The Future of Food Security Depends on Good Science
Jan 16, 2014
By Gilbert arap Bor: Kapseret, Kenya
As we begin a New Year, we often express our hope for the future. In Kenya, there is hope that 2014 will bring a lifting of the ban on GM imports and mark the first time Kenyan farmers will have access to important tools of agricultural technology that have been withheld from them.
One of the world’s great scientific hoaxes has been ratted out.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that his false claims already have done enormous damage to the cause of food security—and it will take a big effort to undo the harm here in Kenya and elsewhere.
The story began more than a year ago, when the academic journal Food and Chemical Toxicology published a shocking study by French researcher Gilles-Eric Seralini. It asserted that genetically modified crops—routinely grown by farmers and eaten by consumers—caused tumors in rats.
The implication was clear: One of our most conventional and important tools of food production might be bad for us.
This alleged finding generated headlines around the world. The enemies of biotechnology, always desperate for a new talking point, embraced Seralini’s work and trumpeted his conclusions. For more than a year, it was almost impossible to have a discussion about GM crops without hearing about "the rat study."
Loose talk led to bold action. France’s Prime Minister threatened to push for a total ban of GM crops in Europe. Russia suspended imports of GM food. In Kenya, where we struggle daily to feed a swelling population, the government banned GM imports and even sent agents into supermarkets to confiscate food with GM ingredients.
Despite this, many scientists immediately smelled a rat. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and Seralini seemed to contradict a mountain of previous research that has proven GM crops to be completely safe for farmers to grow and people to eat.
Experts who dipped beneath the surface of Seralini’s explosive claims quickly identified flaws in his study. Moreover, Seralini’s own behavior was suspicious: He shared pre-publication copies of his data only with journalists who signed an agreement not to contact other scientists for comment. This demand, rejected by many in the media, violated a fundamental precept of journalism. It also suggested that Serelini was more interested in publicity than scientific inquiry.
Yet Food and Chemical Toxicology is a peer-reviewed publication, edited by A. Wallace Hayes of Harvard University. So Seralini also was treated with a certain amount of respect.
It turns out that he didn’t deserve it: In November, Food and Chemical Toxicology took the remarkable step of formally retracting Seralini’s paper.
In its official statement, the journal noted that Seralini had based his astonishing claim on a tiny number of rats: "A more in-depth look at the raw data revealed that no definitive conclusions can be reached with this small sample size." To complicate matters, he relied on a variety of rat that is notorious for outbreaks of cancer: "Given the known high incidence of tumors in the Sprague-Dawley rat, normal variability cannot be excluded as the cause of the higher mortality and incidence observed in the treated groups."
In other words, "the rat study" is bogus.
The journal’s retraction is welcome, but of course it would have been better if Seralini’s research never had appeared in the first place. Its publication marked a great setback to the understanding of biotechnology in Kenya and around the world. Seralini’s phony claim occurred not in a vacuum, but in the real world, where farmers face the incredible challenge of growing enough food for a hungry planet. The imprudent publication of Seralini’s work allowed the enemies of biotechnology to spread propaganda and influenced government policy for the worse.
The future of food security in Africa and everywhere depends on good science. We have to grow more food on less land, at a time when climate change and disease threaten staple crops. In Kenya’s Rift Valley, grain farmers are watching a deadly virus cut yields by more than 70 percent. I, for one, harvested a mere 20 bags (about 2 tons) from one hectare of maize that normally yields 80 bags (7.5 tons)! Kenya now faces the stark reality of a shortage of over 10 million bags of maize according to Minister of Agriculture CS Koskey. This significant loss of harvest due to disease could be minimized by the quick adoption of biotech seeds. Without access to GM maize seeds and the immediate lifting of the import ban on GM food, it is difficult to see how Kenya will avert a looming food crisis.
We need more scientists like Norman Borlaug, whose centennial year is now upon us: Men and women committed to safe advances in agricultural technology and food security, as opposed to charlatans who somehow manage to give even rats a bad name.
Gilbert Arap Bor grows corn (maize), vegetables and dairy cows on a small-scale farm of 25 acres in Kapseret, near Eldoret, Kenya. He also teaches at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Eldoret campus. Mr. Bor is the 2011 Kleckner Trade & Technology Advancement Award recipient and a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.