There has been a lot of press recently concerning a paper published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology which links genetically modified corn with tumors in rats. The study fed GM corn to a group of rats over the span of two years, and that 50% of males and an alarming 70% of female rats developed tumors.
The findings are now being widely criticized by scientists who are arguing that, although the paper passed peer review, it is still not up to the rigorous standards needed to show any direct correlation between cancer and GM products.
Emily Sohn at Discovery News wrote a short and informative piece on Thursday that summarizes many of the arguments that scientists are leveling against the the study. One argument, by plant biotechnologist Newell-McGloughlin, is that the line of rats used, known as Sprague-Dawley, have an extremely high chance of developing cancer no matter their circumstances. In fact, they are often used in cancer research for this very reason. Combine this with the fact that there were only 10 to 20 rats in the control group (9 times less than the amount of test rats) and the credibility of the findings suddenly diminishes quite a bit.
More red flags were raised yesterday when a blog called Embargo Watch claimed that the scientists backing the study were attempting to manipulate the media through the strategic use of non-disclosure forms and an embargo. Embargoes are fairly common in the press – usually what will happen when a scientific study like this comes out journalists will get a copy of the findings in advance, take their time writing the story, and then print it on a specific and pre-approved date. However, what is different with this study is that the authors of the paper made the press sign non-disclosure agreements, which prevented members of the press from showing the paper to any outside sources (including other scientists). The blog concludes that this was to ensure that the first wave of press would be supportive, rather than critical, of the findings. From the blog:
“One of the main reasons for embargoes — if you take many journals at their word — is to give reporters more time to write better stories. Part of how you do that is talking to outside experts. And scientists — ones interested in science, anyway, not those interested in spin and political points — should welcome that kind of scrutiny.”
Let’s assume that this is all true for a moment; that the scientists built their test in an attempt to prove their pre-existing beliefs, and that they then manipulated the press in an attempt to prevent criticism of the findings. Does this now show that GMOs are not harmful? Of course not. All it really shows is that scientists can be susceptible to the same biases and shady political practices as the rest of humanity.