GMOs: Seven Obvious Questions in Search of Straightforward Answers?

cr2011158f1 From, via IR. Inspired by KK, of course. I don't know who the campaignforrealfarming are, but for the moment I'll treat them as worth talking to. You'll notice there is a total absence of refs in the piece, so I feel no obligation to provide any in response.

The first three questions

The first three questions are:

1: After 30 years of intense effort and huge investment, can the GM advocates offer any examples of GM food crops that have brought unequivocal benefit to humanity or to the world at large?

2: Assuming that the advocates of GM food can demonstrate unequivocal benefits, can they also show that those benefits could not have been achieved – just as easily, at the same cost, in the same time, and without collateral damage — by traditional means?

3: Putting points 1 and 2 together, can the GM advocates demonstrate that the research on GM has been cost-effective? If the same amount of research effort and resource had been put into other approaches, could we not have achieved far more?

To my mind, these questions are all really rather beside the point. If companies wish to invest in GM, well, they can. Why should they have to answer questions about cost effectiveness? That's their problem. We live, or we hope to live, in a free liberal society: you (individually, or banded together as shareholders in a company) can invest in what you like, subject only to not harming others (and note that q's 1-3 are not about harm; they are seeking to have benefit demonstrated).

So campaignforrealfarming is looking profoundly illiberal so far. But perhaps further q's will be better.

Note that I haven't addressed the issue of whether public money should go into GMO research. That's a bit messy, and doesn't fit into my strict Hobbesian idealogical framework so easily. Broadly, I think I'd need to be convinced that there really was significant public money being "misspent" before getting worried; the article I'm quoting from doesn't even try to do that.

Four and five

4: Can we really be sure that GM crops are safe — for our fellow creatures in the environment at large; or for consumers – whether livestock or people?

5: Taken all in all, do the advantages of GM really outweigh the perceived disadvantages and the conceivable risks?

These are really one question, and are the heart of the matter: are GMO's safe? The campaign's answer is clear enough though:

All of the philosophy of science over the past 80 years or so (at least since Kurt Goedel and Karl Popper) has been telling us that science does not, and cannot, deal in certainties. In short, even if GM does produce some successes, it cannot justify the confidence that so many of its advocates display. Their confidence suggests that they do not appreciate the limits of science itself – which is itself rather worrying.

Yup, that's right. Science doesn't deal in certainties. Therefore you can't be certain that GMO's are safe. Therefore you cannot really quantify the "conceivable risks". And therefore its all too dangerous to bother with.

This is, I think, fundamentally their answer. And if they just said that, well, I think I'd disagree. But I could accept they were honest. But wrapping this core up in spun-sugar propaganda isn't honest.

There's a pile more stuff along the lines of "a huge and growing literature suggests that there is plenty of room for disquiet: stories of animals becoming sick when fed on GM crops; of “super-weeds” – crops fitted with genes for herbicide resistance that cannot be checked; of “innocent” insects including bees and butterflies being slain by crops fitted with pesticide genes" but with no references its all meaningless FUD.

More padding

6: Can we trust the GM advocates? Can we trust scientists who depend on commercial sponsorship?

7: What is the real motive behind GM?

Sigh. If you're a company, your motive is to make money. If you're an individual worker or scientist, you doubtless have a variety of complex shifting motives.

[Update: Eli has a nice post on this, which could be summarised as "Caution". Which is indeed a sensible approach, as long as not carried to excess. What is excess caution though? Well, that's hard to know in advance. A few more thoughts:

* "GMOs are intrinsically more dangerous, because we're talking about plants, which are self-replicating. So things could run out of control". Not false, but very incomplete because: the rate at which GM tech is becoming cheap is so fast that fairly soon (a decade?) we're going to have to be able to cope with the GM equivalent of script-kiddies playing about in the bedroom turning the grass pink. Or malicious governments (doing things, not being turned pink by script-kiddies). So I don't really buy the runaway stuff.
* that we should err on the side of caution is true, but isn't an answer. We already do, with the range of trials needed. And the opposition from anti-GM groups isn't "caution" any more than the denialism from the anti-IPCC folks is "scepticism". How useful are lessons like CFCs, or lead-in-petrol? In terms of GMOs I doubt they are useful, because people are already aware of them. it isn't as if people haven't desperately striven to prove GMOs dangerous.]


* Exogenous plant MIR168a specifically targets mammalian LDLRAP1: evidence of cross-kingdom regulation by microRNA - Zhang et al., Cell Research (2012) 22:107–126. doi:10.1038/cr.2011.158.
* The Post-Productive Economy (via EW)
* Lecture to Oxford Farming Conference, 3 January 2013 - Mark Lynas


More like this

"Can we trust scientists who depend on commercial sponsorship?"

I do see it as a problem that almost any scientist and almost any expert who decides on the safety of GMO has strong ties with the industry. It is a similar situation in much of the medical world.

Would it be practically feasible to have two groups of scientists. Ones which are funded by industry and one which are funded by public money. A university or faculty would then have to decide which group they want to belong to. I could imagine that this could lead to an interesting scientific debate and maybe even faster scientific progress. At least it would make sure that there would be sufficient scientists without ties to the industry that the public would trust more.

A related group is the Good Food Good Farming campaign.

By Victor Venema (not verified) on 02 Jan 2013 #permalink

"science does not, and cannot, deal in certainties" is not a useful framing. In my opinion, a more useful framing would have been, "Given that science can never prove a given technology perfectly safe, which technologies have enough potential for widespread disaster that we should test the bejesus out of them before using?"

