Authors of study linking GM corn with rat tumors manipulated media to prevent criticism of their work
Earlier today, I posted on the recent paper that claims to have found a link between eating genetically modified corn and the growth of tumors in rats. Short version: The research sucked. It's a terribly done study and it demonstrates why "peer reviewed" does not always mean "accurate".
But now, this story is getting worse. Turns out, the authors of the study (and their financial sponsor, The Sustainable Food Trust) manipulated the media to ensure that the first news stories published about the study would not be critical of its methods or results.
First, some background. When a journal is about to publish a study that they think will be big news, they usually offer the full study to reporters under an embargo system. The reporter gets to read the study, do their reporting, and write a story ... but they can't publish that story until a specific day at a specific time. If you're a daily or an online publication, there's a lot of pressure to have your story ready to go the moment the embargo lifts. Otherwise, you'll look like you weren't on the ball. There's a lot of problems with this system, but it's very common.
What's not common: Forcing journalists to sign non-disclosure agreements promising to not show the study they're reporting on to any independent researchers or outside experts. If you're trying to make sure your publication runs a story on the study right when the embargo lifts, but you can't show the study to any third-party experts before the embargo lifts, then the story you run is going to (inevitably) contain only information the authors of the study want you to talk about. It ceases being journalism and becomes PR.
This is what the authors of the GM corn/rat tumor study did.
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Whatever its faults, the seed company Monsanto does employ some very smart people, who have a keen understanding of plant genetics. Given that, I've long wondered why the company has been so blindsided by the fairly basic idea that weeds evolve. Did anyone really expect that, when faced with a pressure that threatened their existence, the weeds wouldn't adapt and become resistant to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide?
Apparently, that's exactly what they expected, according to a story on NPR's website.
Daniel Charles interviewed several people who were employed by Monsanto at the time the company released Roundup-tolerant soybeans back in 1996. He found a single, coherent cause of this very strange oversight. Shorter version: Monsanto got so blinded by past performance and its own personal experience that, as an institution, it started to assume nothing would ever change.
First, the company had been selling Roundup for years without any problems. Second, and perhaps most important, the company's scientists had just spent more than a decade, and many millions of dollars, trying to create the Roundup-resistant plants that they desperately wanted — soybeans and cotton and corn. It had been incredibly difficult. When I interviewed former Monsanto scientists for my book on biotech crops, one of them called it the company's "Manhattan Project."
Personally, I find that first assumption particularly egregious. Weeds do best at building resistance to herbicides when the same herbicide is being liberally applied to the same land year after year after year. In order to assume that this behavior wouldn't be the outcome of combining Roundup and Roundup Ready crops, Monsanto would almost have to assume that those products wouldn't be terribly effective. After all, if you expect that combination to work (and work well) why would you then expect farmers to bother with using herbicide sparingly, or varying the type of herbicide they used?