Perhaps the best hope for GMO foes is the emergence of studies linking genetically modified food to long-term harm. Opponents trumpeted one such study in September by researchers at France’s University of Caen led by Gilles-Eric Seralini, Ph.D., in Food and Chemical Toxicology. The study found half the male rats and 70% of female rats consuming Monsanto's genetically modified corn seed NK603 and Roundup herbicide died prematurely, compared with just 30% and 20% in a control group.
The study had not disclosed how much food the rats ate, it used a strain of rats prone to mammary tumors following unrestricted food intake, most of the control arm (10 rats of each sex) also got tumors, and Dr. Seralini has long been critical of GMOs. Critics noted the study tracked the health of the rats throughout their life span, and that tumors and organ damage suffered by the rats became evident only after four months.
In October, a study in Environmental Sciences Europe by another longtime GMO critic, Washington State University researcher Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., linked genetically modified crops to glyphosate-resistant “superweeds” resistant to increased herbicide use, citing USDA data.
Steve Savage, Ph.D., an agricultural scientist and pro-GMO consultant, wrote in Science 2.0 that the 404 million pounds of pesticides cited by Dr. Benbrook came to just 4 oz. per crop acre per year—while greater herbicide use reduced harmful environmental effects of plowing, such as soil erosion. The blog Big Picture Agriculture blamed “overuse and unregulated management of crops using glyphosate and [GMO] technology” as aging farmers conduct more aerial and boom spraying of pesticides.
Drs. Benbrook and Seralini “crystalized the scientific commitment to looking at GE technology from a scientific point of view rather than from the biased, rejectionist, anti-technology, anti-GMO perspective,” Entine said. “There are plenty of real, genuine issues that are worth debating, but to claim that there’s even massive, or even small evidence that genetically modified crops are harmful environmentally or in terms of consumer safety just is not supported by the scientific literature.”
The anti-GMO studies show the need for independent research on genetically modified crops. But as Gruber notes, researchers can only legally study genetically engineered seed through seed companies holding patents: “The companies that stand to profit or lose from the results are ultimately in control of who gets to do the research.”
Entine says Seralini’s study sparked a backlash in science and some journalistic circles, since news outlets seeking early access to the study results were forced in return to avoid interviewing pro-GMO critics. He also noted the recent public change in opinion by longtime GMO critic Mark Lynas, who apologized in January for leading raids on farmers’ GM crops in the U.K. and driving debate with scare words like “Frankenfood.”
Substituting shrill rhetoric with solid fact holds the best hope for addressing the GMO conflict. But that not only means less anti-biotech screed from opponents, but more transparency from food producers and other GMO supporters about just what’s in that ear of corn.