While I'm actually not hugely anti-GMO, I think that GMO might qualify in that you are making a self-replicating organism. Ditto for any nanotech that has gray-goo capabilities (we're still decades away from that). POPs are potentially another example: if you're making a complex organic molecule that is likely to persist for a long time in the environment, then you should make doubly sure it has no unintended consequences. CO2 and CFCs can roughly fall into that category.

Having said that, I was just at the botanic garden in DC, and next to their poinsettia display they noted that in the early 80s poinsettias were intentionally bombarded with radiation to accelerate mutations. We've been selectively breeding plants and animals for 1000s of years. Grafting of apples is about as close to literal frankenstein-food as I can think of, and that goes back to ancient China. On the other hand, invasive species can wreak havoc without a single gene change. So in my opinion, it isn't whether or not it is a GMO, it is whether the GMO in question has potential for bigger negative ramifications than a number of other standard procedures...

You could use their approach to justify never doing anything new.

By carrot eater (not verified) on 02 Jan 2013 #permalink

"science doesn't deal in certainties" to me is a meaningless statement, put forth to appear intellectually honest. My opinion is that the only certainties in "reality" are mathematical tautologies and " cogito, ergo sum" Personally, I'm hoping for a solipsistic universe, but I don't like my chances.

"science doesn't deal in certainties" to me is a meaningless statement, put forth to appear intellectually honest. My opinion is that the only certainties are mathematical tautologies and Descartes "cogito, ergo sum" Personally, I'm hoping for a solipsistic universe, but I don't like my chances. Excellent points by V.V. and MMM also.

Directors who make non cost effective investment decisions should have to answer to shareholders. I doubt anyone is suggesting that isn't appropriate or isn't happening.

GM as surgical insertion of gene seem less prone to risk than irradiate to create lots of mutations that could well end up with end product including adverse changes as well as the change that is being sought. This seems a powerful argument but if the general public just doesn't like it and that adversely affects demand, that could cause the more dangerous more expensive route to be taken. That may not be ideal but that could be the supply and demand situation that exists. Ho hum, usually best to accept it rather than trying to buck the market.

Regarding "What is the real motive behind GM?"

Yes companies are motivated by profit and that usually works out OK. However, what if the 'real motive' is a route to profits that includes turning poor farmers into wage slaves?

I.e create a situation where farmers are trapped by side effects into having to continue to buy seed from the GM company. So GM company can then charge a lot reducing farmers to subsistence wage slaves? In a world of perfect and free knowledge you could say any farmer that gets trapped is just their own fault. But information is going to highly asymmetric. Perhaps this is just a matter of regulating marketing material?

I am not sure whether this possibility is real or just imagined as a possibility.

"Directors who make non cost effective investment decisions should have to answer to shareholders. I doubt anyone is suggesting that isn’t appropriate or isn’t happening."

Wanna bet?

By Eli Rabett (not verified) on 02 Jan 2013 #permalink

As has been noted many times, GMO to eliminate pests won;t work as the pests will evolve resistance. Far the best is biological controls such as pest eating insects.

As similar plan should work for weeds but nobody knows how to do that yet AFAIK. So GMO to enable RoundUp to be sprayed works until the weeds evolve resistance to RoundUp.

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 02 Jan 2013 #permalink

carrot eater: "You could use their approach to justify never doing anything new."

Lack of certainty is worse with agricultural GMOs as it is about the food supply on which our life and health depends.

By Victor Venema (not verified) on 03 Jan 2013 #permalink

Directors who make non cost effective investment decisions should have to answer to shareholders. I doubt anyone is suggesting that isn’t appropriate or isn’t happening.

The key word in your first sentence is "should". That's roughly how things would work in my ideal world. More precisely, the directors, acting on behalf of the shareholders (at least in theory), are supposed to fire the CEO if he makes non cost effective investments. In the real world, that frequently doesn't happen. It's common for the CEO of one company to be a director for another company, so scratch-my-back arrangements can and do occur. Witness the phenomenon of CEOs being paid eight-figure (USD) salaries while running the company into the ground. This is clearly not cost effective, since I (or most other commenters here) could probably do just as good a job of running a company into the ground for a lot less.

[I agree this is a problem. But its not a problem unique to GMO related companies, its ubiquitous -W]

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 03 Jan 2013 #permalink

Ok Eli, I will admit that there are some directors (particularly where they are relatives of a majority shareholder) who get away with it. Also if it isn't at an outrageously high level, then directors will also often get away with it due to information asymmetry. That may cover quite a lot of cases but I think there are quite a lot of cases where performance is noted to be poor and consequently don't move on to more important roles or other such effects for poor performance. The system isn't perfect, but as already pointed out I only said it should happen not that it always does happen. Perhaps I needed to add an 'at all' to end of isn't happening.

Just the theory of having to answer to shareholders should provide some motivation to avoid non cost effective decisions. That is what is needed and is largely there.

Jeffrey, I'm sceptical that "cogito, ergo sum" represents a certainty. It depends partly on the translation, and I'm no expert in Latin, but I think it does imply an 'I' that isn't justified - 'I think, therefore I am' is not a certainty, 'thought, therefore existence' may be.

Incidentally, I'm amazed that Keith Kloor can inspire anything anymore other than teeth-grinding frustration.

[Don't be unkind to KK, he has a role -W]

Yup, that’s right. Science doesn’t deal in certainties. Therefore you can’t be certain that GMO’s are safe. Therefore you cannot really quantify the “conceivable risks”

Yes, it is impossible to prove that some thing is safe but it is quite easy to prove the opposite. At first it was very difficult to get any negative results pubished since the companies had veto power over the results and academics are traditionally very reluctant to be martyrs (esp after the treatment of scientists who did publish negative results).

