Tackling GMO’s Part 4. G.E. Séralini case. Why it is both pivotal and pointless.


It’s about time I got back into this, here we go!

If you’re digging through the facts about GMO food, especially if you’re going from the popular media, eventually you’ll be brought back to one report. This report, headed by one Gilles-Eric Séralini, can be found here. Now, this report has since be redacted, and, if you look below the main article, you will see that the article itself has been heavily criticized within the journal itself.

I’ve already stated before that I am pro GMO (over all, it isn’t perfect, but those problems almost exclusively fall into farming practices, not the GMO’s themselves). The data that exists overwhelmingly shows that as far as food crops go there is no significant harm to humans or even the environment in making or using GMO’s. However, the above paper, redacted or not, is still being used as a source to “prove” that GMO’s are toxic. There is numerous reasons why that is not the case and I’ll be going through some of those reasons.

I’d like to redirect to my previous post about statistical significance here before we go further for a refresher on what that means for those readers unfamiliar with the concept.

The first thing I will point out is the redaction of the paper. Redactions are rare in science. Generally they only occur when there is some form of scientific misconduct. From what I’ve gathered from the back and forth posts, Séralini has not been accused of any misconduct, however, the Journal’s representative indicated that the redaction is due to pushing from the scientific community, and because the article itself was inconclusive and couldn’t accurately draw the conclusions made by the research team.

This is my major complaint with the paper, and the most telling, although it isn’t the sort of stratifying headline that gets people’s attention. “Anti-GMO paper found statistically irrelevant, says Journal representative.” Just doesn’t have a nice ring to it. This lack of statistical significance is why I call it a pointless paper because it really doesn’t say anything, but allow me explain why.

Generally the upper cut off in the biological sciences for a result to be statistically significance is 5% (though it is often only consider accurate when that percentage is much lower). What that means is that there is only a 5% chance that the results are just a fluke that can be explained by random chance. The primary ways of lowering the risk of statistical insignificance are to increase the population or sample size you’re researching and reduce the number of thing you’re studying and testing for (to better make use of your limited sampling population).

So this bring us to back to the Séralini paper. In the post analyst of the paper by researchers who also use rats for toxicity testing (a very routine bit of science) that suggested that the paper would have done much better to have at least over 200 rats, and Séralini and his team only used 100 each of males and females. Why so many rats? Well Séralini wasn’t just testing one factor he was testing the effects of Roundup and a Monsanto corn feed, splitting up by sex. So You have the rats split into 10 equivalent groups a control group and 9 treatment groups for both male rats and female rats. 6 of the control groups contained GM corn feed and the feed was either treated with roundup or not with each group given different level of roundup in their corn feed. the final three treatment groups were fed control (a similar non-gm corn) feed and tap water contaminated with some level of round up. Again all the group had different levels of round-up treatment.

If you’ve done the math that means each group only has 10 individuals in it. That’s a tiny sample size, and while there is some overlap, it’s like the team was trying to do three or four experiment in one, and they definitely did not use the resources they need to pull that off.

Why? Because 10 individual is almost never enough to draw any sort of accurate conclusions. There is simply to much room for mistakes or randomness to dictate the results. And even though there is some overlap in the treatment groups, this can’t help since the control group, which forms the basis of comparison of every other group, still only contains 10 individuals, so any of the inconstancies could easy wind up there. Regardless, you can’t pull off accuracy with such small sample sizes and without a group (the control group) to compare to you can’t actually say anything about it one way or another, since the statistics could be normal, but you can’t be sure since you lack a population to compare too.

Though this isn’t the only issue I have with the paper, besides being a pointless and useless waste of time and resources, because it could never be statistically significant, the treatment of the animals was unethical. If you look at the paper (I won’t share them here as they are pretty gruesome) you’ll see some pictures of 3 rats with massive tumors, though problematically only three of the rats. If you where being unbiased, you’d include the pictures of all rats, though, since the pictures had nothing to do with the results, I suspect they where added only for shock value. And they are shocking. You have three rats who by mass are over 25% tumor. Swollen to the point they problem would have great difficulty moving and be in great pain.

