Perhaps the single most visible scientific study used to demonstrate possible health risks associated with consuming food produced by or containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, has been retracted. The infamous and controversial Seralini study appeared to show that rats fed two Monsanto (NYSE:MON) products -- GMO Roundup-tolerant corn and a Roundup herbicide -- developed massive tumors. Sensational images swept the media by storm and infuriated consumers. Then the rest of the scientific community began to weigh in.
Unfortunately for Seralini, numerous independent researchers from academic labs and international consumer safety institutions lined up against his interpretation of the results and the design of the experiment. They warned that the flawed study added no value to the discussion of health risks and GMO foods.
While the study has now been officially dismissed, it will be difficult to undo the damage in the minds of consumers. That got me thinking: What good is retracting a study if we don't take advantage of the opportunity to learn from it? Let's examine why the study was flawed, reiterate the importance of obtaining the approval of the scientific community, and discuss what it means and doesn't mean for Monsanto products and GMO foods.
Why the study was flawed
The Seralini study was flawed for several reasons that anyone can understand. First, the breed of rat used in the study, Sprague-Dawley, is widely known to be susceptible to cancer with age and an unrestricted diet. Previous studies using the same breed have shown that 45% of rats spontaneously developed tumors after 18 months. Seralini kept his animals alive for 24 months. Second, the study used only 10 rats of each sex for each experimental group. That is simply not a large enough population to rule out random chance of tumor occurrence. And lastly, some of Seralini's conclusions didn't agree with his own data. Male rats seemed to be protected from cancer by consuming GMOs, although the conclusion only stated:
In females, all treated groups died 2-3 times more than controls, and more rapidly. This difference was visible in 3 male groups fed GMOs.
These and other flaws were pointed out by a host of scientists that sent letters to the editor. Additionally, the following European scientific bodies rejected the paper:
- Belgium, Biosafety Advisory Council
- Germany, The Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety
- Germany, The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment
- Denmark, The National Food Institute
- France, French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety
- France, High Council For Biotechnology
- Italy, National Institute of Health
- Netherlands, Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority
There would have to be a major conspiracy among independent international scientists for there to be so much opposition to a single study.
The Seralini study was published in the Elsevier journal Food and Chemical Toxicology in November 2012. You would have missed some great returns had you decided to sell a position in Monsanto after reading the results:
Biotech investors are often confronted with scientific data, especially in traditional biotech relating to pharmaceuticals. Rarely can a company spin trial results against the scientific community, and rarely does betting against the consensus turn out to be a wise long-term investment. Unfortunately, the Seralini study is another example of the dangers of making knee-jerk reactions before assessing the situation from a neutral standpoint.
Safe to eat?
The decision to retract the Seralini study does not mean that a relationship between GMO foods consumption and tumor development does not exist -- the study simply presented inconclusive results that did not support the conclusions. However, as numerous independent studies have shown, there is no credible link between the two. Thus, the retraction should help to ease any fears about the safety of GMO foods. It should also serve as an important reminder to the risks of putting too much faith in a scientific study that lacks the backing of the scientific community.
Do these events change the way you view GMOs? Let's discuss in the comments section below.
Fool contributor Maxx Chatsko has no position in any stocks mentioned. Check out his personal portfolio or his CAPS page, or follow him on Twitter, @BlacknGoldFool, to keep up with his writing on biopharmaceuticals, industrial biotech, and the bioeconomy.
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