.

Scott Kinnear, director of GM-sceptic organisation the Safe Food Foundation, said the new research exposed a critical deficiency in the local regulatory process.

"To ensure that the public is protected against further exposure, there is an urgent need for a fundamental overhaul of the regulatory framework," he said.

"I think before we dismiss Seralini's research it is important for him to have an opportunity to come back against his critics. It is far too easy to just dismiss it."

Food Standards Australia New Zealand said it had not seen compelling evidence of a safety risk.

FSANZ chief scientist Paul Brent said it would look at any new research, but its confidence in the safety of GM products was backed by regulatory counterparts in the US, Canada, Japan and Europe.

GM crops are widely grown in the US, Brazil and China but remains a hot-button issue in some European countries.

"As far as I am concerned there has never been a study that has shown in any way that there is a safety concern," Dr Brent said.

"There is no plausible scientific reason to think something is going to happen. You look at a comparison of GM food and non-GM food and they are almost exactly the same."

49 comments

  • Does this actually surprise anyone?

    Commenter
    Sarah Charlton
    Location
    Hobart
    Date and time
    September 20, 2012, 12:16PM
    • I'm surprised it hasn't been legally suppressed by *guess who*

      Commenter
      Andy!
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      September 20, 2012, 4:30PM
  • Ah yes, yet another piece of shoddy science that the authors (with pre-existing prejudice) have selectively interpreted to indicate GM safety concerns. Of course, this will be more grist for the mill for anti-GM luddites who will jump on this for their “evidence” whilst ignoring the mountains of evidence to the contrary. And reactionary governments will also jump on this because appeasing voters nearly always trumps evidence-based decisions. Sad. Cue all the luddites and their tired arguments…….

    Commenter
    DM.
    Date and time
    September 20, 2012, 12:38PM
    • Obviously you are party to information that most of humankind is not and you know what this genie is fully capable of.
      You seem confident that there will be no harmful side effects from corporatised GM products.
      I guess super weeds , devastation of bees/insects etc.and tumors don't really count. - also that corporations put humanity's best interests before profits.

      So let's let it out of the bottle shall we?

      Commenter
      nkelly
      Date and time
      September 20, 2012, 2:33PM
    • Name calling and throwing labels around never actually does anything but discredit the thrower.
      History repeatedly proves that companies have been known to discredit anyone who threatens their profits. History also shows that the drug/chemical industry has a very poor track record in volunteering they made a mistake.
      Think of thalidomide, agent orange, DDT, 245T, and the most recent exposes over 2 of the top 10 selling drugs worldwide from 1995 to 2010.
      Then consider the tobacco industry, the building materials industry and mining (asbestos anyone?).
      Or on global cooling (1970s - Ice Age by 2000), Global warming that morphed into Climate change when the numbers did not stack up, Climate Gate (let's change the numbers so they show a problem and boycott/threaten any publication that dares to publish a different opinion/proof/study).
      Or mobile phones (World Health Org - Mobile phones may cause cancer - now only one level below smoking and asbestos on the WHO risk of causing cancer).
      Unfortunately researchers only keep their jobs if someone pays for the research, and large industry can pay much more than mums and dads.
      Truth does come out eventually, but by then it can be too late for millions.
      Anyone had a look at the nano particle sunscreen and cosmetic research - overwhelming number of studies now finding cell mutation occurs with nano particle cosmetics and not with non-nano particle products.
      It really does breathe new meaning into BUYER BEWARE doesn't it?

      Commenter
      Researcher
      Location
      Randwick
      Date and time
      September 20, 2012, 4:45PM
    • DM Dear Monsanto maybe, you sound just like on the payroll of one of the GM bullies, or CSIRO or part of our Government that has forgotten that their job is to represent all Australians and are not supposed to be working for any big business IF you are all so sure of your ~ science ~ why not be proud to label the products as containing GMO??? People do not deserve to be force fed, people must continue to have a choice, just like you would not force a vegetarian to eat a steak, or force an alcoholic to drink spirits? What’s wrong with the GM lobby is that a handful of companies will have the food control of the world in their hand / bank accounts! That’s the other major thing that is wrong with GM technology

      Commenter
      JB
      Date and time
      September 20, 2012, 5:49PM
    • So the new definition of luddite is someone who doesn't agree with your perspective DM?

      There is no doubt in my mind that we will depend on GM to feed the 9billion that will be on this earth by 2050, but we must do this safely.

      Its not the place for cowboys or corporates to decide what is safe when the impact will be on billions of human beings and countless more animals.

      Commenter
      Continuous
      Date and time
      September 20, 2012, 9:13PM
  • Sometimes, I can't help but think that some studies on GM are set up in such a way, that the results are more likely to go against GM.

    Really. 20 control rats and 80 GM fed rats. Wouldn't that give four times as many chances for a the rats to develop tumors ? And using a rat species that is prone to tumors ... Of course there are going to be more rats developing tumors among the GM fed.

    Commenter
    Kaelii
    Location
    South Australia
    Date and time
    September 20, 2012, 12:47PM
    • "As far as I am concerned there has never been a study that has shown in any way that there is a safety concern," Dr Brent said.

      There has also NEVER been a study that has shown that GM products are safe.

      Safety is not the issue here however, it is all about corporation profit at the expense of all life forms.

      Commenter
      Profit first
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      September 20, 2012, 12:47PM
      • I'm not sure but in science don't you test the null hyposthesis for statistical validity and scientific credibility?

        If your job is to test if GM is safe isn't then the null hypothesis to test that GM causes harm and measure the harm. If after monitoring and measuring harm you can't find any to report then ergo you have proved it is safe?

        Personally I'd prefer to not have my tomatoes artificially ripened and perfectly sized. I like to grow my own. I like the idea of biodiversity but I'm beginning to wonder if not having GM is a luxury the worlds population can afford...or rather a choice disproportionately wealthy westerners can make on behalf of those who have far less.

        Industrial scale production of food seems inevitable with increasing populations and density of living.

        I hate B-doubles on the road. Too big, too fast and too heavy. How else though to feed the masses that simply will not accept...sorry, out of that? GM and corporatisation seem inevitable, like bigger and bigger trucks unless other solutions become viable or wholesale changes in patterns of living occur.

        Commenter
        MattG
        Date and time
        September 20, 2012, 8:40PM

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