An arresting but widely criticized study that stoked fears about genetically modified foods (GMOs) was retracted Thursday.
The move was met with relief by scientists who heaped scorn on the French study after it was published last year. The study claimed a steady diet of genetically modified corn caused tumours in rats.
But observers say the damage will be hard to undo.
The retraction is “good news,” says biologist Robert Wager, at Vancouver Island University, who objected to the study from the outset. But he says “it’s worrisome it took over a year for the journal to do the right thing.”
He predicts Gilles-Eric Seralini, of the University of Caen who led the study, will now be viewed as a martyr by believers in the dangers of GM crops and food. “The power of pseudo-science to generate fear must not be underestimated,” Wager said in a statement. “Once instilled, facts rarely dissipate that fear.”
The French study, published in journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, made headlines around the world a year ago. It claimed to have found evidence that rats fed a diet of Monsanto’s genetically modified corn, or given water containing Roundup at levels permitted in the United States died earlier than those on a standard diet. It also said rats on the GM diet suffered from tumours, as well as severe liver and kidney damage.
Seralini, a long-time critic of genetically engineered crops, also released gruesome photos of bulging tumours that were featured prominently in British tabloids in stories about the study and the dangers of “Frankenfoods.”
Many scientists criticized the Seralini’s evidence and methods and called for the record to be set straight. One of the major flaws in the study is that Seralini used rats that are highly susceptible to tumours, with or without GMOs in their diets, they said.
The editor of Food and Chemical Toxicology sent Seralini a letter earlier this month saying the paper would be retracted if he did not agree to withdraw it.
The journal delivered Thursday. It said an “in-depth look at the raw data revealed that no definitive conclusions can be reached” from the small sample of rats Seralini studied. The known high incidence of tumours in the strain of lab rats studied” cannot be excluded as the cause of the higher mortality and incidence observed in the treated groups,” it added.
Cami Ryan, at the University of Saskatchewan, notes that the study has been discredited by food and feed safety agencies all over the world. “Retraction seemed inevitable,” she said Thursday.
David Spiegelhalter at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. said “it was clear from even a superficial reading that this paper was not fit for publication, and in this instance the peer review process did not work properly.”
“I suppose it is better late than never,” Spiegelhalter said. “Sadly the withdrawal of this paper will not generate the publicity garnered by its initial publication.”
Seralini and his team remain unrepentant, and allege that the retraction derives from the journal’s editorial appointment of biologist Richard Goodman, who previously worked for biotechnology giant Monsanto for seven years.