GUEST MEDIA ALERT: HOT POTATO
Excerpt From 'Don't Worry It Is Safe To Eat - The True Story Of GM Food,
BSE, And Foot And Mouth'
By Andrew Rowell
As the UK government continues to wriggle over weapons of mass destruction,
of sexing up dossiers and general spin, Tony Blair argues that there is no
greater charge against a prime minister than for him to have personally
falsified claims on which to take a country to war.
That may be so, but another grave charge would be personally ordering the
sacking of a scientist who was involved in some of the first independent
tests on GM, especially if those tests showed evidence of harm, and also
especially if the orders came from Monsanto, via the White House. This is
what Dr. Arpad Pusztai, who raised concerns about GM food in 1998, claims
happened to him.
Part of the recent argument between the BBC and the government concern the
claims by a single unnamed intelligence source that the government "sexed"
up one of the dossiers on Iraq. In contrast five people have said that they
were told that Tony Blair ordered the sacking of Dr. Pusztai. Here is Dr.
Pusztai's story. It raises many unanswered questions about new Labour, its
link to the biotech industry and the safety of GM food.
Dr. Arpad Pusztai
As we witness the dawn of the biotech revolution, Dr Arpad Pusztai is a
scientist who is convinced that he has uncovered vital evidence that shows
there are potential major health risks with GM crops. Pusztai was catapulted
from an unknown laboratory scientist based at the Rowett Research Institute
in Aberdeen to the forefront of a raging debate about the safety of GM
foods, when he spoke on the World in Action TV programme in 1998.
Overnight the Hungarian-born scientist, with some 35 years lab experience,
found himself at the centre of an international media spotlight. The
controversy would put him on a collision course with the UK and US
governments, the biotech industry and the scientific establishment. His
150-second interview lead to Pusztai being suspended, silenced and
threatened with losing his pension. His wife, Susan Bardocz, who also worked
at the Rowett for 13 years, was eventually suspended too. Their research was
locked up. Scientists and politicians alike vilified Pusztai.
As we search for answers as to whether GM foods are safe, two questions
stand out. Given such a huge controversy over Pusztai's experiments, and the
preliminary nature of their findings, why were the political and scientific
establishments so intent on rebutting him? More importantly why have the
experiments never been repeated?
The saga has had very personal consequences. Pusztai has suffered two heart
attacks and the saga has left him and his wife, Susan, needing permanent
medication for high blood pressure. Pusztai is still angry about the whole
affair. His only crime was to speak out, in his words, according to his
conscience: 'I obviously spoke out at a very sensitive time. But things were
coming to a head with the GM debate and I just lit the fuse', he says. 'I
grew up under the Nazis and the Communists and I understand that people are
frightened and not willing to jeopardise their future, but they just sold me
down the river.'
His story begins in post-war communist Hungary. After the Hungarian
revolution was crushed by the communists, the young Pusztai, a chemistry
graduate, escaped to refugee camps in Austria and from there to England. By
1963, having finished his doctorate in biochemistry and post-doctorate at
the Lister Institute, he was invited to join the prestigious Protein
Chemistry Department at the Rowett Research Institute, which has become the
pre-eminent nutritional centre in Europe.
Dr Pusztai was put to work on lectins, plant proteins that were going to be
central in the GM controversy years later. Over the intervening years,
Pusztai became the world's leading expert on plant lectins, publishing over
270 scientific studies, and three books on the subject. Two books were
co-written with his wife, Susan. Pusztai became one of the Rowett's most
senior and renowned scientists.
In 1995, the Scottish Office Agriculture Environment and Fisheries
Department commissioned a three-year multi-centre research programme under
the coordinatorship of Dr Pusztai into the safety of GM food. At the time
there was not a single publication in a peer-reviewed journal on the safety
of GM food.
The scientists' primary task was to establish credible methods for the
identification of possible human/animal health and environmental hazards of
GM. The idea was that the methodologies that they tested would be used by
the regulatory authorities in later risk assessments of GM crops. For the
first time, independent studies would be undertaken to examine whether
feeding GM potatoes to rats caused any harmful effects on their health,
bodies or metabolism.
The theory behind the modification of the potatoes was simple. For years Dr
Pusztai had explored the beneficial effects of lectins in foods as well as
in nutritional supplements and pharmaceutical agents. Lectins can affect the
digestive systems of insects and can act as natural insecticides. Arpad's
work had shown that one such lectin called GNA (Galanthus nivalis), isolated
from the snowdrop, acted in this way. Pusztai had worked on the snowdrop
lectin since the late 1980s.