However, there are now many projects being carried out which show negative affects. One of the most recent of course was the paper published by Seralini and his group who found major health effects on rats fed a strain of GM maize.

[That paper got ripped to shreds. See, e.g.… -W]

The cabal of scientists who actively promote GM, most of whom are at the Science Media Centre (…) and who do not disclose their close relationships with the GM industry and the scientists who were on the panel of EFSA who had approved the maize in the first place, immediately tore the results to shreds. However, other scientists, who had no connection to GM companies, quickly showed the errors in the criticisms. The first and most damning was the attack on the experimental protocol used by the French group. It was all wrong, used the wrong strain of rat, not enough rats etc.

However, it was quickly shown that this was all nonsense. The experimental protocols were identical to those used in the EFSA approved tests for "safety". The only difference was the length of time on the experimental diets, 2 years rather than 90 days. Even the reports submitter by the GM company showed biological differences at 90 days but they were dismissed as irrelevant.

[You haven't provided any links to the rebuttals of the attacks, so I can't judge them. But Nature is a serious journal. If you're going to claim "all the scientists are corrupt" then you're saying about the same as all the denialist wackos do for GW -W]

There are many more peer reviewed papers showing potential harmful effects that it is is very imrudent to say that these crops are safe. They must be evaluated on a one by one basis and not under the blanket of "substantial equivalence" that is used at present.

[You need to provide links rather than assertions -W]

As for the effects on farmers, the most common response is that if they are not happy with GM crops they should switch. The only problem with that is, where do the farmers get non-GMO seeds? In the US, the companies producing the GM seeds have bought out the majority of seed companies so it is very difficult for farmers to obtain non-GMO seed.

[At this point you need to stop and think: how can this be so? Is there really a huge unmet demand for non-GM seeds in the US? If so, why isn't the usual capitalist free-for-all meeting this demand? If the GM companies have bought out the non-GM ones, why is it? Do they have more money? Is that because they are successful, or because they are failing? -W]

The GMO seeds have not been the financial boon to farmers as was promised when GMO's were introduced. Costs of seeds have increased (for some crops seeds were free since the farmer could use his own), costs of chemical have increased, use of chemicals has increased. Luckily the US farmer is protected from this by the subsidies they receive. The chemical and seed companies have created a cartel for their products, this may be good for the bottom line but it is not good for everyone else.

[for some crops seeds were free since the farmer could use his own - but just above you've said that farmers can't get non-GM seeds because no-one will sell them. But clearly they could just continue to grow their own. If they wanted to -W]

By Ian Forrester (not verified) on 03 Jan 2013 #permalink



You like papaya? You like eating papaya? You enjoy papaya being a species on this planet?

Then thank GMOs.


1 - Yes, food has been eaten.
2 - Yes, that is what the free market means
3 - Yes, 1 + 2 = 3
4 - Define "safe", Certainly they are far safer than "organic" food
5 - "perceived" & "conceivable" are meaningless unless you can define them in relation to facts. Factually the answer is yes

6 - yes and yes, at least to a far greater degree than one can trust pseudo-scientists all getting their funding from one politically controlled source. Reference Lysenko and the catastrophic warming fraud

7 - Mainly money (ref answer 2) thopugh many involved will also be motivated by a desire to help humanity

I do not expect reasoned rebuttal. I do not expect even an attempt at it. Normal practice on "scienceblogs" is insults & when that doesn't work, obscenity & when that doesn't, censorship.

[I've removed your ranting at the end. The rest is almost sane, well done -W]

By Neil Craig (not verified) on 03 Jan 2013 #permalink

David B. Benson:

So GMO to enable RoundUp to be sprayed works until the weeds evolve resistance to RoundUp.

In at least one case, RoundUp resistance has been deliberately introduced into a pernicious weed of wildlands. Roundup-Ready Agrostis stolonifera (creeping bentgrass) is not a food crop, but is used primarily as a turfgrass in lawns and golf courses. In Oregon's Willamette valley, this species competes aggressively with native plant species, and can invade areas where it was not present previously. Field trials resulted in the escape of the RR genes into feral bentgrass populations, where they have persisted despite eradication efforts. The FDA has withheld approval to release RR bentgrass for commercial production, but wildland managers had already lost one of the few effective weapons against a serious pest.

By Mal Adapted (not verified) on 03 Jan 2013 #permalink

GM as surgical insertion of gene seem less prone to risk than irradiate to create lots of mutations that could well end up with end product including adverse changes as well as the change that is being sought.

[I'm not a biologist but neither are all the contributors here. I have also not followed the GM story for a while so this could be out of date].

It looks as if the above proposition depends on the validity of its first six words, which was by no means rigorous a few years ago according to the opponents of GM. That refers to the technology.

Then there is the possibility that the theory (central dogma?) being assumed (one stretch of alien DNA = one alien protein) may be over-simplified. If there are any neutral experts here, could they tell us whether the creation of small quantities of an unintended rogue protein would be (a) experimentally detectable.? (b) theoretically unlikely.

Even if the answers were negative it would not be direct evidence against the safety of GM but it would weaken the quoted argument.

By deconvoluter (not verified) on 03 Jan 2013 #permalink

William didn't post cites or links therefore I didn't. We are all supposed to be scientists, surely the first thing we do as scientists is do a literature search and come to the table with an open mind.. There are many good sites where GMO's are discussed by independent scientists. GMWatch ( is one of the best.

