This careful paper by Johan Diels and colleagues is highly relevant to the debate on GM health and safety issues. Over and again, our own regulators (including EFSA, FSA and ACNFP) claim that they can only take seriously "peer-reviewed" studies relating the the effects of GM crops and foods in the food chain -- and the underpinning assumption is that all of these studies are 100% reliable simply because they have been peer-reviewed. We all know that that is nonsense, since scientific papers can be manipulated, or use carefully selected data sets, or even be fraudulent, without deep defects necessarily being picked up by referees and journal editors. Indeed, the corruption is not necessarily restricted to the authors of papers. Editors can easily kill or approve papers by carefully choosing their referees to achieve a desired effect; and corruption can run far deeper than that, as we saw with the famous case of Nature Biotechnology and Irina Ermakova a few years ago.
In the past, Jack Heinemann, Judy Carman and others have flagged up the bias inherent in the GM journal publishing scene, and it's not a bad thing that this has come up again now -- and to remind ourselves that even if an article claims that a particular GM product is safe to eat, it ain't necessarily so........
NOTE: Research published in a leading scientific journal concludes that commercial interests help shape the findings of peer reviewed articles on the health risks of genetically modified plants.
The study shows:
*a strong association between author affiliation to the GM industry (Professional Conflict of Interest)and study outcome
*at least one of the authors was connected to industry in almost half the GM health and nutrition studies analysed
*where there was such a conflict of interest, 100% of the studies (41 out of 41) made a favourable GM safety finding
*conflicts of interest are much less likely to be declared where authors affiliate to the GM industry
*more than half (52%) of the 94 analyzed articles did not declare funding source
*proportionally more articles with undeclared funding ended up with conclusions favorable to industry
*in 83% of the cases where funding was actually declared, none of the authors was directly affiliated with industry
*studies funded by industry or involving scientists employed by industry are almost certain to produce conclusions in favor of product commercialization
Diels, J., M. Cunha, et al. (2011). Food Policy 36: 197–203
Since the first commercial cultivation of genetically modified crops in 1994, the rapidly expanding market of genetically modified seeds has given rise to a multibillion dollar industry. This fast growth, fueled by high expectations towards this new commercial technology and shareholder trust in the involved industry, has provided strong incentives for further research and development of new genetically modified plant varieties. Considering, however, the high financial stakes involved, concerns are raised over the influence that conflicts of interest may place upon articles published in peer-reviewed journals that report on health risks or nutritional value of genetically modified food products. In a study involving 94 articles selected through objective criteria, it was found that the existence of either financial or professional conflict of interest was associated to study outcomes that cast genetically modified products in a favorable light (p = 0.005). While financial conflict of interest alone did not correlate with research results (p = 0.631), a strong association was found between author affiliation to industry (professional conflict of interest) and study outcome (p < 0.001). We discuss these results by comparing them to similar studies on conflicts of interest in other areas, such as biomedical sciences, and hypothesize on dynamics that may help explain such connections.
The presence of COI in scientific research does not imply actual behavior of study authors. But it does present a risk that the study outcome may be improperly influenced. This study has focused on how commercial interests may interfere with outcomes of risk and nutrition analysis studies of products derived from GM plants. This is a choice justified by the high financial stakes involved in the development of such products and the increasing weight of private funding in research in recent years.
Through statistical analysis of a selected population of studies in the described area, it could be shown that a combined analysis of COIs through professional affiliations or direct research funding are likely to influence the final outcome of such studies in the commercial interest of the involved industry. Our results partially confirm those observed in biomedical sciences, tobacco, alcohol and nutrition research.
Various hypothesis could be identified that may explain the observed association between study outcome and presence of financial COI: publication restrictions imposed by industry funders; contractual agreements of authors with industry; industry bias favoring friendly research; and researchers that are sensitive to the financial interests of their industrial sponsors or employers.
Apart from the observed relations, it was considered that types of funding other than industry, such as governments and NGOs may also condition investigation. Additionally, values held by scientists may influence research outcomes as well.
Our data reinforce the need to that all affiliations whether financial or professional should be openly declared in scientific publications. In situations where health risk assessments or nutritional evaluation studies of GM products serve to inform decision makers, procedures could be developed to minimize the risk of decisions being taken based on study outcomes that have been influenced by conflicts of interest. This may best be achieved by giving preference towards peer-reviewed studies where no COI can be observed.