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Science | A contentious study questioning GM food integrity needs integrity itself

Issue: "Race to the finish," Nov. 3, 2012

A two-year study of rats, genetically modified (GM) corn, and the controversial weedkiller Roundup flung doubts in September on the safety of GM farming. Most doubts returned like a boomerang: Critics pointed to flaws in the French study, and some journalists condemned the authors’ attempt to control media reports.

The study involved 200 rats, divided into groups and fed either normal corn or a GM breed of corn produced by agricultural giant Monsanto. Some rats also received corn or water tainted with Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. During two years, up to 70 percent of female and 50 percent of male rats fed GM corn died prematurely, from tumors or other problems. Among rats with normal diets, only 20 percent of females and 30 percent of males died prematurely.

Opponents of GM foods hailed the study, while Russia suspended imports of the corn breed pending a review.

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Other scientists hoisted red flags. They said the control group had too few rodents (20), and noted that the rats consuming the most modified corn or Roundup didn’t develop the most health problems in the study. They said the lead author, Gilles-Eric Séralini, was a well-known opponent of GM food, and wasn’t releasing all his study data. Further, other similar long-term studies found no health problems. A preliminary review by the EU’s European Food Safety Authority concluded that the French study had “inadequate design, analysis and reporting” and consequently was “of insufficient scientific quality for safety assessments.”

Even journalists were irritated, because Séralini and his colleagues took the unusual step of offering advance copies of their study only to reporters who agreed to wait until after the publication date to get comments from other scientists. That attempt at spinning early media reports by stifling any third-party perspective is no way to treat the public: If the link between GM food and disease is real and not a figment, let the science speak for itself.

Chemical inheritance

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University of California, Berkeley, researchers say women with higher levels of the common chemical additive bisphenol A (BPA) in their bodies give birth to boys with slightly overactive thyroids. Their study was the first to measure thyroid function in human newborns and exposure to BPA, used for hardening plastic and lining food cans. Thyroid problems are associated with learning disabilities, but the hormonal affect on the boys in the study was too small to draw conclusions about their health (and the thyroids of baby girls seemed unaffected). The FDA banned BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups in July, and although the agency still considers the chemical safe, it has called for additional research into BPA’s effect on children. —D.J.D.

Obama's energy

Associated Press photo by Amy Sancetta

Is the energy sector better off after four years under President Barack Obama? The American Energy Alliance, a free-market advocacy group founded in 2008, charts the administration’s record:

  • Since 2008, regulatory costs in the energy sector increased nearly 50 percent, from $1.17 trillion to $1.75 trillion.
  • Gasoline prices doubled from $1.84 per gallon in January 2009 to $3.78 this August. (Gasoline prices had dropped sharply before January 2009. They had been in the $3 to $4 range.)
  • From 2007 to 2010, total energy subsidies doubled, from $17.9 billion to $37.2 billion.
  • Wind energy subsidies increased 947 percent, to $5 billion.
  • Total federal land leased for drilling shrank from 47 million acres to 38 million. —D.J.D.
Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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