[Fair enough, I didn't post links. But you made a specific claim: "However, there are now many projects being carried out which show negative affects". The only support you've provided for this is Seralini, which is unusable. If you want to substantiate your claim, please do -W]

I just can't understand how scientists can see through the pseudo-science put out by supporters of the tobacco, asbestos and fossil fuel industries but can't see that the very same tactics and in a lot of cases the very same "think tanks" and people are involved in the promotion of GMO's.
Are they so convinced that GMO's will solve world malnutrition problems that they must go ahead with out looking at the negative effects?

[Here we are again. You're asserting negative effects, but have no evidence. This matters. The "economic" case against GMO can just be met with "shrug? So what, its just different products; as usual, the most profitable will win: why do I care?". That's what I'm doing here. If your riposte is "GMO is not safe" then that needs to be the core of your case. Clearly you're passionate about this, so its odd you don't have the refs to hand -W]

For anyone interested, GMO's have done essentially nothing to avert third world famine and malnutrition. However, there are a number of crops which have been developed to help with these problems, non being produced by rDNA techno0logy.

[I'm not surprised, because third world famine isn't really a food problem, its a political one. North Korea is a disaster area due to politics. South Korea is well fed, despite having the same climate. You see the same again and again -W]

See here:…

Unfortunately, these advances in agricultural research do not get the publicity that comes from new GMO crops. In fact, David King, the ex-Chief Scientist for the UK at least twice has claimed that agricultural advances in useful crops and practices were due to GMO technology when in fact they weren't:

[You're using the !?!Daily Mail!?! as a ref? Please say it ain't so -W]

By Ian Forrester (not verified) on 03 Jan 2013 #permalink

William you do not come across as neutral in this discussion. I gave as a starting point for anyone who is interested (does that mean you are no interested in finding negative effects if you didn't look at GMWatch? There are many references to peer reviewed papers cited by GMW).

In science there are many papers published which are a summary or review of an area of science, GMW is a review. In many peoples' minds it is "biased" but anyone can try and refute the negative papers. I have followed rDNA technology for close to 20 years. My background is in biochemistry with a period of research where I was looking at genetic regulation during chemical induced carcinogenesis so I have a fairly good grasp of what controls genes, both positive (induction) and negative (repression) of gene products. Many genes which are active during fetal development are turned off in normal adult cells. Their re-expression is turned on during cancer induction. Inserting a very strong promoter gene into a genome which can easily turn on these "silenced" genes is a worry to anyone who understands the details of what is going on with rDNA technology. The insertion site is completely random, if it happens to be close to a "silenced" gene it can easily be turned on when it should be turned off. If the promoter gene is horizontally transferred can it activate repressed genes? I think that is an answer which should be answered by actual research and not by the typical company response "don't worry, it can't and won't happen". How many times have they said that and subsequently been shown to be wrong (check GMW for details).

This is what is meant by "genetic roulette" when applied to rDNA technology.

Since you didn't like my reference to the Daily Mail here is a recording of what David King actually said: (go to 0750)

Here is a description of the actual research he was talking about:

As you can see, no mention of any genetic transfer or snipping of genes, just the simple planting of two crops together. I would have thought that any scientist in the UK would be up in arms about the misrepresentation of science by the chief scientist. That is not the only time he has misrepresented details of agricultural science (see my previous post).

By Ian Forrester (not verified) on 03 Jan 2013 #permalink

Mal Adapted --- Thank you.

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 03 Jan 2013 #permalink

"The southern coastal and its adjacent mountain regions have the largest amount of annual precipitation which is over 1,500mm (60 inches). The sheltered upper Amnokgang (Yalu) river basin in the northern region, on the other hand, experiences less than 600mm (24 inches). Since most of the precipitation is concentrated in the crop growing areas in the south, the water supply for agriculture is normally well met." from

Stated otherwise, North Korea would still have trouble feeding itself even if there was a rational government.

And it appears that South Korea does not feed itself but that might be by preference rather than necessity.

[Pfffft, OK, but you know what I meant :-) S Korea, like the UK, has a market economy, so really doesn't care where it gets its food from very much -W]

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 03 Jan 2013 #permalink

I have no connexion to GM companies. And it's obvious to me, or to any other competent person who looks at it dispassionately, that the control group in the Seralini study was much too small.

Both the tetraethyl lead and the CFC issues arose over decades, so probably the title of the post should have been Caution and Keep Looking.

By Eli Rabett (not verified) on 04 Jan 2013 #permalink

PaulB, why do you say the control group was too small? Can you find any approved protocols for testing GMOs? There are none. The UK government decided they needed some so they sent out RFPs to a number of research groups. The responses were short listed to three (I think) and Arpad Pusztai group at the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen was chosen to work out protocols for the testing of GMOs. He did some preliminary testing and found that these preliminary tests showed negative health effects. His research was stopped, he was fired and no more has been done on getting acceptable testing protocols in place.

If you have been following what the "independent scientists" at SMC and EFSA have been saying then you are being deluded. The people at EFSA criticized the paper by the Seralini group on a number of factors including control size, strain of rat etc. (see here for a complete rebuttal of the Seralini critics):

Moreover, as clearly indicated in the article, the methodological criticisms leveled at this study would apply in far greater numbers and in a more important way to the studies underlying the market authorisation of GMOs and pesticides. Thus most of these criticisms can only backfire on those who make them, since in invoking science, they forget the extreme weakness of the studies carried out in support of the market authorization of such products.
(English translation here:

[That isn't a rebuttal of the critics. That's just an "I don't like the critics". There's no scientific detail in there, just a retired prof, probably friends with S, who is offering some personal support -W]

Also note that the study was not set up to look for cancer, that was an unexpected finding. Also note that Seralini used the same strain of rats as was used in the tests evaluated by EFSA to approve the GM maize.

