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Safety of genetically modified food questioned
Interview with gene scientist, Dr Arpad Pusztai

By Paul Mitchell
WSWS : News & Analysis : Medicine & Health : Food Safety Issues, 3 June 1999

The British House of Commons Science and
Technology Committee (STC) has been investigating the nature of scientific
advice to government. Genetically modified organisms
(GMOs) are the subject of its first report,
published this month.

The STC took evidence from scientists, business,
consumer organisations, government
ministers and non-governmental organisations.
Its report concludes that there was no
evidence to suggest that a moratorium on the use
of GMOs was necessary. Instead, it makes
several recommendations about "structural
weaknesses in the advisory system". It suggests
the two existing advisory bodies should be
merged into one. The new body should make
more use of non-scientific experts, be more open
and commission more research on the
environmental impact of GMOs. It must continue
to deal with the scientific issues and
ministers should look elsewhere to address the
ethical and political implications of genetic
modification.

The report says "we condemn the unjust attacks
that have been made directly or indirectly
against public-spirited scientists who have
served the community well" on the two advisory
bodies. However, the report complains that "Dr
Pusztai's appearance before us attracted far
more press interest than did some of our more
credible witnesses. The press continues to give
credibility to Dr Pusztai's claim despite it
being contradicted by his own evidence." It
suggests that scientists should be trained to
respond to the media. Both must be more
responsible, accurately reporting the facts. "GM
technology and its potential benefits may be
permanently lost to the UK unless there is
rational debate."

Dr Arpad Pusztai is a world authority on plant
proteins called lectins. He was employed at the
Rowett Research Institute in Scotland until he
took part in the TV programme World In
Action last year and provoked a controversy
about the safety of GMOs. On the programme,
Dr Pusztai explained his tests with modified
potatoes. He had become concerned about what
happened when he fed them to rats. He believes
there were statistically significant changes to
the rats' weight and immune response.

Pustzai appeared with the agreement of the
Rowett Institute to explain that better methods
were needed to test the new technology. The
programme was broadcast on August 10 last
year, but there was media interest in the days
before because of a press release by the TV
company. On the morning of August 10, before the
programme was shown, the Rowett
Institute issued its own press release saying
the gene, known as ConA, from the jackbean
plant, produced toxic effects that were well
known. Therefore the results were to be expected.

In the press, Dr Pusztai was described as "an
old man who had muddled the results". The
possibility of deliberate fraud was also raised.

The World Socialist Web Site spoke to Dr Pusztai
about the controversy.

Q. The STC Report says the Rowett Institute's
press release "had misreported the scientific
findings of the experiments and, that indeed the
experiments referred to had not been carried
out." Can you explain this?

A. I talked to three people on the Sunday night
before the World In Action programme.
What was curious was they were all talking about
ConA. This never came from me. I never
spoke about any of the genes used, not even GNA
[the actual gene used which comes from
the snowdrop]. I was told not to mention them.
The TV press release says nothing about
ConA either. How did the Monsanto [a major GM
food producer] people on breakfast TV on
August 11 know they could talk about ConA? I was
taken aback because I thought we had an
agreement that we would not mention which genes
we used. There must have been some
misinformation going on. The whole thing is a
mystery. Professor James, director of the
Institute, should have listened to what people
were saying. I don't know if you have ever come
across directors of large institutes. They are
extremely busy people and tend to have their own
ideas. Listening is a great art and they just
sometimes haven't the time to do it. To have only a
bit of information is dangerous and he took it
upon himself to issue the press release.

Q. The Rowett Institute issued a press release
saying the gene used in your experiments was
ConA, and no one checked it with you?

A. Yes. If you look at that press
release-remember this is on August 10 before the
programme went out that night-it says further
details can be obtained from Professor James.
I was not allowed to give out any information.
It was incorrect information and when he
realised it, he said it was because I was
confused. A lot of people have known me a long time
and "muddled" is not the way I'm usually described.

Q. You commissioned an independent statistical
analysis of your data. The STC report says
it questions the validity of your results.

A. This is definitely something we have to
rebut. Dr Jones [1] was quite unfair in her
questioning and very aggressive. Two of the
things that are in the final [STC] report I very
strongly contest. I am just putting something
together to put out on the Internet. You see,
there is a favourite ploy used by people in
court. You are only supposed to reply to the
question asked. Dr Jones quoted only a half
sentence from the statistical report, leaving out
the other half, which puts it in context. She
asked me if there was any difference between the
modified potatoes and normal ones. I said no. I
then tried to explain that the modified
potatoes had 20 percent less protein, so we had
to add more protein. If you do a stupid
experiment you get a stupid answer. You will get
an answer that is known to every
schoolboy-that if you start off with less
protein you will get less growth. I was not able to
go into the science. The final report does not
reflect the evidence and we will be tackling that.
On the second point, this was about the lack of
consistency in the statistical report. When I
tried to explain, the chairman, Dr Clark [2]
waded in saying I must apologise, I understand
you are replying to Dr Jones, but this is not a
scientific business. I was not able to explain.
We had four lines of potatoes and you cannot
compare those which are not "substantially
equivalent" [3].

Q. What did you think of the STC's final report?

A. I was very disappointed with the STC. If you
look at the report and the evidence I gave,
they are a world apart. This is only my personal
opinion, but I think they were nobbled and
you know who by. I take great exception to me
being described as a "less credible witness".
I don't think I gave any cause or reason for
them to come to that conclusion. Some of the
other witnesses got into real trouble when they
were being questioned. I did not because I was
telling the truth.

Q. The STC recommends that only published
evidence should be used. Why did you go
public before your evidence was peer-reviewed?

