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Monsanto GM study fallout: Experts react as France calls for ban

By Nathan Gray+

20-Sep-2012
Last updated on 21-Sep-2012 at 07:08 GMT

Friends of the Earth and the French Government have called for ‘immediate action’ against genetically modified crops as finer details of the widely reported Monsanto GM study are scrutinized among experts. 

The controversial study – explored in more detail by FoodNavigator here – reports a significant increase in the number of tumours experienced by rats fed a diet containing relatively low and ‘safe’ levels of foods that contain Roundup (the world’s best-selling weedkiller) and a genetically modified maize resistant to it.

The study resulted in the French government immediately asking the country's health watchdog to investigate the findings further, whilst calling on European authorities to "take all necessary measures to protect human health", including an ‘emergency suspension’ of imports of the maize variety in Europe.

Meanwhile, Friends of the Earth Europe called for immediate action by the EU to protect public health citing strong concerns about the safety of GM crops and the herbicides used on them.

Reacting to the calls, European Commission spokesman on health and consumer issues, Frédéric Vincent said the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) would examine the new study in detail:

“If it will be ascertained that the study indeed has scientific groudings, the Commission will draw the consequences,” he said.

Monsanto told FoodNavigator it would ‘thoroughly’ review the study findings of the research “as we do all studies that relate to our products and technologies.”

Speaking with us, Mark Buckingham of Monsanto Europe noted that similar claims made by the same author in the past have been systematically refuted by peer-reviewed scientific papers as well as by EFSA.

Refuted

“Biotech crops are among the most extensively tested foods in the history of food safety,” said Buckingham. “In 2011, the European Commission released a compendium of 50 research projects on the safety of GMOs over the last decade.”

He noted that the European Commission has funded research from 130 research project involving 500 independent research groups over 25 years. These groups conclude that “There is, as of today, no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.”

Professor Mark Tester of the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics at the University of Adelaide questioned why other data has not shown such effects:"The first thing that leaps to my mind is why has nothing emerged from epidemiological studies in the countries where so much GM has been in the food chain for so long?”

“If the effects are as big as purported, and if the work really is relevant to humans, why aren’t the North Americans dropping like flies?! GM has been in the food chain for over a decade over there – and longevity continues to increase inexorably!” said Tester.

‘Inadequate’ methods?

A number of well-established experts not involved in the study have reacted to the findings with scepticism, with many questioning the validity of the findings due to poor statistical analysis and underpowered control groups.

Professor Anthony Trewavas from the University of Edinburgh, UK, commented that the control group size of 10 is ‘inadequate’ to make any deduction.

“Only 10 rodents so far as I can see and some of these develop tumour,” he said. “Until you know the degree of variation in 90 or 180 (divided into groups of ten) control rodents these results are of no value.”

This view was echoed by many, with Professor David Spiegelhalter from the University of Cambridge, UK, adding that the methods, stats and reporting of results “are all well below the standard I would expect in a rigorous study.”

“To be honest I am surprised it was accepted for publication,” said Spiegelhalter, who added that he would be “unwilling to accept these results unless they were replicated properly."

Professor Tom Sanders of King’s College London added that the strain of rat used in the study “is very prone to mammary tumours particularly when food intake is not restricted,” while also suggesting the French researchers may have been on a "statistical fishing trip" due to their use of non-standard statistical analysis.

“For a paper with such potentially important findings, it would have been more satisfying to have seen something with a more conventional statistical analysis,” echoed Professor Maurice Moloney, Institute Director and Chief Executive of Rothamsted Research.

What do you think of the research? Are there too many questions over the study quality, or do you think the research could be the beginning of the end for GM? Let us know below!

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