There is now much pressure being exerted by the EU to get EFSA to use better tests. However, EFSA's executive director, Catherine Geslain-Laneelle, pointed out that the study would be on MON810, not NK603 - the GM maize used by Prof Seralini. Mmmm why not repeat exactly what Seralini did, after all is that not one of the scientific methods, repeatability? Looks like once again they are dodging the issue.

In case anyone thinks that the only people who are questioning the validity of GMO safety, it is not just "long haired hippies " who would like to see better and non biased assessments made, but many high profile scientists. I find it most discouraging to find on a number of supposedly science based blogs and outlets that those of us (with a science background) who question the safety of GMOs are equated with AGW deniers.

[What I said was And the opposition from anti-GM groups isn't "caution" any more than the denialism from the anti-IPCC folks is "scepticism" and I'll stick to that. The AGW-denialists will quote science snippets, and individual scientists they like that week, but only to prop up their worldview. The rabidly anti-GMO folk look to me to be very similar -W]

I would like to point out that the exact opposite is the case. The GMO promoters use the exact same tactics as the AGW deniers, corporate shills, right wing think tanks etc. Many of the think tanks and corporate are the same as deny AGW ( Matt Ridley, Dennis Avery, Henry Miller).

There is one major difference, the AGW deniers are always claiming fraud when none exists. Just examine the history of the agricultural industry and you will find a number of actual examples of fraud being used:

[Great. So there has been industrial/ag fraud in the past. Where does that get us? Nowhere -W]

One paragraph in one of the IBT reports shows how incompetent the authors of the reports were and also how easily misled those reading it and using it for approval were when it talks about the fact that there were no malformations in the uteri of male rabbits:

There are a number of recent fraud cases becoming public knowledge at the moment.One in India and one in China::…

Now these cases may not be fraud under a strictly legal definition but certainly fall into the category of scientific fraud.

By Ian Forrester (not verified) on 04 Jan 2013 #permalink

Ian: The problem with the size of the control group in Seralini's paper is nothing to do with approved protocols for testing GMOs, or competing groups of experts. It's simple analysis of experimental results.

Start with the male rats. He says "Control male animals survived on average 624 ± 21 days...After mean survival time had elapsed, any deaths that occurred were considered to be largely due to aging. Before this period, 30% control males (three in total)...died spontaneously, while up to 50% males...died in some groups on diets containing the GM maize (Fig. 1)."

Looking at Fig.1, cumulative mortality is shown by a dotted line for the control group, and in fact seems to be 50% for the control group at the line he's drawn at 624 days. If anything, mortality in the control group is worse than in the treatment groups.

For females, the mean survival is 701 days, with 2 rats in the control group dying earlier, compared with typically 5 in the treatment groups. As a null hypothesis, suppose that it's all random and 5 is the expected number of deaths by 701 days. The chance of getting 2 or fewer in a group of 10 is 5.5%.

Now, he would have reported his results just as enthusiastically if it had been the males rather than the females which had shown the effect. The chance of getting a 5.5% effect in either sex or both is 10.6%.

You say that this was just a chance finding while he was looking for something else. For all we know he's done ten trials which might have shown an unlooked-for effect which could be reported equally dramatically. In that case, his chance of seeing it in one or more of them would be 67%.

There are two reasons to think that it's the control group which is anomalous, not the treatment groups. One is that the effects in the treatment groups seem not to increase with dose. The other is that the suppliers of the rats report that they expect two-year survival in females to be less than 50%.

PauB did you look at Table 1 in Seralini's paper? He compares his protocol to the protocol used for the results submitted to EFSA for approval and to guideline 408 of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

If you have ever planned and carried out experiments with biological organism you will find it impossible to get it right the first time. That is why these experiments are considered to be preliminary.

Why are you not complaining about the results approved by EFSA and seem to be only worried about Seralini's results?

There are enough disturbing data in this paper to design more rigorous experiments and get to the bottom of these metabolic effects shown in his experimental rats.

Surely you can see gross differences between the control group and the experimental groups for a number of the parameters he studied.

By Ian Forrester (not verified) on 04 Jan 2013 #permalink

Any discussion of alleged effects which are within the margin of error of such results should be eliminated when publication bias is likely to eliminate results which are not "politically correct".

The same would apply if Monsanto claimed GM foods more healthful on similar random effects, but of course, they have more integrity.

By Neil Craig (not verified) on 05 Jan 2013 #permalink


Please, people, we who've tangled with Neil this and other blogs have learned he's nothing but a tar baby. Rather than get hopelessly stuck, shouldn't we save our efforts for more worthwhile challenges?

By Mal Adapted (not verified) on 05 Jan 2013 #permalink

Erratum: in my comment about GMO weeds, I referred to the FDA, when it's actually the USDA-APHIS that regulates GMO releases. A trivial error, perhaps, but rhetorical battles can be lost by them.

By Mal Adapted (not verified) on 05 Jan 2013 #permalink

William said:

[That isn't a rebuttal of the critics. That's just an "I don't like the critics". There's no scientific detail in there, just a retired prof, probably friends with S, who is offering some personal support -W]

You don't really mean what you said in that quote do you? I sincerely hope not. The implication that anyone who supports Seralini's paper is a friend, and that you are not "friends" with the critics. I hope that is not the way you review and assess research in your field William. That is certainly not the way I inform myself of scientific opinions. I read the paper, have you even read it?

