In September last year Professor Gilles-Eric Séralini, a respected French scientist, published the results of the longest running study of Monsanto’s herbicide-resistant 'Roundup Ready' GM maize (NK603) and its associated 'Roundup' herbicide (generic name Glyphosate).
His toxicology results found that these widely available products caused organ damage, increased rates of tumours and premature death in rats. Monsanto’s GM maize is widely used as animal feed in Britain, and a recent study by Friends of the Earth revealed the active ingredient of Roundup had found its way into the urine of people in over 18 European countries. There were now serious emerging questions to answer about Glyphosate and GM technology. Yet the UK authorities responded by either condemning the study – in the case of the almost comically pro-GM Food Standards Agency – or ignoring it.
Several months later, government ministers, led by food and environment secretary Owen Paterson, announced that they intended to force the EU to relax regulations on GM crops. Not satisfied with this bit of promotion alone, David Cameron went on to pledge £395 million from the UK Aid budget to support private initiatives involved in spreading GM crops in Africa.
Why is the government so confident that the UK public will not object to its recent efforts to support GM technology? Partly because very few people in the UK ever got to hear about Séralini’s study.
Monsanto and the other major agrochemical companies have a far-from-pristine record when it comes to playing dirty with critics. Séralini is no exception. Within hours of the study’s release, an orchestrated media campaign swung into action to discredit it.
At the centre of this process was the UK-based Science Media Centre (SMC), an organisation which claims to be independent and to ensure that the public have access to the best scientific evidence – but in reality represents the interests of biotechnology and chemical companies. The SMC quickly circulated highly critical quotes about the Séralini research from scientists who work closely with the biotech industry. Few of these scientists had ever actually conducted a toxicology study.
SMC director Fiona Fox later said that she took pride in the fact that the SMC’s 'emphatic thumbs down had largely been acknowledged throughout UK newsrooms'. Few newspapers had covered the story, and those that did 'used quotes supplied by the Science Media Centre'.
Despite these criticisms of Séralini’s work, the journal in which it was published stood by its peer-review process and refused to bow to pressure to retract the research. However, the damage was already done. The SMC’s efforts ensured that few British people heard about the study and those that did were misled into thinking that the findings were not robust.
Answering the critics
As Prof Séralini arrives on these shores for the first time to defend his work and answer his critics, the claims of the SMC look increasingly fragile. The European Food Standards Agency (EFSA), which has very close links with the biotech industry, was initially highly critical of Séralini’s study. Many were, therefore, surprised when EFSA published guidelines for long-term animal feeding studies designed to assess the toxicity and carcinogenicity of GM crops, effectively validating his methodology.
Séralini’s work showed that 90-day tests commonly done on GM foods are not long enough to see long-term effects like cancer and organ damage. The first tumours only appeared after 4-7 months. In July the European Commission and French government announced that they were commissioning new long-term studies on the potential health risks of GM food and feed.
Prof Séralini spoke to a packed room in Edinburgh yesterday, and free public meetings in London, Manchester and Newport will be happening in the next couple of days alongside discussions with UK, Welsh and Scottish parliamentarians.
The initiative, put together by Citizens Concerned about GM, with support from a range of individuals and NGOs, will also feature some good news from unexpected quarters. Resistance to GM in its birthplace, the USA, is having a renaissance. The founders of Food Democracy Now!, a grassroots movement who are at the forefront of the battle against big agribusiness in the States, have been working with over 650,000 farmers and citizens to challenge the stranglehold of GM and its attendant herbicides.
Come along and decide for yourself.
GM Health Risk week is a week of discussions and debates examining new evidence into the risks GM food poses to human health, the food system and democracy. Internationally renowned scientists and commentators including Professor Giles Eric Séralini will present evidence and begin discussions in locations around the UK. See www.gmhealthriskweek.org for details of your nearest event.