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Conflicts of interest and publications on GM Bt crops
Three INRA researchers have analyzed the scientific literature on the efficacy or durability of Bt transgenic plants in terms of the possible link of interest between this research and the biotechnology industries. They publish their results in the journal PLOS ONE of 15 December 2016. They show that 40% of the publications studied present a financial conflict of interest1. More importantly, the findings of these publications are more often favorable to the interests of the seed industries in the presence than in the absence of conflicts of interest. This general trend is also true at the level of the researcher.
The society expects researchers to produce a transparent and impartial scientific production, especially when the subjects covered have a strong societal repercussion for ethical, economic or health reasons. The use of transgenic plants is one of these subjects, particularly within the European Union. Three INRA researchers were interested in the links between research on genetically modified plants and the main industries that develop and commercialize these plants (Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow AgroSciences and DuPont Pioneer). The three scientists analyzed the scientific literature on the efficacy or durability of transgenic plants (including maize, cotton and soybean) that produce proteins from a bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), toxic to insects that infest them. These plants are referred to as Bt crops. The efficacy and durability of Bt crops were defined as the level of pest control provided by the Bt toxin they produced or by the crop themselves and the sustainability of this pest control over time, respectively. A total of 672 articles published between 1991 and 2015 in peer-reviewed scientific journals were analyzed.
Their study, which has just appeared in the journal PLOS ONE, shows that 40% of publications on this subject present a financial conflict of interest because the studies presented in these publications have been carried out or financed, in whole or in part, by biotechnology industries that develop and sell these plants. More importantly, the findings of these publications are more frequently (+50%) favorable to the interests of the seed industries in the presence than in the absence of conflicts of interest. This general tendency is observed at the level of the researcher: the findings of the publications of the same researcher are on average more often favorable to the interests of the biotechnology industries in the presence than in the absence of conflicts of interest.
The analyzed data do not allow the INRA researchers to determine whether financial conflicts of interest are the cause of the greater frequency of conclusions favorable to the interests of the biotechnology industries. Although the causal effect of conflicts of interest on the findings of scientific publications has been demonstrated in other areas (tobacco, energy, pharmacology, etc.), it cannot be ruled out that another unknown factor is the cause of both the conflicts of interest and the more favorable findings of publications on transgenic plants.
The three INRA researchers encourage the scientific journals to explicitly mention the financial conflicts of interest present in the studies. They also propose, in order to avoid these conflicts, to set up a research fund which, while being financially supported by the industries concerned, would be independent in the choice of studies to be financed.
1. Conflicts of interest are defined here as “a set of circumstances that creates a risk that professional judgment or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest” (from Field MJ, Lo B. Conflict of interest in medical research, education, and practice. National Academies Press, Washington. 2009).