Prof. Gilles-Éric Séralini, whose since-discredited research contributed to Kenya’s 2012 decision to ban genetically modified organisms (GMOs), failed to attend an international agroecology conference in Nairobi this week to share his work.
The French scientist, whose sensational paper that GMO maize caused tumor in rats was retracted by the journal that published it and later disproven by three independent European studies, had been billed as a top speaker at the conference. The event was held as Kenyan officials weighed whether to rescind the country’s GMO ban, which was based in part on that paper.
The Kenya government announced in late April that it was reconsidering the ban as more than 1 million of its citizens require urgent humanitarian food assistance due to prolonged drought. Kenyan scientists are currently conducting field research on GM drought-tolerant and insect-resistant maize, as well as GM cotton, sorghum and cassava.
Though Séralini ultimately did make a presentation via a video call, Kenyan and international scientists attending the conference sharply differed on the use and safety of GMOs.
But all the scientists agreed that the food system in Africa needs to be strengthened and that all efforts need to be employed to sustain agriculture.
Dr. David Amudavi, an adult and extension education expert with Biovision Africa Trust, advocated for Kenya’s adoption of post-1990s farming systems, saying they are safe and sustainable. But Prof. Ratemo Michieka, a weed science and environment expert at the University of Nairobi, disagreed, saying many agricultural tools must be used to produce enough safe food for the ever-growing population.
‘‘GMO crops like the Bt cotton on field trial in Kenya have an inbuilt mechanism to deal with pests and this is a great step towards minimizing the use of pesticides,” Michieka argued. “Crop health faces many threats and crop health is important for food security and environmental sustainability.”
Crop yields will decrease as growing season temperatures increase due to climate change, Michieka warned. Losses may be further exacerbated by insect pests, which already consume 5 to 20 percent of major grain crops.
On the sidelines of the conference, Robert Wager, a molecular biologist at Vancouver Island University in Canada, agreed with Michieka, saying that GMOs are grown and consumed around the world and have a fantastic safety record. In fact, due to testing and regulations, they are safer than conventional crops, he said, noting that Bt crops, for example, have a lower level of fungal contamination and therefore have less fungal toxins.
Wager, weighing in on the debate about pesticides that was part of the conference’s focus, said that glyphosate, like other pesticides, has been misused. It needs to be used appropriately to minimize its spread to the untargeted areas.
“The anti-GMOs started their presentations by discrediting the regulators, because it is the regulators who make sure that science is safe,” Wager observed. “If you distrust the regulators, then you are likely to ignore what they say. The fact is that GMO crops are regulated the same across the world before they come to the market’’ and that fact was ignored in the anti-GMO presentations.
“Biotechnology is a complex science and unfortunately, those who are not well-versed about science are often misled by emotive arguments, as opposed to scientific arguments,” he said.
Though some of the conference talks may have sounded scientific to the average person, they were not, Wager told the Kenyan press. “That has a significant impact on countries that are on the fence of considering the use of this technology. It puts a lot of pressure on the governments when that fear is generated with misinformation and becomes widespread.”
Wager and other scientists at the conference agreed that while organic farming alone cannot feed the growing population, it does have some practices that should be incorporated into farming systems.
Michieka and Wager agreed that farmers around the world need to use the best of every form of agriculture, including organic, integrated pesticide management, GMOs, conventional hybrids and gene edited crops, if they are to produce sufficient food to feed the growing population on the same or less land.
The 1st International Conference on Agroecology Transforming Agriculture & Food Systems in Africa brought together local and international scientists, as well as agricultural stakeholders from various countries. It was billed as a forum for scaling up the practice of agroecology, which some have termed a dead-end for Africa, and promoting organic trade. In addition to Séralini, the line-up of GMO opponents included Americans Tyrone Hayes and Don Huber.
Séralini’s appearance had been anticipated because of the high-profile role that his rat study paper played in Kenya’s 2012 GMO ban. As Forbes reported, Kenya’s then-Minister of Public Health, Beth Mugo, cited Séralini’s study linking cancer in rats to the consumption of herbicide-tolerant GM maize in recommending an immediate ban on GM imports and products. The Kenyan Medical Research Institute, which is under Ministry of Public Health, also supported the ban based on the Séralini study. The President accepted Mugo’s recommendation and decreed the ban.
Since then, Food and Chemistry Toxicology retracted the paper after the authors refused to withdraw it and three separate studies funded by the European Union refuted Séralini’s main conclusions about the toxicity of herbicide-tolerant (Roundup Ready) maize. The research identified no potential risk from the product.
In addition to addressing concerns raised by the Séralini study, the research was intended to provide the EU with guidance on whether it’s necessary to conduct a two-year carcinogenicity feeding trial on rats with whole food/feed, given the high number of animals needed.
“These new studies contradict Séralini’s proposal on the need to carry out long-term studies,” the French Association of Plant Biotechnology (AFBV) stated.
Despite the widespread scientific renunciation of both Séralini’s research and his public relations campaign to promote it, he has refused to backtrack on his claims. His discredited work is still frequently cited by anti-GMO activists.