A Retrospective Look at One Figure in a Scientific Paper with a Body Count

Five years ago the news rocked the world. Images of three grotesque rats penetrated social media, and were bannered across the headline space of thousands of websites. The image came from a scholarly paper that claimed a relationship between ingredients from engineered crops and tumors.

The response was immediate. Scientists examined the work and noted its many shortcomings. On the other hand, activists touted the work’s veracity, representing it as proof-positive that such technologies were deadly. Some governments viewed this report as a precautionary shot-across-the-bow and halted all use of genetically engineered crops. One of those nations was Kenya, a country that has serious food security issues and could benefit from new technology.

And today the image is still used as rhetoric against safe technology that could feed more people and decrease the cost and environmental impact of farming.

What can learn about the paper, the authors, and the claims just from those panels of the figure?

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Time has shown that this work was DOA, yet its deadly legacy continues to impede the propagation of sound technologies that could help feed more people and reduce environmental impacts of agriculture.

Here are the famous three panels from Figure 3 in the original paper. I’m not going to link it. If you are interested in a deep dive on the inadequacies of the statistics, the poor pathology work and the details around the paper see the reports by Drs. Alison Van Eenennaam and Wayne Parrot.

What are some simple takeaways that tell a lot about the work, the ethics of authors, and the agenda of the publication?

The figure claims to show representative rats from animals fed “GMO”, animals fed herbicide (R), and animals fed “GMO” and herbicide. (I’m not sure why the image I have here is labeled A, B, C. In the original work it was J,K,L). Here are five important issues to note:

  1. Tumors in the control rat? What about the rat that ate a non-GMO, no herbicide diet? Where’s that? We don’t know. In the figure, the authors somehow forget to show it. If you look at Table 2 you see that control rats get tumors too. This is an important note because this omission suggests intent of the authors. If you show the control, then the figure loses its punch. How reviewers missed this is beyond me.

Again, this work was cited as justification to terminate use of genetically engineered crops in several countries. This paper, a political statement manufactured with poor scientific rigor, has a body count. This paper stopped deployment of crops in places where the world’s poorest subsistence farmers could have benefited. This paper let people go hungry, and when 21,000 people die every day from malnutrition, this paper is responsible for at least some of them.

Scholarly work became propaganda for a broken movement. Our scientific literature was exploited to propagate fear. A failed peer review kept food from the mouths of many.

Looking back at this paper, five long years ago, it reminds us that the best evidence an anti-scientific movement has does not fare well over time, and has serious consequences that harm those in need.

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Kevin M. Folta is a Professor and Chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. He teaches science communication workshops for scientists and ag professionals, and hosts the weekly podcastTalking Biotech. His research funding and cost reimbursements may be seen at www.kevinfolta.com/transparency.

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Land-grant scientist exploring ways to make better food with less input, and how to communicate science. All funding at kevinfolta.com/transparency

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