A study released on Wednesday purporting to show that genetically modified (GM) corn can cause tumors and death in rats was panned by many scientists. But that does not mean it won't have political impact—especially in France, where the study was carried out and where it has garnered massive media attention.
Yesterday, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault announced that the High Council for Biotechnology (HCB) and the Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety have been asked to look into the study, headed by Gilles-Eric Séralini of the University of Caen and published by Food and Chemical Toxicology this week. If the results are confirmed, Ayrault said at a meeting in Dijon, agriculture minister Stéphane Le Foll would defend France's right within the European Union to ban GM crops. Three committees in France's National Assembly will invite Séralini for hearings, Le Figaro reported yesterday.
The European Commission has asked the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in Parma, Italy, to look into the study as well. In California, meanwhile, supporters of a proposed law to make labeling of GM food mandatory have seized on the study to bolster their case. The proposition is on the ballot for the November elections in the United States.
In the paper, Séralini reports that rats fed Monsanto's herbicide-resistant maize variety NK603 for 2 years—which is close to their maximum life span—died earlier than rats on a non-GM maize diet. They developed tumors more frequently and suffered from hormone imbalances, according to the study. Critics have pounced on the study, which they say has serious statistical and other problems.
But those criticisms have received relatively little attention in France, in part because of the team's media strategy. The researchers provided some French journalists with advance access to the paper, but, in an unusual move, barred them from showing it to other scientists and asking for comment. As a result, few critical notes were sounded until the next day. The weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, which had been granted exclusive access to the research team, produced a huge package on the study in Thursday's issue, announced on an alarming cover that said: "Yes, GMOs are poison!"
"This is a terrible situation for genetically modified organisms in France," says Marc Fellous, a geneticist at the Université Paris 7 and a former president of the commission that preceded HCB. "All this publicity has a very negative impact. People don't trust the experts anymore." Séralini was not available for comment today.
The media storm seems set to increase. Next week, Séralini has a book coming out about his work, entitled Tous cobayes? (Are we all guinea pigs?). His study also features prominently in a film of the same title by director Jean-Paul Jaud.
EFSA, in a short statement on its Web site, confirmed that it "will consider the paper's relevance" in the context of its "ongoing" monitoring of GM safety concerns, but did not say how it would evaluate the study specifically. The agency is no stranger to Séralini's work: In 2007, it investigated a paper of his that challenged the statistical analyses underlying EFSA's approval of Monsanto's maize variety MON 863. That time, EFSA concluded that certain assumptions underlying Séralini's statistics "led to misleading results" and that his paper did "not present a sound scientific justification" to question the GM crop's safety.