As for the supporters, there is a saying among climate science deniers "follow the money". There is no trail of money grabbing scientists as far as climate science goes. Unfortunately the same thing cannot be said of GM researchers and supporters. Just about ever critic of Seralini's paper have vested and/or financial interest in shredding this paper. The "scientists" who criticize this paper are corporate shills for the GM industry (for those of you who have berated me in the past for my use of "corporate shill", here is a definition from Wiki: A shill, also called a plant or a stooge, is a person who publicly helps a person or organization without disclosing that he has a close relationship with that person or organization). The majority of those commenting on behalf of SMC do not disclose their financial and corporate links to the GM industry. In other words they are, to use William's term "friends".

The other scientists who have been very vocal in their criticism have been the scientists and regulators from EFSA. No wonder, since Seralini essentially duplicated the research funded by Monsanto which allowed them to say that the maize was safe. The only difference in the protocols being that Seralini extended the research to 24 months rather than the three that EFSA accepted.

A detailed version of what I have written, complete with appropriate links can be found here:…

I cannot believe that anyone can read Seralini's paper and not say "Wow we had better look into this a lot more closely than what has been done previously".

By Ian Forrester (not verified) on 05 Jan 2013 #permalink

William said:

[Great. So there has been industrial/ag fraud in the past. Where does that get us? Nowhere -W]

Simple question for you William. Does a leopard change its spots?

[That's what I thought you meant. That's why I said that kind of thinking gets us nowhere. Suppose your answer is "a leopard does not change its spots". The conclusion we draw from this is... (a) there has been ag/ind fraud in the past, and ALDNCIS. Therefore all ag/ind is fraudulent; or (b) there has been ag/ind fraud in the past, and ALDNCIS. Therefore the companies involved are still fraudulent.

(a) is silly, obviously. (b) is useless, because either the companies involved have shut down, or stopped being fraudulent due to the scrutiny.

So, this goes nowhere.

Of course, if you do want an example of ALCCIS, then there is Mark Lynas -W]

One of the worst scandals in the last century (20th) was the combination of lies, deceit, secrecy and fraud in hiding one of the worst environmental disasters of all time.

Which chemical and which company you ask? Well PCBs and Monsanto.

For many many years they knew about the harmful nature of PCBs and hid it. They hid it from their workers, they hid it from residents who were affected by pollution from nearby plants and they hid it from Government regulators by using fraudulent data from IBT labs.

This is the same company which claimed no harmful effects from glyphosate even though there are many many peer reviewed papers which show this not to be the case (Google Scholar and PubMed are your friends use them).

This is the same company that claims their genetically modified crops, in conjunction with their pesticides are safe. Do you honestly believe that this leopard has changed its spots?…

By Ian Forrester (not verified) on 05 Jan 2013 #permalink

Ian: what Seralini seems to have done is set up an experiment to test the hypothesis that GM maize treated with Roundup has toxic effects, as compared with GM maize not so treated. His results showed no such effect, but he did observe that a small control group of female rats had markedly lower mortality than all the other groups.

Now, something like this could be expected once in every ten such experiments - and Seralini has I suppose run more than ten experiments in his career on GM products. So it wasn't a very exciting observation. All the same, it is possible that the cause was a highly unexpected carcinogenic property of GM maize. It would have been reasonable for him to publish a note of his results and proceed with an experiment to test the new hypothesis.

But that's not what he did. He wrote a paper cherry-picking through the results - "The maximum difference in males was 5 times more deaths occurring during the 17th month in the group consuming 11% GM maize, and in females 6 times greater mortality during the 21st month on the 22% GM maize diet with and without R". And he held a press conference at which he presented this research as showing serious dangers with GM maize.

This is junk science, and anyone with a background in probability and statistics could tell you so.

PaulB the biggest cherry pick was the Monsanto funded research stopping after 90 days just as toxic effects started to be noticed. How do we know that that experiment didn't go on for much longer but the researchers only wrote up the 90 day results?

Why are you so critical of the number of control rats, that has got nothing to do with the toxic effects found in the other groups. I don't think you have a grasp for this type of research.

By Ian Forrester (not verified) on 05 Jan 2013 #permalink

More to the point -- which genetic modifications are being worked on. We don't know nearly enough to be doing this sort of thing intelligently yet. Hell, we don't even know what good soil is, yet. Though we know most of good soil is living organisms -- which is why hydroponics isn't replacing farming.

Worried about pests? Modify the pest organism so it's got some dependence on some substance that attracts it and can be manipulated to interfere with its reproductive success. Think beer. Or think of the 'terminator gene' but used in pests rather than in commercial seed products. Interfere with the pest.

But those aren't susceptible to being patented, driving out competition in the market, and gaining market share. Or if they are I'd like to see the business plan.

If public health were a corporation, I'd buy stock.

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 05 Jan 2013 #permalink

see also:…

"Although the medical community now warns that overprescribing antibiotics kills beneficial organisms and encourages the formation of resistant strains, a similar change in opinion has not occurred in agriculture, where a kill-all approach to plant pathogens has given rise to biocides that indiscriminately wipe out the beneficial along with the pathogenic."

Remember "The first rule of an intelligent tinkerer ..."

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 05 Jan 2013 #permalink

One thing aside from the safety or effects of GMO's is how US companies enforce patents that are placed on them in the US at least according to Pollan in Omnivore's Dilemma. He was critical of how aggressive they were.

