HIGHLIGHTS 33 JULY 25, 2014

Summertime
Sadness

Lazy summer days are a perfect time to observe in slow motion.

This story was simply irresistible.

Given the phenomenal ease with which anyone can accurately access so much information today, this one curiously emerged quite distorted by the media.

Just like the tale that in 1953 Moscow press agents proudly reported that a Soviet sprinter won a silver medal, while the American Imperialist one came second to last. They just failed to mention that there were only two athletes in the race.

In September 2012, scientists published the results of a 2-year study of how Monsanto’s glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide and Roundup-Ready GMO corn affect the function of adult rat liver and kidney. The study was criticized because its design was inappropriate to test for carcinogenicity, and retracted a year later. Immediately after the withdrawal, several journals offered to republish it. Thus it was once more submitted and published in June this year. Now it’s in the spotlight again.

This study had been explicitly designed to extend an experiment of only 90 days carried out by the biotech/chemical company Monsanto. Monsanto’s results hinted at possible kidney and liver toxicity in laboratory rats fed Roundup-Ready GMO corn, and the scientists predicted that if it had been allowed to run longer, severe damage might have been seen.

So the team, led by Prof Gilles-Eric Séralini from the University of Caen, ran the experiment for 2 years with the same corn and strain of rats as used by Monsanto. In addition, Séralini tested the Roundup-Ready GMO corn both with and without Roundup application, as well as Roundup alone so as to be clear as to the source of any ill-health that arose. And indeed, the kidney and liver results were very significant; severe damage was seen in all treatment groups. Unexpectedly, they also noted an increase in numbers of tumors, especially breast tumors in female animals exposed to Roundup alone, even though the study was not designed by the authors to test for cancer.

Most press coverage however focused on the tumors, perhaps carried away by a few disturbing images of the deformed animals. For the general public and untrained reporters, ‘tumor’ is virtually synonymous with ‘cancer.'

The public discourse became framed by carcinogenicity, even though cancer was never even mentioned in the paper itself.

Surprisingly, some scientists energetically joined the discussion of the study's carcinogenicity, even though any professional should readily understand the difference between tumors and cancer, and also should know that a study for carcinogenicity is structured in a fundamentally different way than one for organ toxicity.

Furthermore, some media centers, posturing as defenders of science, rounded up and distributed these critical comments. The resulting – overt and covert – flurry led to the study’s retraction on the grounds that it wasn’t a conclusive carcinogenicity study.

Last month Séralini and his colleagues republished the data in a paper explicitly presented to focus attention where it belongs: on liver and kidney toxicology of Roundup and the Roundup-ready GMO corn, which statistical analysis shows again to be highly significant.

Understandably, an inconvenient study – and what could be more inconvenient than results raising far-reaching questions about the safety of Roundup and Roundup-Ready based agriculture – stimulates elevated PR activity.

Much is at stake. The use of Roundup has reached such staggering proportions since its introduction in the 1970s, that many in agriculture would have to rethink their business model. Today, both GMO and "conventionally" grown crops (cotton, alfalfa, canola, potatoes, sugar cane, sunflower, tobacco, flax, bananas, soya, corn, wheat, oats, rye, and barley) for human, livestock and biofuel production have come to rely heavily on the use of Roundup and its glyphosate-based generic equivalents. Players at stake include seed and agrochemical companies, distributors, meat producing operations, farmers, grain elevators, academic centers whose agricultural extensions advise farmers, and many governments. The runaway use of this herbicide even slid into enthusiastic "treatment" along railroads and roadsides, in vineyards, parks, school grounds and home gardens.

Roundup and its stated active ingredient glyphosate are implicated in numerous other harmful effects of consequential importance. Scientists are seeing many repercussions of Roundup, including: as a micronutrient metal chelator leading to nutrient deficiency in crops; as a herbicide, weakening and thus lowering productivity of Roundup-ready crops (because while glyphosate-resistant they are not glyphosate-immune); as an antibiotic, disturbing the soil microflora including harm to fungi and bacteria which allow plants to absorb nutrients, phosphate and nitrogen; disturbance to gut microflora of the consumer; and interference with estrogen signaling, aromatase action and retinoic acid, leading to endocrine disruption and birth defects in animals and people.

Seralini's scientific data principally looked at liver and kidney toxicity and found very worrying consequences even beyond this – namely damage to other organ systems such as the pituitary gland and a clear increased trend in tumor incidence. But this unwelcome subject has already caused concern among the defenders of Roundup.

The PR tactics aimed at diminishing its importance resorted to a basic, well-tried formula: as in the case of the Moscow 1953 press release on the ‘success’ of its athlete, focus attention on an imaginary weakness and keep it there. This was the case surrounding the first publication of the study, and its retraction in November 2013. Now with the re-publication, it is happening all over again.

Once the die is cast, for scientists with no access to professionals in communications and public relations it is indeed difficult to break out of a frame—a "flawed cancer study" in this case—especially if so much is at stake. The challenge is even more daunting when a story of complex science faces so much innuendo and extensive consequences.

Populism in politics is well understood. Populism in science is just a sad performance.