Krimsky’s ‘Illusory Consensus’ is itself illusory

Corn silk
Corn silk

Sheldon Krimsky, Professor of Humanities & Social Sciences at Tufts University has published another in a series of articles and books attacking the safety of genetically modified plants (GMOs). Professor Krimsky’s appointment is in the Department of Urban & Environmental Policy & Planning, but he holds and adjunct appointment in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine. Krimsky holds a masters in physics, but his PhD is in philosophy. Thus, many of his arguments have already been rejected by biologists.

Last year Krimsky published The GMO Deception at Skyhorse publishing (who also published RFK jr’s anti-vax book). While the book’s anti-science point of view is obvious from the title, it received a devastating review at Biofortified , who pointed that the book is nothing but a repackaging of old, discredited articles from GeneWatch archives. That site is hosted by the Council of Responsible Genetics, where Krimsky is the chairman.

Getting to Krimsky’s latest publication “An Illusory Consensus behind GMO Health Assessment,” it too brings up a number of discredited articles and workers.

The thesis of Krimsky’s article is that there is not a scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs, because he has uncovered about 26 articles attacking them. Krimsky’s paper is published in the journal Science, Technology and Human Values, where Krimsky is on the editorial board.

In discussing articles on biotechnology, it is useful to remember  The Seralini Rule, published in the Skeptico blog, which states that

If you favorably cite the 2012 Séralini rats fed on Roundup ready maize study, you just lost the argument.

That Skeptico article summarizes all the problems with that discredited and withdrawn paper, noting that if you cite this paper as serious science you haven’t taken the trouble to consider all of its scientific weaknesses.

Unfortunately, Professor Krimsky’s paper fails this test, citing 5 papers by this discredited scientist.

Krimsky’s  article is divided into three parts. In the first part, he summarizes eight recent review articles on GMOs finding some very critical and some much less critical. We read several of the more critical ones to see if we could understand his point.

He first cites “Genetically Modified Foods and Social Concerns,” by Maghari and Ardekani, published in the Iranian journal Avicenna Journal of Medical Biotechnology. This paper is basically a summary of potential concerns, none of which are supported by actual science. Suggesting that transgenic DNA might break up and reintegrate into the genome (which has never been observed), he cites two non-peer-reviewed reports by Mae Wan Ho, who has been criticized for embracing pseudoscience. Even more risible is Maghari’s assertion that GMOs may be responsible for “food-borne diseases” such as the “epidemic of Morgellon’s disease in the U.S.” In fact, Morgellon’s disease is a delusion that one’s skin is crawling when no cause can be found, and is considered a psychiatric ailment, not one caused by diet.

The second paper we read from his list was a literature review by Domingo and Bordonaba, which also violates the Seralini rule, and asserts without proof that studies showing the safety of GMOs have been performed by biotechnology companies. This is in fact contrary to the findings of Biofortified’s GENERA database of papers, which found that more than half of the studies were performed by independent researchers.

The third paper he cites, by Dona and Arvanitouannis also violates the Seralini rule, and completely misstates the doctrine of “substantial equivalence.” The correct statement of this principle is that if a GM and a conventional crop have similar origins, then their “substantial equivalence” can be the starting point for testing of the GM version to see if it has different properties that might make it dangerous to the consumer. It does not mean that no further testing is required. It also erroneously suggests that the Cauliflower Mosaic Virus, which is found on all cauliflower, is dangerous if used in biotechnology. This is, of course, rubbish, since we eat it every day on most brassicae.

In checking these papers, we quickly wander down a “rabbit hole” of papers referring to other papers and to each other, but all seeming to cite the same erroneous information. After citing some inconclusive studies, Krimsky quotes the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, which is listed on QuackWatch, and is not recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties. It has been criticized by Science Based Medicine, and is considered a dubious certifying board.

Arpad Pusztai and Giles-Eric Seralini

In the second part of his paper Krimsky focuses on the poorly regarded work of Pusztai and of Seralini, carefully omitting some of the more damning details about their work.