Judith Curry currently has a post about GMO's on her blog. I posted on it.

By Joseph O'Sullivan (not verified) on 05 Jan 2013 #permalink

Ian: mathematics doesn't change according to the subject of one's research.

I'm trying to help you here. I don't know whether you've got a point or not about the GM companies, but if you want to be taken seriously by technically competent people you need to avoid using Seralini as your prime example of the dangers of GMOs.

Here's David Spiegelhalter on the paper - . So far as I know he's never worked for a GM company.

PaulB, why do you ignore my points about the fact that the Seralini paper uses the same experimental set up as the report used to approve the GM maize as approved by EFSA. Why is one "wrong" and one "right"? They are either both incorrect or both correct you can't have it both ways.

Most people would prefer to see a more rigorous protocol to gain approval but in fact the opposite has happened, 3 months for approval, no effects, and 24 months to show that there are negative effects.

Please do not believe all you hear from the GM promoter shills at SMC.

By the way the views of David Spiegehalter were rushed out by SMC. Please note that many well known (at least to those of us who are skeptical and research these things) corporate shills were included in that release from SMC…

You don't do yourself any good in the eyes of independent scientists who have studied this in detail by quoting biased information.

Once again I ask you, why are you so concerned about the number and strain of rats used by Seralini when they are identical to those used in the tests approved by EFSA? Surely DS should be as critical of that study as he is of Seralini's, if he is truly unbiased and not prejudiced?

By Ian Forrester (not verified) on 06 Jan 2013 #permalink

Question to William. What the heck does "ALDNCIS" and "ALCCIS" mean?

[A Leopard Does Not Change Its Spots / A Leopard Can Change Its Spots -W]

By Ian Forrester (not verified) on 06 Jan 2013 #permalink

William you do not come across as neutral in this discussion.

WC is contrarian by nature. By pure coincidence he knows something about climate science, otherwise he'd be now writing posts defending Steve McIntyre and the likes. :-P

As for GMOs, I don't know about the risks and everything (wouldn't be surprised if all isn't fine and dandy though). My main problem is the patenting of life, the monoculturing of nature, and all of that for profit, nothing else. And after that they'll create another cash cow.

Ian, when you use a strain which has a high rate of developing cancers by their very nature and thus generally do not survive for much more than 2 years, you need more rats if you do longer experiments. So, for a 3-month study you need fewer than for a 2-year study. That comparison between the methodological set-up is simply inappropriate.

For my part I put as much skepticism on Seralini's paper as on those of the GMO industry, if not more. I have a natural aversion to French people doing science and having strong ties to the homeopathy industry (the last author even advertises his training in homeopathy). And their claims about criticism from industry shills sound rather hollow, considering their own ties to Sevene Pharma, a homeopathy-pushing company.

Marco, you are missing the point. They were not specifically looking for cancers. They were repeating the experiments done by Monsanto to gain approval. The only difference being that they extended the testing from 3 months to 24 months.

Claiming that there were too few rats per group and saying they were the wrong strain is just a strawman argument.

By Ian Forrester (not verified) on 06 Jan 2013 #permalink

WC is contrarian by nature. By pure coincidence he knows something about climate science, otherwise he’d be now writing posts defending Steve McIntyre and the likes. :-P

You mean Wm is Carrick in drag?

By Eli Rabett (not verified) on 06 Jan 2013 #permalink

Neven --- Are they going to GM that cash cow from a Jersey or a Guernsey?

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 06 Jan 2013 #permalink

Please do not believe all you hear from the GM promoter shills at SMC.

My criticisms of Seralini's paper depend on a belief in nothing but good science. And you've not been able to say anything against those criticisms, other than that one dataset looks different from another. That's almost inevitable, given the sampling errors involved.

By the way the views of David Spiegehalter [sic] were rushed out by SMC. Please note that many well known (at least to those of us who are skeptical and research these things) corporate shills were included in that release from SMC

Are you calling Spiegelhalter a corporate shill? If so, on what basis? If not, your whole paragraph is irrelevant.

You don’t do yourself any good in the eyes of independent scientists who have studied this in detail by quoting biased information.

What biased information have I quoted? Back that up, or withdraw and apologize.

Sorry PaulB but I never back down and apologize when I am correct. All the information you have been telling us about the Seralini paper comes from biased sources particularly those emanating from the SMC.

You still have not answered my question asking you why you think the report submitted to EFSA is good but Seralini's is bad.

Please read more carefully, I never accused Spiegelhalter (sorry about the mis-spelling) of being a corporate shill, only being in the presence of a few of them.If you would like to see a discussion on the results from a statistical point of view they are discussed here:

and here:…

By Ian Forrester (not verified) on 06 Jan 2013 #permalink

No, Ian, YOU are clearly missing the point: if you use a strain of rats that has a natural life span that is close to the expected duration of the study, you need to use more rats to gain any statistically relevant results. Death isn't even a necessity, you can also replace "natural life span" with "natural tendency to develop tumours".

Allow me to explain using a simplified example: if you take 10 rats, you don't expect any to die within 3 months. There may be the occasional statistical fluke, and one dies within those 3 months, but that's about it. That leaves data from 9-10 rats for your whole study duration.
However, after 2 years you expect at least half to have died. Statistical randomness means that this can easily be 7 in one group and 3 in another group, without that being caused by any difference in treatment. This has major effects on your analysis and its statistical power, and Seralini et al simply did not take this into account at all. This is not even close to being a strawman!