Before you panic, cancer in rats is abnormally common compared to other mammals, and the line of rat used in the paper have the terrible tendency to form these sorts of tumors spontaneously 30-50% of the time no matter what else you might do to them. So it might be the case that the research team picked this group of rats specially because they would form these “showy” tumors spontaneously.  But, more over, they allowed some of the rats to live longer than the average life span of these sort of rats, and probably simply to take those shocking pictures. Though we won’t actually know that for sure as the original data from the experiment was never released, so we don’t know which rats were which or what the original data collected was. This little fact is also damning since it make replication and comparison much more difficult, since you don’t know what all the outcomes actually are.

There is plenty else wrong with the paper: it’s hard to read for a scientific paper, the figures are unclear and overcrowded, and certain other results where ignored in the conclusion (like that one group of male rats which drank round up contaminated water actually had a longer life span then the control group). Though, again, all of these data points are statically irrelevant, so ultimately all of the result are meaningless.

Another damning fact surrounding the paper is that Séralini, while creating a lot of hype before the paper was published (which itself was odd given how poor it is overall), would not allow reporters to read the paper until they sign a legal document to promise that they would not share the document with other people (including trained scientists in the field) until after the paper was finished, so reporters had no means of fact-checking the legitimacy of the paper. And no other scientists were allowed to read the paper prior to publishing. A very odd thing to do unless you know your result are suspect.

So this paper, pivotal to so many anti-GMO arguments, is in fact a pointless bit of research that says nothing about the Monsanto products it was studying, but does speak poorly of those researcher who worked on it. I suggest if you see the name Gilles-Eric Séralini you’d be best to proceed with a healthy dose of skepticism.

There has been no shortage of criticism of this paper, and here is a very thorough tear-down of the paper. It does a better job than I do. Though, after searching through Youtube, this is the only video that accurately address the paper. That is, actually talks about the paper itself rather than working around it or just addressing the criticism. However, after carefully looking around, this is the most thoughtful and, most importantly, thorough I could find. So thanks to Myles Power for being awesome and stuff. I’ll definitely be linking to him more in the future:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OWQON4FzQo4

Oh and why it the study pivotal? That because it’s the crux of some many GMO arguments, understanding that the science doesn’t support the vast majority of anti-gmo claims particularly this “paper” it key to getting a problem understanding of the issue and tackling this problem people have with GMO’s

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7 responses to “Tackling GMO’s Part 4. G.E. Séralini case. Why it is both pivotal and pointless.

  • johnspenn

    I really appreciate these articles. Keep em coming!!

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  • morethangeekylove

    Hello there, just letting you know that your blog has been nominated for the Liebster blog award, please check out in our blog the post to know more about it! Thank you and keep on the great work!! :))

    Like

  • adegrandis

    One of the problems with statisical evidence on complex systems is the sheer number of variables. Farming practices being a huge variable – one of the most worrying aspects to me of GMO is the resultant potential modification of plant pollen with the suggested link to colony collapse disorder in bees. I’d like to be a lot more reassured about this aspect of GMO before I think it’s a good thing. On the whole after a lot of havering about it I’ve come down against GMO. It seems to me that once you have let a genie out of the bottle you can’t put it back and I’m a cautious Scot by nature. The bee question is really the factor for me and we do need to modify if not significantly change farming practices for many reasons apart from GMO – over here in Europe farming subsidies and agribusiness are having more to do with hunger and scarcity than the environment but that’s a whole other problem.
    There are an awful lot of papers that are published and seized on to prove points often way beyond the value of the research. One of my great angers /despairs is the lack of understanding of science and also of what statistics actually mean. We live in an age of science yet it is woefully taught in most schools and the majority of the population seems switched off to it. Keep blogging!

