No room in science for provocateurs

How many times do we have to deal with the folly and fallout of sub-standard science?

So often we see the same old ill-reputed studies brought up to challenge something that is no longer an issue: the safety of genetically modified food.

Not so much as a tummy ache has been reported by anyone after eating three trillion servings of GM food. More than 750 well-executed studies conducted over a span of more than 20 years affirm the safety of GM food.

Many of these are conducted by independent, public sector scientists. We call this “scientific consensus.”

Three studies have been published over the past year that have created controversy online and in our dialogues about agriculture:

  • The Séralini et al. (2012) study alleged that rats fed GM corn were prone to tumours and higher mortality rates.
  • The Carman et al. study (2013) reported that pigs fed a diet of only GM grain showed a higher incidence of stomach inflammation.
  • The Kreuger study purported a relationship between glyphosate levels in the urine of Danish dairy cows and ill-health effects.

These studies are each guilty of three or more of the following:

  • A poorly executed methodology
  • Weak statistical analyses
  • Poor use of controls
  • Inappropriate sample sizes
  • Spelling and grammar errors
  • The authors’ refusal to release data or methods so that other scientists can replicate the work.

These weak or missing elements violate the long-established tenets of “good science.”

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However, why do these same old studies keep getting regurgitated in the media and continue to pop up on the internet, complete with hype and ugly photos?

  • The internet is an amazing highway of misinformation, and we are wholly tapped in. More than 70 percent of North Americans consult Google and social media platforms for information.
  • We humans exhibit interesting cognitive habits. We are conspiratorial thinkers, we are conformists and we seek out information that confirms our beliefs.
  • We love a good story. Before we could write, we told stories. The only difference is that we don’t do it on cave walls anymore. We do it on the fast moving social media trains of Facebook and Twitter.

This leaves us open to all kinds of misinformation.

Science isn’t easy to understand and it certainly isn’t sexy, so most of us who understand what “good science” is are left scratching our heads when poorly executed studies magically make it through the peer-review process.

Make no mistake, these so-called studies have political agendas driving them. They are promoted and circulated in such a way that they feed into our fears and our biases. The studies and their authors are highly provocative — nothing more.

Quite simply, there is no room in objective, evidence-based science for provocateurs.

Did you know that the publication of the Séralini study in September 2012 was neatly bundled with a well-promoted news conference, a book launch and a movie — all in the same week? This is unheard of in reputable science circles.

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It is clear that Séralini set out to prove something rather than to objectively investigate. In advance of the publication, Séralini also required journalists to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which meant they couldn’t consult with any third party experts to report on the study in a balanced way. No self-respecting academic scientist would require a non-disclosure agreement.

All of these studies have been discredited by food safety and health organizations and independent experts.

If any of these studies represented ground-breaking work, which legitimately challenged scientific consensus, they would have been snapped up by high calibre journals such as Science and Nature.

We are in serious trouble if we base our expectations of science on these kinds of poorly executed studies. We should strive for evidence-based information and good science to inform policy rather than someone’s agenda-motivated, fictionalized version of the science.

We should demand better as a society if safety and value-added are the goals of our food industry. We cannot hold progressive and innovative science to such weak standards.

Cami Ryan is a research associate with the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources.

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  • Robert Wager

    Bullseye!

  • Terry

    The real question to be asked is where is the funding for research coming from?
    The university of saskatchewan Ag building built in the 90s when Ag could least afford it recieves a massive amount of funding from multi national chemical companies. Plant breeders rights, fungicide and corn HFCS are all playing into the hands of the race to the bottom which appeals to egos of big farmers producing more grain that drives the price down, decimates rural communities , creates a one way only mentality and brings farmers to the brink of bankruptcy if they are lucky.

    Why is there not big research into organic farming or in the least into using legumes to enrich soils? The reason is because that empowers farmers to not spend the big bucks on crop production. Reporting one side of a story is not good journalism.