Seriously, Ian, talk to someone who is experienced in animal testing and talk about properly taking into account confounding factors like natural life span. I have, and they just wildly shook their head at your attempts to justify an error based on ignorance.

Ian: the only opinions I have given you are my own. The only source I have referred to is Spiegelhalter. Yet you persist in accusing me of quoting from biased sources. What quote?

You may be unwilling to think for yourself. But I'm not.

I had a look at the two links you gave. In the first one the self-styled anonymous 'expert' says the results should be followed up - fine, do the experiment properly. In the second he destroys his claim to expertise with some wrong significance testing.

I've expressed no opinion on the EFSA report.

Please understand that the question of whether GM is a good thing, or whether it's adequately tested, is independent of the question of whether Seralini's paper is good science.

My opinion on fire depends on whether it's cooking my food or burning my house down; similarly, my opinion on GM technology depends on the specific application. I have great difficulty understanding any other position.


I’ve expressed no opinion on the EFSA report.

Exactly. Why not? Why do you ignore a report which was used to say that the strain of maize was safe then try to rubbish a very similar report that shows there are problems? Same strain of rats which many people say is wrong, how come it was right for the EFSA report and not for Seralini? Same number of rats in each group, again why is that OK for EFSA but not for Seralini? Could it be that the work on the EFSA report, financed by Monsanto, stopped at 90 days because some metabolic and serological tests started to show a divergence from normal? That is exactly when the Seralini report started to observe abnormalities.

And please do not claim that some thing on the internet is wrong because the author wishes to remain anonymous. Try looking in the mirror.

[You need to try reading what people are writing. You can't possibly understand what they are saying otherwise. PB didn't say

"is wrong because the author wishes to remain anonymous"

he said

"self-styled anonymous ‘expert’ says ... he destroys his claim to expertise with some wrong significance testing."

You need to understand the difference between the two statements. If you're anon, and you claim to be an expert, then the usual methods of checking that - academic status, publication record, reviews from peers - disappear. All that remains is whatever you write; and as PB points out, he destroys his own claims -W]

Marco, same question as I asked PaulB, why do you think that the Seralini paper is wrong but the EFSA report is good and should be relied on to tell us whether the strain of maize is safe or not?

Also did you read the two links I provided in my last post? Seems that people who actually do work in this area are not as concerned about Seralini's paper as two anonymous people who write on the internet.

By Ian Forrester (not verified) on 07 Jan 2013 #permalink

Ian, what I did was to express an opinion on *your* false claim that the number of rats used is a strawman argument (granted, you just parrot that claim from others, but like we demand of climate septics, if you adopt the argument, you better also be able to defend it. You didn't even try).

Regarding my absence of comments on the EFSA report: why do I *have* to comment on that? I made no claims about that at all, nor did I criticize you for making false claims about that report (I didn't even check whether you did). I didn't say GMO's are safe, I didn't say Seralini's study was wrong (but did express doubt, see below for a repeat of that), I only said that *you* are wrong in defending the number of animals being the same as in the EFSA report.

Regarding my doubt about the Seralini paper (and in reality most of the stuff coming out of that lab), I already explained that I have a strong aversion to people who have such strong connections to the homeopathy world.

Because it's irrelevant to my comments on Seralini's paper,
(However, if you care to link to a particular report, and highlight the conclusions in it you're doubtful about, I'll have a look and tell you if I think they're valid.)

Your man's comments aren't wrong because he's anonymous. Some of them (the ones about significance) are wrong because he doesn't know what he's talking about.

Here is my last post on this. Here is a critique and assessment of the various protocols which can be used to determine the safety or otherwise of a product. Seems to me that the only report which fails is the report accepted by EFSA.

Anyone who claims that Seralini's paper is junk seem to parrot what the shills at SMC say even though PaulB says they are his own.…

By the way the statistical technique used by Seralini is quite new. It is Orthogonal Partial Least Squares Discriminant Analysis (OPLS-DA).

By Ian Forrester (not verified) on 07 Jan 2013 #permalink

Let's suppose, arguendo, that many commentators on Seralini are shills for the GM industry who will shamelessly advance any argument to help their cause, even if they know it to be invalid. Nevertheless, we would not expect them to prefer invalid arguments if valid arguments are available.

It follows that the support of alleged shills for an argument is not evidence of that argument's invalidity.

You make a much better case for Seralini by linking to scientists who support the paper. It's unfortunate that Prof Saunders' comments - in full here - are mostly nonsense.

There are important questions about what standards of testing we should require for GM food products. It's a pity that we've been deflected from them by Seralini's publicity-seeking paper.

Since all the 7 questions have been satisfactorily answerd inn GM's favour - does naybody now dispute that GM has never harmed a soul?

[O/T trolling removed -W]

By Neil Craig (not verified) on 10 Jan 2013 #permalink

Killing off the soil microorganisms may be even stupider than we imagined:

"... Remains of dead bacteria have far greater meaning for soils than previously assumed. Around 40 per cent of the microbial biomass is converted to organic soil components.... Until now It was assumed that the organic components of the soil were comprised mostly of decomposed plant material which is directly converted to humic substances. In a laboratory experiment and in field testing the researchers have now refuted this thesis. Evidently the easily biologically degradable plant material is initially converted to microbial biomass which then provides the source material to soil organic matter."

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 18 Jan 2013 #permalink

I think thos debate could have been put to rest if biotech companies would publish in peer review journal. They could put out complete studies for others in scientific community to review. Of the products are truely safe then they should do it and remove all arguments. Easy enough, I would think. This debaye has been decades long and boitech a cts like we should take their word on it.

[What makes you think they don't? -W]