A. One of the most important points I made to
the STC has been ignored by them. If the
Novel Foods Committee, or any other regulatory
body, had to rely on published evidence,
they will always be two years out of date. Most
of the evidence comes from the companies,
who provide it unpublished. Fortunately, because
Professor James was on the Novel Food
Committee until 1998, I was able to see the
reports. Nevertheless, I am not the British public.
There are another 55 million of them. Even if I
know about it, they don't. I cannot criticise it
because it is unpublished. Anyway, why all this
great secrecy? There is nothing particularly
commercially sensitive. They just give
analytical data and methodology. The real reason is
they don't want the public to find out what is
actually done. I could tear them to bits in 10
seconds. In fact, I have done so but not in this
country because everything is confidential. If
everything is so rigorously tested why can't
they disclose this information?

Q. Is it true, as you say in your evidence to
the STC, that there is "only one peer-reviewed
paper on record (and) that this technology has
been introduced on the back of a single paper
in Journal of Nutrition in 1996"?

A. Yes. Even that people didn't know until I
told them. In 1995 when we started our
programme of research there wasn't a single one.

Q. In February this year, 20 international
scientists issued a memorandum supporting you.
Two weeks later a group of Fellows from the
Royal Society [4] criticised those who release
"alleged scientific results". The Royal Society
issued a report last September which the STC
used for its questions and provided six
scientists to peer-review your work. They said your
work was flawed. What is your opinion?

A. This will be answered when I put my papers on
the Internet. Don't forget I'm a pensioner
and I'm having to do all this myself. Even so,
the wires on my computer are getting hot. The
Royal Society only had an internal report from
the Rowett to go on. How can my critics say
the design of the experiment was flawed? The
design is not in the Rowett report.

There were six reports from six different,
anonymous scientists. I received the first on May 6
and had to reply to all of them by the 13th. The
sixth report I received on May 11. It was not
so favourable but it was quite a reasonable
report-it advised caution in interpreting our
results. Two days later, I got another version,
but instead of caution our results were now
declared unsafe. I think they told him to put a
bit more "oomph" into it. This arrived half an
hour before I had to reply because of the deadline.

The Royal Society should come clean. Why is it
that their unnamed experts are any better
than the 20 who supported my research? Those who
supported me were full professors, six
of them British. You can look up their
credentials and publication records.

I shall put what the Royal Society said on the
Internet with my comments. Transparency is
the most important issue and I have nothing to
hide from the public and the other scientists.
On the contrary, the more people know about the
way the Royal Society and the STC came to
their "conclusions", the better for us all.

Q. Some of your data is already on the Internet.
How come?

A. The documents were released by the Rowett
Institute, not by me. This is what is normally
called highway robbery. There were eight of us
working for three years. Now the Rowett has
published most of the data or at least some
internal reports of the data on the Internet, we
cannot publish them as a proper scientific
paper. We will try and publish the remaining data
as proper papers. But if I cannot do it, then I
shall try and put the papers-not internal reports
as the Rowett and the Royal Society did-on the
Internet. They will be peer-reviewed by
other relevant scientists and the reviews will
be published.

Q. The STC criticised you for saying people were
being used as guinea pigs and therefore
worrying them.

A. I felt concerned we are being used as guinea
pigs in an experiment, a botched experiment.
There are no controls. You don't know if you are
eating it. I don't know. How can you trace it
back? Linda McCartney's vegetarian sausages were
guaranteed to be GM-free, but a
laboratory found they contained a foreign gene.
I think their report is just window dressing.
There is no scientific content.

Q. How do you feel about the controversy you
have generated?

A. We are not talking about a delicate sort of
issue where two scientists are disagreeing. We
are talking about our food. I hope for all our
sakes that they are right when they say there is
nothing wrong with GM food. Otherwise we will be
in real trouble. You remember Jack
Cunningham-the "Enforcer" [5]. He came on the TV
last week and said there is no
credible evidence to suggest there are problems
with GM. Sir Robert May, the Chief Scientist,
said my work was garbage. They have tried to
destroy any opposition. I am old enough to
remember the Nazi occupation of Hungary and
under the Soviets. This reminds me of that. I
think they must have learnt some of their
methods. I never expected this. I think I am the fall
guy.

But let's look at the positive side. I certainly
did agree to talk to World in Action. The reason
was that, as we started looking at our results
and knowing that the companies are the ones
submitting the data, there is a huge gap, a
chasm between the usefulness of our testing
technology and what they were doing.

Notes:
1. Dr Lynne Jones, a member of the STC and Labour MP
2. Dr Michael Clark, chairman of the STC and
Conservative MP
3. The "Physicians and Scientists for
Responsible Application of Science and Technology" web site defines
"substantial equivalence" as follows: "If there
is no apparent difference between the G[M] food and its natural
counterpart, it is assumed to be safe according
to present regulations. Only a limited set of characteristics need
to be compared. If this testing reveals no
difference, the G[M] food is considered to be 'substantially
equivalent'. Then no testing is required to
exclude unexpected presence of harmful toxic, carcinogenic
(cancer-generating), mutagenic
(mutation-generating) or allergenic substances." (emphasis in original at
http://home1.swipnet.se/~w-18472/subeqow.htm)
4. Royal Society, the pre-eminent independent
scientific society founded in 1660
5. Dr Jack Cunningham, Minister for the Cabinet
Office

See Also:
International scientists raise concerns over
genetically modified food
British Labour government rushes to defend
biotech industry
[17 February 1999]
BSE / CJD & Food Safety Issues
[WSWS Full Coverage]

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