Keep up with the latest news and comment on genetically modified foods            

Featured Articles on GMO issues


Science Media Centre "experts" who attacked Seralini's study: (2) Maurice Moloney

1. Expert reaction to GM maize causing tumours in rats: Prof Maurice Moloney
2. GMWatch response to Moloney's comment
3. GMWatch profile of Maurice Moloney

NOTE: The UK's Science Media Centre was originally set up in the wake of the Pusztai affair to try to ensure more sympathetic media coverage for GM, among other issues.

The UK media's largely muted coverage of the Seralini research, which found increased tumour rates, mortality, and liver and kidney pathology in rats fed GM maize NK603 and/or Roundup herbicide, shows the extent to which the SMC and a similar organisation, Sense About Science, have succeeded in damaging balanced and investigative reporting on technology-related issues in the UK.

Both bodies take some of their funding from the corporations whose products they defend. In the SMC's case this has included Monsanto, among other biotech interests.

The SMC uses the infamous "third-party" PR technique, in which views are given authority by being placed in the mouths of seemingly independent experts. Such people tend to be trusted more by the public and the media. But why some journalists can't do a little basic research into these experts' backgrounds as well as the truth or otherwise of what they are saying, is baffling.

The SMC was quick off the mark in issuing responses by "experts" to Seralini's research. When we looked into the background of the 8 named experts in the SMC's media release, we quickly discovered that seven of them had significant conflicts of interest which went unmentioned by the SMC.

The first expert quoted by the SMC was Prof Maurice Moloney, Chief Executive of Rothamsted Research. Moloney famously drives a Porsche with a GMO number plate and has a c.v. to match. It is Moloney's GM research that lies behind Monsanto's GM canola (oilseed rape). He also launched his own GM company in which Dow AgroSciences was an investor. In other words, Moloney's career and business activities are heavily dependent on the public acceptance of GM (see item 3).

What makes matters worse is that his criticisms of Seralini's study are not even scientifically sound. But they did their job. Jonathan Amos, science correspondent for the BBC, repeated some of the same arguments put forward by Moloney and his fellow SMC "experts" (now voiced by Monsanto too in its rebuttal of Seralini's study) in his article on Seralini's research, although they are largely attributed only to unnamed "independent scientists".

SMC quotes were widely used in global media coverage. Below (item 1) is Moloney's quote in full, as provided by the SMC, followed by our response (item 2).

Our response to another of the SMC's widely quoted "experts", Prof Tom Sanders, is here:
1. Expert reaction to GM maize causing tumours in rats: Prof Maurice Moloney
Science Media Centre press release
19 Sept 2012

Prof Maurice Moloney, Institute Director and Chief Executive , Rothamsted Research, said:

"Although this paper has been published in a peer reviewed journal with an IF of about 3, there are anomalies throughout the paper that normally should have been corrected or resolved through the peer-review process. For a paper with such potentially important findings, it would have been more satisfying to have seen something with a more conventional statistical analysis. A comparison of each measured parameter, which took into account the variance throughout the experiment, which would have been revealed using a multiple range test, would have provided better evidence for the concluding remarks and the abstract. Figure 1 does not provide any data from the controls and their variance is unreported here. Table 2 reports different numbers of individuals used for the controls than the treatments. In all cases the controls have used less individuals than used in the treatments. The data in Table 2 do not show confidence intervals or provide evidence of significant differences between all the treatments and the controls. The lack of a dose response effect is argued by the authors to be indicative of a "threshold" effect. This is an extrapolation of their findings and could only be determined by intermediate dosing. The photographs are very graphic, but do not include a control. Sprague-Dawley rats frequently develop mammary tumours in well-fed controls. Are we to conclude from this that no controls developed tumours? Numerically, we cannot tell, because they are absent also from Figure 2. We are performing a more detailed analysis of the statistics in relation to the conclusions, but for the present it is fair to point out that normally a referee would insist on showing the control data and its variance in such a study."
2. GMWatch response to Moloney's comment

MOLONEY: "In all cases the controls have used less individuals than used in the treatments."

GMW: This is untrue. The rats in the experiment were divided into 10 groups of 20 animals each (10 male + 10 female), with nine of the groups exposed to Roundup or NK603. In line with standard practice, the control group was matched in size to the experimental groups. Each experimental group was 20 animals (10 male + 10 female) and therefore the control group (not exposed to NK603 or Roundup) was 20 animals (10 male + 10 female).

MOLONEY: "The lack of a dose response effect is argued by the authors to be indicative of a 'threshold' effect. This is an extrapolation of their findings and could only be determined by intermediate dosing."

GMW: Moloney is upset by what's known as a nonlinear dose-response relationship of NK603 maize and Roundup. In other words, the toxic effects don't increase uniformly as the dose increases. In Seralini's study, the lowest doses of NK603 and Roundup produced a toxic effect and this didn't increase proportionally as the dose increased.

It's high time Moloney woke up to the weird and wonderful world of hormone-related toxic effects (substances that cause these effects are called endocrine disruptors). These substances can have toxic effects at very low doses and some can have toxic effects at low doses but not at high doses (nonlinear dose-response relationship).

The science of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) is not new – scientists have been pumping out peer-reviewed papers on the topic since the 1990s. But there are plenty of friends of the GM and chemical industries who still like to pretend that low-dose effects and nonlinear dose-response relationships only exist in the fevered imaginations of activists and what they call "chemophobes".