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    • hessianwithteeth

      I haven’t heard of any credible research linking the pollen of any GM plant with bee colony collapse. Plus that doesn’t make much sense. Is there a specific study you thinking of and what kind of GM crop, genetic modification is a set of tool not the genetically modified crops themselves? There is a ton of bad science out there going out to “prove” gmo are bad and do so by looking at just about anything and then claiming anything abnormal or bad that happens it do the the fact they are GM.

      As to studies there are a massive amount of studies looking into the health risks associated with GM, the scientific consensus based on this is that GMO crops pose no greater risk to basically anything then do standard crops.

      Here’s a very important link.
      http://gmopundit.blogspot.ca/p/450-published-safety-assessments.html

      and allow me to quote the site.
      “Currently there are near 2000 peer-reviewed reports in the scientific literature which document the general safety and nutritional wholesomeness of GM foods and feeds.”

      here’s are list of over 400 studies http://genera.biofortified.org/viewall.php.

      As for the bees, the only way I know that GM could be effecting them is an inherent problem with agriculture. We use pesticides which often can kill bees with difficulty, and some bees are sensitiveness to some herbicides How we deal with that is not getting rid of GMOs it’s by looking carefully at how we use and regulate herbicides and pesticide and put lots of research into creating herbicides and pesticides which are bee friendly (which is being done but to what extent I’m not sure).

      And while I understand your concerns about “once it’s let out of the box” lets understand that there are three primary ways (technologies) of altering living organisms. Artificial selection, hybridization and gene insertion and deletion. Of these people only tend to fear the latter and it is what is targeted by the anti-gmo movement. There a problem however Gene manipulation as we do it how is eminently more precise and controllable than the other methods. You know what you’re changing every time. The only time you really can complain is if you have a problem with GM plant unless you able to point to the genes which are causing the potential problem and how, or there is soild evidence for a problem existing.

      Artificial selection is something we’ve been doing for thousands of years. and hybridization we’ve been doing for hundreds. The real genie was let out the bottle at the dawn of agriculture all we are doing now with refining how we play with genetics, but we’ve been playing with genetics long before written history.

      Though you’ve help me decide my next topic so thanks, I’ll be giving a full and proper response to this topic in that post. (we are really just skimming the surface here)

      Thank for the comment :). I’m glad you like the posts!

      Withteeth

      Liked by 1 person

    • samcroarkin

      adegrandis,

      I do not think you are alone in not understanding science and statistics within it. I myself do not have the strongest grasp, and part of the criticism of this paper is (rightly) that it is conflated to be unreadable, yet because humans have a tendency to believe overly-detailed tellings (such as when you tell a lie, it becomes more believable with more smaller details added), we latch onto these things. We put our faith in science, and unfortunately, sometimes there is bad science.

      I think Withteeth did a great job in really illuminating one of the most difficult points with science: making it understandable for the layperson.

      Also, with regards to bees: animal studies are notorious for people difficult to translate to humans. For instance, the China study indicates that mice have a huge (astronomical) cancer rate with a diet of ~20% protein, but this result both theoretically and practically does not translate to humans. While animals may be good analogs in some situations, their use as a studied medium for translating results to human has to be very well-controlled and thought out, and with something as controversial as GMOs, they should be used to direct research and not draw conclusions.

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      • hessianwithteeth

        Thank for this comment. It is very difficult to get this sort of information out there, and to explain it in an effective manner. The only way to do it though it to not treat people like children (or children like children for that matter) and teach them what they have to look for and give them tons of example allow them work through it along side you. Obviously blogs are not the best places for this, but they are better then nothing.

        I end up missing so much every post, but hopefully I can really cover most basic issues by the time I’m 10 or 12 parts in. Then I can start looking at some of the more difficult and interesting things for those with the interest,

        But one step at a time.

        Like

  • nothingmattersatall

    Monsanto are very powerful, and have people pulling strings for them on a government level, making it easy for them to manipulate data and in this case purposely do a hard to read study with many flaws, leaving it wide open to criticism by people like you, who then conclude GMO must not be that bad. Research with valid points proving the harmful effects of GMOs would be ripped apart by Monsanto and it would be near impossible to be published. It’s all part of the plan.

    Like

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