    The main point to remember is that if farmers didn t produce food there would be no food research or food journalism. Or maybe there would be but it would all come from a Petri dish. Sterile and interesting to only those who want to make a buck. To some farmers it is still a life long endeavour to grow good food for real people and to always remember greed takes away from someone else. Please pardon any spelling and grammar errors since I am not a journalist

  • What a pile of propaganda. Who’s funding your remarks?
    People are suffering from so many gastro-intestional disorders these days that rarely existed before the introduction of GMOs into our food. Ever hear of irritable bowel syndrome, Chron’s disease,colitis, diabetes, obesity,attention deficit disorder?
    Europeans figured it out. When are we going to wake up.
    I feel so sorry for the children with allergies and stomach ailments. At least we adults started out our lives on reasonably wholesome foods until GMOs were introduced into our food supply in the early1980s.
    Parents have found that when they started feeding their children organically grown foods the allergies and stomach upsets went away in many cases.
    And as we know, it’s not just the GMOs, it’s the types of chemicals sprayed on the crops which are causing health issues too.
    Our bees are like the canaries in the gold mine. If they are dying something is terribly wrong!
    Quit manipulating and mutilating our food sources when you don’t even know what the outcome will be on people,animals and our environment.Although I think you really do know some of the bad effects. But profits ,at any cost, are the driving force behind corporations. And proper regulations are the only way to make you guys play fairly.
    I don’t hear about any reliable and objective research coming out of the agri biotech industry. Your agri biotech corporate funded studies are biased, short and incomplete. And you are using us as the guinea pigs.

  • brent

    “Not so much as a tummy ache has been reported by anyone after eating 3 trillion GM meals.” Not sure how that claim can be made when consumers cannot differentiate between GM and non GM foods because of labelling laws.

  • Garrett Osborn

    Has any biotech company, Agri-food Canada or the U of S done any multiple year, trans-generational studies? I suspect all our food is so deficient in nutrient content, the results from these studies will be inconclusive or similar. We already have the species we require to function, we need to focus on soil health & nutrition rather than genetic manipulation. Tranfer of soil nutrients to the sewer and waterways without replenishment is our shortfall in achieving sustainable agriculture.

  • brent

    “Not so much as a tummy ache has been reported by anyone after eating three trillion servings of GM food.” This is a popular statement being put forward by the pro-GM groups, but what I can’t understand is how someone is supposed to report a GM tummy ache if they don’t know what they are eating because of the labelling laws. A sensational, misleading statement at best, just about what the author accuses the anti- GM researchers of with their research.

    The anti GM movement is, in part, a vote against “Big Food”. Consumers feel that they have been led down the garden past by Big Food. Saturated fats comes to mind. But this time they have it right with GM crops ?

    Why is it that the support for GM crops only comes from those who have a financial stake in its success ? Why is it that governments throughout the world have banned GM’s, do they have it all wrong and Monsanto has it right ?

  • Karen Roblin

    A sight for sore eyes – thank you!

    Readers might enjoy the following, covered by the Globe and Mail earlier this year:

    http://bit.ly/1b54Iy6

  • On the other hand, the evidence is becoming harder to ignore. GM food is the main suspect in destroying people’s health and causing the early onset of health problems like gastro-intestional disorders (Celiac and Crohn’s disease),obesity,diabetes, and heart disease.
    Our kids are the ones who will suffer the worst consequences from an experiment that went terribly wrong.
    Please google: “GMOs linked to gluten disorders plaguing 18 million Americans” for starters.

  • Barclay

    Very few times do the comments after an article prove the author’s thesis so completely.

    “We need to work on making sure science is done soundly and proper methods are used” …. all the way to: “no, we’ve made lots of stuff up and we FEEL it is more correct and we have lots of far fetched anecdotes of other people that FEEL it is too.”

    Would be funny… if it wasn’t so sad.

  • neil richard

    Yes Cami, we must adhere to good science……The question is who’s science? If you are referring to the science that brought us Insulin, The Hubble Telescope, or The World Wide Web, then bring it on!……..If you are talking about the science that delivered us DDT, BSE, BST, CWD, ADHD, SCC, CJD, antibiotics as a prophylactic, watersheds contaminated with a thousand agrotoxins and pharmaceuticals…… then I think I’ve had enough of the “good science”…. The sad truth is that “science” has become a faith based religion, and continually finds itself with its karma running over its dogma…….

