Another "big list of studies" on GMO safety rolls off the production line – but much of what's being said about it is demonstrably false, says Claire Robinson
The pro-GMO lobby group Biology Fortified, Inc. (BFI) has launched its new database of GMO studies, GENERA.
BFI's press release says that the database challenges claims that there is "little independent research" on the safety of GMOs for consumption or the environment. The press release says, "The results show that independent peer-reviewed research on GMOs is common, conducted worldwide, and makes up half of the total of all research on risks associated with genetic engineering."
It adds, "The government-funded research is worldwide in scope – concentrated in Europe and Asia, followed by North America and Australia. These findings should turn the heads of people who thought it was skewed to private, U.S.-based laboratories."
The farming website AgProfessional swallowed BFI's line, publishing an article headlined, like BFI's press release, "New resource shows half of GMO research is independent".
But BFI's argument is a misleading piece of spin. We didn't need BFI or GENERA to tell us that half of GMO research is independent of the industry. That is old news – revealed back in 2011 by Johan Diels and colleagues, who conducted a review of studies on health risks or nutritional assessments of GMOs.
Diels found that 47% of the studies had at least one author with an professional or financial affiliation to the GMO industry or an organisation tied to it. The rest of the studies' authors either had no such conflict of interest (39%) or gave insufficient information about funding sources to judge (14%).
But the central point of Diels' review is completely ignored by BFI. It is not the proportion of industry studies that is of interest. It is what those studies tell us.
Diels found that the industry-linked studies were much more likely to find that the GMO was safe. In contrast, studies where no such conflict of interest was present were more likely to reach unfavourable conclusions about the GMO.
BFI disingenuously fails to mention this inconvenient truth.
BFI silent on toxic GMOs
Another omission from BFI's press release is the fact that some of the studies in the GENERA database found the GMO under test was toxic. These include Pusztai's study on GM potatoes, which the GENERA authors correctly note had a "negative" conclusion for food safety. To be specific, the GM-fed rats showed gut cell proliferation that was similar to a pre-cancerous condition.
The GENERA authors also include the multi-generational study by Kilic and colleagues, which they note had "mixed" results. These consisted of damage to liver and kidneys and alterations in blood biochemistry in rats fed GM Bt maize over three generations, though other measured parameters showed no effect.
It's difficult to see how BFI affiliate Anastasia Bodnar gets from findings like this to her claim in the BFI press release that the results collected in GENERA "agree" with the conclusion that GM crops are safe to eat. Her source for that alleged conclusion is unnamed "systematic reviews" (no citations given).
Which "systematic reviews" could Bodnar mean?
Certainly not the one by Diels discussed above, which casts both GMO safety and the reliability of industry-linked studies into question.
Nor could it be the review of GMO safety studies by Domingo and colleagues, which found about an equal number of studies concluding that the GMO tested was safe and studies raising "serious concerns". Domingo and colleagues added pointedly that most of the studies concluding safety were conducted by the GMO developer companies.
Perhaps Bodnar means the review by Snell and colleagues, which reviewed 24 so-called long-term animal feeding studies and reached a conclusion that GMOs are safe.
However, this review suffers from serious defects, such as:
- classifying relatively short studies as long-term, even though they only follow the animals for a fraction of their natural lifespan
- including animal production studies designed to examine parameters such as meat or milk production, which do not look for health effects
- including studies on fish and birds, which have a different digestive system and metabolism from those of humans and are not relevant to assessing human health risks
- including studies in which the sample sizes are too small to draw any conclusions
- including a study in which animals were removed from the experiment for undefined reasons and replaced (naturally this study concluded the GMO was safe!)
- using unscientific double standards in dismissing the findings of studies that find toxic effects on the grounds of methodological weaknesses, while accepting at face value the findings of studies that conclude safety, even though they suffer from the same methodological weaknesses.
(for more detail, see GMO Myths and Truths, p. 161.)
Or perhaps Bodnar is referring to the review by Nicolia and colleagues, which is often claimed to compile 1700 studies showing GMOs are safe for human and animal health and the environment.
However, the majority of the articles in the list of 1,700 are irrelevant or tangential to assessing the safety of commercialized GM foods and crops. The list includes some studies that are relevant to GMO safety but that reveal actual or potential hazards of the GMO to health or the environment. The Nicolia review authors ignore or dismiss these findings without sound scientific justification. They also ignore evidence contradicting key assumptions upon which regulators have based their conclusions that GMOs are safe.
(for more detail, see GMO Myths and Truths, pp. 102–126.)
Assembling big lists of studies supposedly providing overwhelming evidence of the safety of GMOs has become common practice by GMO proponents. GENERA is just the latest in a long series of such lists. The success of the tactic depends on the reading public failing to examine the actual studies and seeing what they say.
(see GMO Myths and Truths, p. 120.)
Bodnar's avoidance of specific citations for "systematic reviews" concluding that GMOs are safe may be a sign that this particular game is coming to the end of its useful life.
But even in its final days it can still do serious damage to scientific integrity. Journalists and members of the public will read BFI's press release and take it on faith that the GENERA "big list of studies" shows what it says it does.
The GENERA authors should re-learn the basic scientific principle of citing a specific data point to support each claim they make about GMO safety. The problem for them is that doing so would cause their entire house of cards to collapse. And not before time.