Italian Senator exposes bad science used against GMOs globally

Italian Senator Elena Cattaneo Neuroscientist

Italian Senator Elena Cattaneo Neuroscientist

Once again the world is waking up to the good news that yet another fake research paper against GMOs has been retracted.

Such papers have been many, with the most prominent one that did a lot of damage being the so-called Seralini paper published in November 2012 but quickly retracted by the publisher after a barrage of criticism by all leading, credible scientific bodies and world renown academies of sciences. The big question is: Who is paying these scientists? Your guess is as good as mine.

The latest news doing rounds is that papers that describe harmful effects to animals fed GM crops are under scrutiny for  data manipulation. The interim findings of an ongoing investigation at the University of Naples in Italy suggest that images in the papers may have been intentionally altered. The finds will be released next month February.

Like the ones before it, the papers’ findings run counter to those of numerous safety tests carried out by food and drug agencies around the world, which indicate that there are no dangers associated with eating GM food.

The tragedy is that the work has been widely cited on anti-GM websites — and results of the experiments that the papers describe were referenced in an Italian Senate hearing last July on whether the country should allow cultivation of safety-approved GM crops.

“The case is very important also because these papers have been used politically in the debate on GM crops,” says Italian Senator Elena Cattaneo, a neuroscientist at the University of Milan whose concerns about the work triggered the investigation.

The begging question is: Why are policy mandarins, especially in Africa, Europe and Asia, so ready to believe such garbage from clearly compromised scientists? Why can’t they ask their chief scientific advisors and eminent scientists to advise them correctly before making harmful, prohibitive biotechnology policy decisions?

The sad fact is that without the intervention of Senator Cattaneo who doubted authenticity of the sincerity of the scientists and decided to take a closer look at three papers and found them to be wanting in scientific rigor and soundness, the truth may have taken longer to come out.

All the papers originated from a research lab at the University of Naples, Italy, headed by veterinary scientist Federico Infascelli. They describe experiments on goat kids born to mothers fed on GM soya-bean meal and conclude that fragments of the foreign gene in the soya bean can be transported across the gut and secreted in the milk, influencing the biology of the suckling kids.


Cattaneo also noted obvious signs of manipulation: sections of images of electrophoresis gels (Electrophoresis is a technique used in laboratories in order to separate macromolecules based on size, e.g. paper gels)) in the paper appeared to have been obliterated. And some of the images in different papers appeared to be identical but with captions describing different experiments. When will the anti-GM groups stop this dishonesty? This is morally wrong considering that such manipulated research findings are often used by policy makers to deny needy people, including children, access to potentially life-changing technologies.

The Senator, a neuroscientist, then commissioned Dr. Enrico Bucci, head of the biomedical services and information consultancy firm BioDigitalValley in Aosta, Italy, to carry out a forensic analysis of all three papers. The analysis suggested that the papers did indeed contain manipulated and reused images. Cattaneo contacted the journals concerned in September last year, and in November forwarded the analysis to the University of Naples. The university rector, Gaetano Manfredi, an engineer, immediately launched the university investigation, which is nearly complete.

Emerging details of the confidential findings of the investigation committee — composed of scientists in and outside of Naples — show evidence of fraud. Dr Tommaso Russo, a molecular biologist at the University of Naples who is responsible for coordinating the investigation says the papers were found to contain intentional data manipulation.

Paper retracted

But the scheme is wider than the three papers. On 14 January, Bucci posted online his analysis of the papers under investigation, as well as of four more papers on GM feed co-authored by Infascelli, and a PhD thesis from Infascelli’s lab. The analysis claims evidence for image manipulation in all eight papers. Bucci has informed the rector and Infascelli of his findings.

Since Cattaneo sent her findings to the journals concerned, one of the three papers under investigation has been retracted: last month, the 2013 Food and Nutrition Sciences paperwas retracted, with a citation of “self-plagiarism”.  In Africa, several scientists have been approached by anti-biotech groups to conduct pseudo-research in their laboratories that can be used to hoodwink policy makers that there is no consensus among scientists on safety of GMOs. This scheme has been hatched by a well-known anti-GM organization that recently opened a propaganda branch on Dar es salaam, Tanzania.

Cattaneo is not the only scientist to have raised concerns about papers from Infascelli’s lab. Plant geneticist Wayne Parrott at the University of Georgia in Athens notified the relevant journals of his independent concerns about image manipulation in the three papers under investigation, and in one more from 2006 that claims a metabolic impact of GM food in rabbits. (This paper also appears in Bucci’s analysis.)

The investigation at the University of Naples is the first to test formal rules on scientific misconduct that Manfredi introduced last July. Two years ago, police took over an investigation into alleged misconduct in the medical faculty because the university had no formal misconduct procedures and had failed to take up the case. That case is still ongoing.

It is time for all papers with preposterous claims against GM crops to be reviewed by panels of independent experts, including forensic auditors, and unholy alliance between the authors and anti-GM groups investigated. Authors found to be capable should be named and shamed and charged with crimes against humanity.


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