You may have heard of Gilles-Éric Séralini who gained popularity a few years ago, but not for great reasons. Séralini is a French molecular biologist, political activist, and activist on genetically modified organisms and food. It was his November 2012 paper about GMO’s published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicity that seemed to anger many people. Séralini and his team presented data taken from a two-year feeding study using rats. What stood out most to Séralini was the notable increase in tumors among rats that were fed genetically modified corn and the herbicide Roundup. Many scientists were quick to call out Séralini’s study’s design and process which led to much public scrutiny and the study’ eventual retraction. However, many professionals in the field have been second-guessing this decision.
Séralini’s Original Study
Since 1991, Séralini has worked as a professor and researcher at the University of Caen. Over the years he has written about a hundred scientific articles and conference papers. He has also published multiple studies under the Committee of Independent Research and Information on Genetic Engineering (CRIIGEN). Almost all his studies revolve around the health risks associated with GMOs and the glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup on human cells.
As mentioned above, Séralini’s most controversial research came in the paper “Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize.” You can find the article’s original abstract here.
Although many people in scientific circles criticized the paper (which we’ll get into below), it did have sway. In fact, Séralini’s findings informed Kenya’s banning of genetically modified foods that very year. Almost exactly one year later, however, the journal Food and Chemical Toxicity retracted the paper after receiving strong criticism from the scientific study. Namely, that they were dissatisfied with how Séralini and his team conducted the study.
The Defamation Lawsuit
In response, Séralini and his team along with CRIIGEN challenged this allegation in a defamation lawsuit. This investigation lasted three years. By November 2015, however, the 17th Criminal Chamber of the High Court of Paris passed sentence: Marianne and its journalist received a fine for public defamation of a public official, all the researchers, and CRIIGEN.
It’s important to realize that winning this lawsuit doesn’t necessarily mean Séralini’s study was the greatest. There was definitely room for improvement, but this lawsuit had more to do with public image than the science itself.
2 Major Criticisms of The Study
Critics called Séralini and his team out for the experimental method claiming it was faulty. More specifically, that they failed to include a large enough sample size and skewed their diet when compared to their natural food intake.
Another concern was for Séralini’s choice of rat. The team apparently used Sprague-Dawley rats which tend to be the standard choice for lab experiments. However, critics raised the fact that these specific rats can be highly prone to developing cancers, especially if they’re older.
Séralini’s Response to Criticism
Most people who have pounced on this article approach it somewhat incorrectly. The paper may have had its flaws, but we must clarify that Séralini’s team did not conduct this study to test carcinogenicity. Rather they conducted it to observe and study chronic toxicity.
While industry tests usually conduct genetically modified food tests over a three-month duration, Séralini’s study spanned two years and analyzed similar numbers of rats. To our knowledge, this makes it the longest study which begs the question: If tumors only appeared after four to seven months into the study, how can the regular 90-day tests possibly be long enough to accurately gauge GMO food safety?
As in so many other studies we explore at The Hearty Soul, when in vitro (e.g., animal) studies suggest something, it’s merely that – a suggestion. It seems extremely rare that studies get shut down. Most often, researchers will seek further funding for larger, more in-depth studies in hopes of arriving at scientific truths that will ideally better humanity. However, for Séralini and his team, this wasn’t the case.
Where Does Séralini’s Study Stand Today?
On June 24, 2014, Séralini republished his study including even more raw data in an open source journal called Environmental Sciences Europe, under the title “Republished study: long-term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup tolerant genetically modified maize.”
Clearly, this team of researchers continues to stand firm not only in their study, but their concern for humanity. Republishing in an open source journal helps allow “science to reclaim its right against the pressures of the industry seeking to suppress ‘whistle-blowers’.”
After the initial study’s retraction, republishing the study with further data, and Séralini’s victory after a 3-year defamation lawsuit, many people in scientific circles still have a bad taste in their mouths.
“Republishing data that was faulty in the first place in study design and analysis does not provide redemption,” said Tom Sanders, a professor of nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London. “Furthermore, it is now possible to publish almost anything in open access journals.”
That said, Séralini and his team are right for continuing to press into the effects of genetically modified foods. And, instead of completely shutting people out, there’s no better time than now to explore these long-term effects of potentially negative chemicals that we encounter every day, directly or indirectly, as best we can.