Scary Pictures

PRAGUE – Campaigners on important but complex issues, annoyed by the length of time required for public deliberations, often react by exaggerating their claims, hoping to force a single solution to the forefront of public debate. But, however well intentioned, scaring the public into a predetermined solution often backfires: when people eventually realize that they have been misled, they lose confidence and interest.

Last month, there were two examples of this in a single week. On September 19, the French researcher Gilles-Eric Séralini attempted to fuel public opposition to genetically modified foods by showing the public how GM corn, with and without the pesticide Roundup, caused huge tumors and early death in 200 rats that had consumed it over two years.

Supplying an abundance of pictures of rats with tumors the size of ping-pong balls, Séralini certainly captured the public’s attention. France’s health, ecology, and agriculture ministers promised a prompt investigation and threatened to ban imports of Monsanto’s GM corn to the European Union. Russia actually did block imports of Monsanto corn.

But Séralini’s research posed many problematic issues. For starters, the Sprague-Dawley strain of rats that he used is naturally prone to tumors. Studies of Sprague-Dawley rats show that 88-96% of those that serve as experimental controls develop tumors before they reach two years of age. But the public saw only pictures of tumorous rats that had consumed GM corn and Roundup. If the public had seen the similarly grotesque tumors that grow on untreated rats, officials most likely would not have acted so hastily.