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Another GMO scare falls short scientifically

Ooops. Another GMOs-as-evil-incarnate story has been knocked into a cocked hat — although, no surprise, it was basically ignored by TV and metropolitan newspapers.

But it has raised a major stink in scientific circles after the prestigious journal Nature recanted the peer-reviewed paper it published last November from a Berkeley professor and graduate student contending that DNA from genetically engineered corn had contaminated native maize in Mexico, raising fears of an eventual loss of the old varieties.

The original article was trumpeted far and wide by anti-GMO organizations and a cooperative mass media, renewing calls by opponents for a worldwide moratorium on genetically modified crops. The Mexican government was urged to halt all corn imports from the U.S. until American shippers could certify their corn as GMO-free. April 10-17 was set to stage protests and hold press conferences across North and South America to launch a Continental Campaign Against Genetically Engineered Corn.

Greenpeace, the Let's-Take-Farming-Back-To-The-Stone-Age organization, pontificated that “the U.S. has a moral obligation to stop sending genetically engineered corn to Mexico, a major world center of diversity” and said the government had confirmed contamination in at least 15 communities in central Mexico. It urged an e-mail/fax campaign to pressure the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to end the registration of all Bt crops.

“This is likely to be only the tip of the iceberg,” a Greenpeace spokesperson said, adding that the research reinforced concerns that “GM crops may be out of control.” Friends of the Earth also weighed in with a comment that “the biotech industry has been grossly irresponsible in designing crops that are genetically polluting the planet,” and worried that rice, soybeans, potatoes, canola, and beets might become similarly contaminated.

While Nature didn't outright retract the paper, a letter by the editor noted that the available evidence “wasn't sufficient to justify” its publication, and it included scathing criticisms from other researchers who said the conclusions reached in the study were wrong. One termed it “a testament to technical incompetence,” and Nature noted that three other scientists who reviewed the paper said it was clouded by technical errors. Six Berkeley professors, in a letter to the journal, termed the claims of the original article “unfounded,” and commented: “It is important for information about genetically modified organisms to be reliable and accurate, as important policy decisions are at stake.” Amen.

This makes two research goofs in a row: Recently shot down was a widely publicized study alleging that pollen from GMO corn was causing the death of milkweed-feeding caterpillars that become Monarch butterflies. After a cascade of righteous indignation by butterfly lovers worldwide, it turned out the research was based on faulty data and any danger to the caterpillars was insignificant.

Ironically, a short time later hundreds of millions of the lovely butterflies were wiped out when a freak cold spell hit their overwintering area in Mexico — an infinitely greater disaster than would have occurred over thousands of years of exposure to GM corn pollen.

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