  • Bill

    To say that diseases like Crohns, diabetes, and irritable bowel syndrome didn’t exist before GMO crops were introduced is a bold faced lie. GMOs were Introduced in 1996, and insulin was discovered in the 1930’s, before that, these diseases and disorders led to people dying. What is really hurting our kids is lack of exercise and processed foods high in salt and sugar. I don’t know why people are so daft they can’t see it. In thousands of GMO feeding trials no harm has been found to occur in animals, and these studies have all been replicated multiple times. But another thing I don’t understand is how GMOs, none of which are gluten containing, can somehow contribute or cause gluten sensitivity? Sounds like a crock of **** to me, and sorry, it isn’t Bt because Bt doesn’t have a binding site in the human body. If something is wrong in human health, someone can just say GMOs! With no evidence, and everyone believes it, science be damned, if you want to hate Monsanto go ahead, but don’t hate the technology because of them. It has limitless potential to do great things for human health and welfare, have you ever heard of Golden Rice? Google that one

    • People had been eating highly processed and refined foods for quite a few years before regulators allowed GMO’s into our diet in the 1990s. And some people did develop colitis,IBS Crohn’s disease and obesity.
      You don’t have be a scientist though to see how GMOs, in our food supply, have exacerbated these diseases and increased the rates of the gastro- intestional problems affecting so many people today. Look around your own community. People are getting sicker and ,dare I say, fatter earlier in their lives. Of course, some people know why but prefer to live in denial.
      Is it a coincidence when so many people tell their stories about immediately starting to feel better when they changed their diet to gluten- fee wheat and non GMO food?
      Google: “Attention Crohn’s and IBD Suffers” for the scientific info.
      “Harvard researchers discover the obvious about how genetically modified foods lead to inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis.”
      -Harvard researchers: Emanuel Barling,Jr., and Ashley F. Brooks RN,BSN
      There is a new study out on how the GMO Bt corn pesticide affects the body.
      The Bt plant damages the guts of insects when they chew on the plant and the Bt corn and pesticide residues,on the corn seeds, cause leaky gut problems in people. In an attempt to ward off these invaders, our body develops many intolerances or allergies.

  • Barclay

    One of the papers “The Séralini et al. (2012)” that she talked about; published in Food and Chemical Toxicology last year.

    It was reported in the last 2 weeks in Le Figaro that a letter was sent from Hayes (the editor) saying that if Seralini doesn’t withdraw the article, then the journal will retract it.

    • I look at this as a great opportunity. If the Seralini experient is flawed then Monsanto and their ilk should voluntarily hand over their patented seeds for independent and unbiased scientific research. Do you really think they will do that?
      Let’s do lots of research, unhampered by companies who manipulate their studies to reach the conclusions that suit their bottom line.
      If it can be proved that their genetically engineered seeds are safe for people and animals to consume and our environment (bees, soil and water) will not be irreversibly damaged, so be it.
      Let’s get to the truth so we can move on in the right direction.

  • Private science and public good not always the same.
    “But how does one separate the two?”
    Profit and destruction are two of the major reasons for the application of science today,
    whereas environmental and associated human social costs are seldom, seriously addressed.
    I don’t approve but can understand why university scientists who have been underfunded for so long,welcome generous grants and the many extras offered by industry and corporate endeavours.
    I appreciate the additional finances are a life line for some universities to survive; but it seems to me, that it is reasonable to ask: “What is expected in return by these fund givers”?.

    For instance, will scientists in such a relationship, be influenced to achieve and even promote findings that are not strictly factual conclusions of their research, but are beneficial to the situation of their kindly patrons?

    Then there are many self-regulated companies and industries that have the need and also the resources to employ and maintain their very own faculty of experts. Those individuals,among them, scientists, will serve in research, advance new products and help deflect any criticism that may be encountered.

    Again, one must consider the reputation and integrity of that company to help determine if true science will be upheld or will it be compromised. But in the final analysis, it comes down to two things.
    First: Who is paying for the work? and
    Second: What does that particular company want by way of controlling or predetermining the outcome of any research that is undertaken?.

    The examples that I have put forth are typical of to-day’s modern society that allows the truth of science to become a casualty and therefore, a victim, influenced in many ways by the interfering role of politics and $$$.

    So, the big question remains: “How does one separate politics from interfering with science” and the public good, plus the health of the people?

  • Madeleine Love

    I always expect perfect English Spelling and Grammar from the French and Danish 😉

  • Madeleine Love

    Oops! Must add “re-quired” to my English dictionary.

    • Paul Yanko

      Madeleine,

      I’ve re-moved the offending hyphen. No need to amend your dictionary!

      Cheers,
      Paul – WP web ed

  • Kimiko Epp

    Great article, well said!