A Monsanto test field for genetically engineered corn in Woodland, Calif. (Noah Berger / Bloomberg )
The French study published last week on genetically engineered corn and tumors in rats was, at the very least, not something on which public policy should be based. There were problems with the sample sizes, issues about the types of rats used and questions about why, if the genetically engineered corn was the culprit, rats that ate a lot of the corn did not get as sick as those that ate more moderate amounts.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the study, though, is the effort made by the researchers to ensure that the first wave of coverage of their study would include no criticism of it. As Reuters reported:
"In an unusual move, the research group did not allow reporters to seek outside comment on their paper before its publication in the peer-reviewed journal Food and Chemical Toxicology and presentation at a news conference in London."
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In other words, in order to receive early, embargoed copies of the study, which is the traditional way of disseminating information on peer-reviewed research, journalists had to agree not to interview other experts who might point out flaws. Though they could do so afterward, and many did, the initial, breaking stories on the study could include no expert criticism.
At the very best, the study might call for more study to be done -- as there should be anyway. But Russia leaped on the French paper as though this single study revealed the ultimate truth about genetically engineered foods. Its consumer watchdog announced that imports of such corn created by agribusiness giant Monsanto would be suspended, a drastic move when you consider that about 90% of the corn grown in this country is genetically engineered.
All of this, of course, is leading up to the November vote in California on Proposition 37, which would require the labeling of genetically engineered foods. Representatives of the campaign against labeling visited The Times' editorial board Tuesday, and they argued that bioengineered foods were known to be perfectly safe and that the initiative would lead to a crush of lawsuits against grocers even if those grocers were scrupulous about collecting paperwork that attested to the lack of genetically engineered food in their products.
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The possible consequences of genetically engineered food might call for more caution than No on 37's UCLA biologist Bob Goldberg feels necessary ("Bioengineered crops are the safest crops in the world"), but the questionable French study surely doesn't call for dramatic and possibly disruptive turnabouts in a nation's food policy either.
The editorial board heard from the pro-37 side a couple of weeks ago and expects to be discussing the initiative later this week.
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