The Séralini affair – or the secret history of a torpedo

Tuesday 17 October 2017


/user/image/actualitePicture_568808.pngThe publication of the study by the French biologist showing the devastating effects of glyphosate caused a shock wave at Monsanto – which has not stopped denouncing the publication by all means possible.

Monsanto's nightmare. Gilles-Eric Séralini, professor of biology at the university of Caen, became exactly that on September 19, 2012. This evidence surfaced from the latest release of "Monsanto papers" – the internal documents of the agrochemical multinational made public in the context of a class action lawsuit against it in the United States. They show that employees of the firm maneuvered behind the scenes over several weeks to obtain the retraction of the controversial study by the French biologist. And that they achieved their aim.

We recall that on that day, Séralini published a study with global resonance in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology. Rats fed with GM maize and/or glyphosate (the active ingredient of Roundup)[1] had developed enormous tumours, which were immediately splashed over one of the newspapers. The media coverage, which was considerable, was disastrous for the image of Monsanto and its products, even if the study was judged inconclusive by all scientific organisations – including the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the United Nations.[2] Then, in November 2013, an event took place that was unprecedented in the history of scientific publishing: the study was retracted by the journal – that is, it was disowned after publication.

Many researchers expressed their unease: the work of the French researchers had not been found fraudulent or to contain unintentional errors, which usually the only reasons for withdrawing a publication from the scientific literature. In an editorial published later in January 2014, the editor of the magazine, Wallace Hayes, justified this decision on the basis that " No definitive conclusions could be drawn from the inconclusive data". The Séralini study was therefore the first – and only – study to have been deleted from archives of a scholarly journal for its lack of "conclusive evidence".

But what Wallace Hayes does not mention is that he was bound by a consultancy contract to Monsanto. Well known in the world of toxicology and a researcher affiliated with Harvard University, he spent most of his career in the chemical industry and at the cigarette firm R. J. Reynolds, where he was a vice-president. The "Monsanto Papers" reveal that Mr Hayes was a consultant for the agrochemical firm from the middle of August 2012. His mission was to develop a network of South American scientists to participate in a symposium on glyphosate, and his fees were set at "$400 [340 euros] per hour"within a limit of "$3,200 per day and a total of $16,000". At no time was this conflict of interest between Monsanto and the editor-in-chief of the journal disclosed.

Retraction as the ultimate objective

"If it's true, it's a shame," Jose Luis Domingo, professor at the the Rovira i Virgili University (Tarragona, Spain) told Le Monde. This renowned toxicologist has replaced Mr Hayes as head of the editorial board of the journal in 2016. It was he who, when managing editor, had published the controversial study.

Internal emails from Monsanto show that as soon as the study was published, company executives considered the retraction of the study a prime objective. But in order to justify a measure of such gravity, the journal had to be able to depend on the strong indignation of the scientific community. On 26 September 2012, David Saltmiras, one of Monsanto’s toxicologists, wrote to colleagues: "Wally Hayes called me this morning in response to my message yesterday. He was concerned that he had only received links to blogs or online publications, press releases, etc., but not one formal letter to the editor.” Formulated as "letters to the editor", the accusations against the work of the Séralini team could be published in the journal. They are therefore of “critical importance”, added David Saltmiras. In fact, by displaying dissatisfaction, they could justify a retraction.

Except that one week after the publication of the study, not one letter of protest had been sent to Food and Chemical Toxicology. The editor-in-chief "therefore has an urgent need for formal letters to the editor that are objective, rational and authoritative”, continued David Saltmiras, before concluding: "I think he would like to receive these letters today."

In the exchanges that followed, Monsanto toxicologists suggested the names of researchers they could ask to do this. They bet that the highest credibility of criticism would be formulated by "third parties" – scientists from the academic world without any apparent links with Monsanto.

Adding "ammunition"

Moreover, these strategies were described explicitly by the employees of Monsanto themselves. On his internal evaluation form, David Saltmiras wrote that he had "actively sought
to broaden and interact with my network ofinternationally recognized scientists outside Monsanto”, allowing them not only to "candidly exchange ideas and scientific information" but also "to leverage these to execute Monsanto strategies".

During the Séralini affair, he wrote, "I leveraged my relationship with the editor-in-chief of Food and Chemical Toxicology and was the single point of contact between Monsanto and the journal."

In early November, half a dozen individual letters and a collective letter signed by 25 researchers were published by the journal. This collective letter is mentioned in the Monsanto internal documents – but in a message of 28 September, more than one month before its publication. While one employee of the company was preparing a talk that he had to present in public, one of his colleagues suggested that he add "ammunition" to his presentation by invoking "the letter to the editor by 25 scientists from 14 countries". But the employee hesitated. Since the letter was not yet public, he said he was "uncomfortable" with the idea of disclosing the initiative during his presentation: "This would imply that we are involved, otherwise how would we be aware?", he explained. The affair was extremely sensitive. To the extent that he added, "We are being asked to stop internal communications on this subject." His correspondent took care to close the conversation, noting that Monsanto employees did not write the text or solicit the signatures of the authors.

Finally, it was all settled. In the first paragraph of its editorial of January 2014, Wallace Hayes justified the retraction of the Séralini study by "the numerous letters expressing concern as to the validity of [its] conclusions".

Were these letters written to last? The biologist Kevin Folta (University of Florida), who wrote in his letter that he "fully supported the retraction", declared on social media in April 2015: "I have always said that the study should not have been retracted.” A surprising turnaround. Another author, Andrew Cockburn, asked for his own letter to be retracted some months later. Why? Like Wallace Hayes, he did not reply to Le Monde’s questions. In response to questions, the publishing house Elsevier, owner of the journal, says, for its part, that it has launched an investigation.

      Translator’s notes : In fact the study tested a commercial Roundup formulation, not glyphosate alone. The IARC is an agency of the World Health Organisation and not the United Nations.   

       Le monde