Pusztai was asked to evaluate some experimental genetically modified potatoes, and reported that they damaged the stomach lining of rats. After an investigation by his employer, the Rowett Institute, found that his data did not support his conclusions, he was fired. However, Krimsky does not note what Chassy and Tribe have pointed out: the potatoes Pusztai used were an experimental and unapproved variety, and that the rats were fed uncooked potatoes, which are always harmful to rats. Moreover, two expert panels concluded that no scientific conclusions could be drawn from his work. Pusztai has become an anti-GMO activist, travelling the world giving scary talks, but has not carried out any further science.

Professor Giles-Eric Seralini has published a number of papers critical of GMOs, and their confusing style and lack of rigor have been criticized long before his rat tumor paper. However, when Seralini published his 2012 paper, scientists immediately began criticizing its small sample size, lack of double blinding, animal mistreatment, and unsupported conclusions: Sprague-Dawley rats develop tumors anyway, which is why they are suitable for 90 day experiments but not 2-year experiments.

Krimsky notes that Seralini revealed his association with CRIIGEN, a French anti-GMO organization he headed, but did not mention that Seralini’s work was sponsored by Carrefour grocery chain and the Auchan retail group who wanted to promote their new line of organic (non-GMO) products.

When many, many scientists protested to Food and Chemical Toxicology that this paper did not represent good science, the journal editor, A. Wallace Hayes, convened a new group of referees to review the paper. After nearly a year, the review panel concluded that the paper should be withdrawn because of its scientific flaws, and it was. Krimsky fails to mention the panel, but suggests the editor did this unilaterally.

Krimsky also cites an article which suggests that a “new assistant editor” joined the board of Food and Chemical Toxicology who had previously worked for Monsanto. This old conspiracy theory is easily laid to rest: biologist Richard Goodman worked for Monsanto from 1997-2004 and then joined the faculty of the University of Nebraska, long before Seralini’s paper came to light. He was an assistant editor during the Seralini controversy, but Hayes specifically excluded him from the review panel at Seralini’s request.

Author’s Conclusions

Professor Krimsky’s conclusions rely on the fact that he claims to have found 26 animal studies that found “adverse effects or uncertainties of GMOs fed to animals.” We didn’t read all of them, but we have already read some which are discredited and/or published in very low-level journals.

  1. Ewen and Pusztai, “Effects of Diets Containing Genetically Modified Potatoes,’ Discussed above.
  2. Ermakova, “Genetically Modified Soy Leads to the Decrease of Weight and High Mortality of Rat Pups.” Not published in any journal.
  3. Seralini, Cellier and Vendomois, “New Analysis of Rate Feeding Study with GM Maize Reveals Signs of Hyporenal Toxicity.’ The EFSA has debunked this paper.
  4. Aris and LeBlanc, “Maternal and Fetal Exposure to Pesticdes Associated tp GM Foods in Eastern Township of Quebec, CA.” Critiqued by Anastasia Bodnar.
  5. Carman, Vlieger,Ver Steeg, Sneller, Robinson al., A Long-Term Toxicology Study on Pigs Fed a Combined GMO Soy and Maize Diet.” Published on a non-peer-reviewed journal. Bozianu’s work rebutted this paper. Rebutted by Mark Lynas  and  by David Gorski.
  6. Seralini al. “Long Term Toxicity of a Roundup herbicide…” Discussed above, and debunked by Skeptico and by Wayne Parrott.
  7. De Vendomois, Spiroux and Seralini, “A Comparison of the Effects of Three GM Corn Varieties on Mammalian Health” Reviewed and debunked here.

Conclusions

Professor Krimsky has recycled old, discredited papers and arguments as if they were new to try to imply that there is a serious doubt about the safety of GM crops. He brushes aside the thousands of papers that make up the scientific consensus over the few weak ones he has dredged up to make his point. And Professor van Eenennaam’s billion animal study simply closes the door on this discussion.

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One thought on “Krimsky’s ‘Illusory Consensus’ is itself illusory

  1. He also confuses consensus with unanimity. A comparison is in order. In surveying the published literature on climate change, Cook et al look at some 11,000 papers and conclude 97% consensus for anthropogenic climate change. That means over 300 papers not supporting the consensus! And still, 97% has great weight.

    The number of papers investigating the safety of biotechnology are likely smaller, but to put those 26 articles in context have a look at the GENERA database of 1200 safety studies, more than half independently funded:

    http://genera.biofortified.org/wp/genera-announces-beta-test-launch

    Like

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