Why? Because EDCs turn the assumptions on which risk assessment of toxics is based on their heads. But that's a topic in itself...

There's less excuse for the ignorance of the UK media's science correspondents, who should catch up on two decades' worth of scientific research that apparently has passed them by.

MOLONEY: "Sprague-Dawley rats frequently develop mammary tumours in well-fed controls. Are we to conclude from this that no controls developed tumours?"

GMW: The "tumour-prone rat" argument is being repeated uncritically everywhere, though it is completely unscientific.

The long answer is here:

The short answer is as follows. How "prone" the rat strain is to tumours is scientifically irrelevant. What matters in a controlled scientific experiment is the increase in tumour rates in the treated (exposed) groups over and above the controls.

By analogy, a small proportion of people who never smoke get lung cancer. If you smoke, your risk of getting lung cancer is 12 times higher than if you don't smoke. The measurement is called a "relative risk". So, imagine that there is an ethnic group of people with a higher rate of naturally occurring lung cancer. If people in that group smoke, their rate of lung cancer will still increase like everybody else.

In Seralini's experiments, the treated rats got more tumours than the controls. And there are some additional important factors. The tumours in treated rats were detected much earlier (four months in males; seven months in females). They grew much faster and many animals had two or even three tumours. In the control rats the tumours appeared much later and at most there was one tumour per animal, if any.

Insofar as the relative "prone-ness" of the particular strain/origin of rat that Seralini used is relevant and it isn't – Seralini researched it and controlled for that factor, as he states in his paper. Result: still significantly increased tumours in treated groups.

Moloney's question, "Are we to conclude from this that no controls developed tumours?" suggests that he hasn't even read Seralini's paper. That might seem a possibility as he was commenting on this complex study just hours after it was released.

Seralini's paper clearly says: "Up to 14 months, no animals in the control groups showed any signs of tumors whilst 10 30% of treated females per group developed tumors, with the exception of one group (33% GMO + R). By the beginning of the 24th month, 50 80% of female animals had developed tumors in all treated groups, with up to 3 tumors per animal, whereas only 30% of controls were affected. The R treatment groups showed the greatest rates of tumor incidence with 80% of animals affected with up to 3 tumors for one female, in each group."

It's OK to be confused. What's not OK is to publish your confusion to the media under the guise of a damning "expert" comment on a scientific study that took a team of scientists years to research and write up.

The greatest condemnation, however, must be reserved for those science correspondents who uncritically swallow what they are fed by the SMC. In many cases, they gave more column inches to the unscientific opinions of the SMC "experts" than to the paper itself.
3. GMWatch profile of Maurice Moloney (summary)
Sources here:

Maurice Moloney has been the Director and Chief Executive of Rothamsted Research since 15 April 2010. He was the Chief Scientific Officer of SemBioSys Genetics Inc., a post that he left on March 25, 2010, remaining a consultant to SemBioSys. SemBioSys is a plant biotech company well known for its controversial work on pharma crops (eg producing insulin from safflower seeds). A GM pharma specialist, Moloney worked at SemBioSys on deriving a blood anti-coagulant, hirudin, from GM canola.

Previously, Moloney led the Cell Biology group at Calgene, acquired by Monsanto in 1997. At Calgene he developed the world's first transgenic oilseeds, which resulted in RoundUp Ready Canola and other novel crops. Moloney holds more than 300 patents.

He is a professor at the University of Calgary, where he holds the NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada/DowElanco Chair in Plant Biotechnology.

The director of GMWatch, Jonathan Matthews, wrote in an article for Spinwatch about Rothamsted's industry alignment under Moloney's directorship:

"This industry alignment is perfectly illustrated by Rothamsted itself, which partners up with corporations like Bayer, Syngenta and Dupont. It also has an Institute Director who not only drives a Porsche with a GMO number plate but has a c.v. to match. It is Maurice Moloney's GM research that lies behind Monsanto's GM oilseed rape. He is the inventor of more than 300 patents and prior to Rothamsted, he also successfully launched his own GM company in Canada – SemBioSys Genetics Inc., in which Dow Agro Science were investors. This was flagged up by the BBSRC when they appointed Moloney in a press release praising his 'effective translation of research into successful business activity.'

A picture of Moloney's GMO-labelled Porsche can be seen on the Spinwatch website.

Prof Joe Cummins, professor emeritus of genetics at the University of Western Ontario, commented on Moloney's history at SemBioSys and his appointment at Rothamsted:

"Professor Maurice Moloney and his company SemBioSys have focused on producing pharmaceuticals in the oil crops canola (rapeseed) and safflower. In the early efforts a blood thinning peptide called hirudin was produced in canola and had open field tests in the canola growing area of the province Alberta. Hirudin is extremely toxic if consumed even in small quantities by humans or animals. Such open field tests should not have been allowed as the canola pollen is spread widely producing persistent drug pollution of the food and feed crop.

"Currently safflower-grown human insulin has been open field tested in the state of Washington in a sagebrush wild area of the state which is the habitat for a number of threatened wild species that can be poisoned by ingesting insulin. It is safe to say that Maurice ... will likely spread the gospel of producing pharmaceuticals in food crops as it is done in Canada. In Canada and the United States open field tests of crop bio pharmaceuticals are undertaken with little or no respect for the environmental consequences of the open field releases. UK can now likely look forward to biopharmacueticals in their food, whether they like it or not!"