The thinking was that, if you could genetically modify a potato with the
lectin gene inside it, the potato could have an inherent built-in defence
mechanism that would act as a natural insecticide, preventing aphid attack.
Because it looked promising, the snowdrop gene had already been incorporated
into several experimental crops, including rice, cabbagesand oil-seed rape.
But by late 1997, the first storm clouds were brewing at the Rowett.
Preliminary results from the rat-feeding experiments were showing totally
unexpected and worrying changes in the size and weight of the rat's body
organs. Liver and heart sizes were getting smaller, and so was the brain.
There were also indications that the rats' immune systems were weakening.
150 Seconds That Changed The GM Debate
Finally in August 1998, Pusztai expressed his growing concerns on World in
Action in a 150 second interview. So what did he say? 'We're assured that
this is absolutely safe,' said Pusztai. 'We can eat it all the time. We must
eat it all the time. There is no conceivable harm, which can come to us. But
as a scientist looking at it, actively working in the field, I find that
it's very, very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs. We have to
find guinea-pigs in the laboratory.' Dr Pusztai had been told not to talk
about his experiments in detail, but he did say, in a sentence that would
become the centre of the controversy, that 'the effect was slight growth
retardation and an effect on the immune system. One of the genetically
modified potatoes, after 110 days, made the rats less responsive to immune
He continued: 'If I had the choice, I would certainly not eat it till I see
at least comparable experimental evidence which we are producing for our
genetically modified potatoes. I actually believe that this technology can
be made to work for us. And if the genetically modified foods will be shown
to be safe, then we have really done a great service to all our fellow
citizens. And I very strongly believe in this, and that's one of the main
reasons why I demand to tighten up the rules, tighten up the standards.'
On the evening of the broadcast, the head of the Rowett Professor James
'congratulated,' Pusztai on his TV appearance, commenting on 'how well Arpad
had handled the questions'. The following morning a further press release
from the Rowett noticed that a 'range of carefully controlled studies
underlie the basis of Dr Pusztai's concerns'.
The Riddle Of The Rowett
But it is here that the Rowett and Pusztai differ in what happened next. The
day after the programme, on the Tuesday James maintains he asked Pusztai's
staff for the data for the 110-day experiment, which he claims they told him
did not exist. 'I couldn't believe it, says James, 'I just said that this
is the end of the world for us all'. James maintains that this is the reason
why Pusztai was suspended on the Wednesday.
On Wednesday morning, Pusztai and Susan were told to hand over their data.
All GM work was stopped immediately and Pusztai's team was dispersed. His
three PhD students were moved to other areas. He was threatened with legal
action if he spoke to anyone. His phone calls and emails were diverted.
The Rowett press machinery was adopting Orwellian overtones and beginning to
change the official story. First of all they said that Pusztai had got
muddled with the wrong potatoes, then they had said that the experiments had
not been done, but finally they reported that Pusztai had done the right
experiments but the results were not ready yet
Other disputed events happened on the Tuesday too. Two phone calls, Pusztai
says he was told, were put through to James from the Prime Minister's
office. One was 'around noon, the other was slightly earlier'. He learnt
this information from two different employees at the Rowett, who could be
sacked if their identities were known. The Pusztais were also later told by
someone at the Rowett, currently in a senior management position at the
Institute, that Bill Clinton had phoned Blair and told him to sort out the
problem. 'That was the beginning of all the trouble - Arpad was sacked as a
consequence of what was said in those phone calls,' says a friend.
The events of August 1998 have always puzzled Stanley Ewen, then a top
pathologist from the University of Aberdeen who had worked with Pusztai for
over a decade. Ewen too had often wondered what caused the sudden
turn-around at the Rowett.
Speaking about the incident for the first time now he is retired from the
University of Aberdeen, he confirms the Pusztais' stories, but crucially he
was told by yet another senior member of the Rowett. This makes four
separate Rowett personnel who have spoken in private about the phone calls.
'On Tuesday, Blair phoned the Rowett twice, although everybody denies it',
Another ex-employee who was prepared to talk is Professor Robert ěrskov OBE.
Professor ěrskov worked at the Rowett for 33 years, and is one of the UK's
leading experts in ruminant nutrition. He too was told about the phone
calls. Professor ěrskov says he was told that the phone calls went from
Monsanto to Clinton to Blair. 'Clinton rang Blair and Blair rang James - you
better keep that man [Pusztai] shut up. James didn't know what to do.
Instead of telling him to keep his mouth shut, they should have told him to
say it needs more work. But there is no doubt that he was pushed by Blair to
But Professor James is adamant the phone call never happened. 'There is no
way I talked to anybody in any circumstances' he says. 'It's a complete pack
of lies. I have never talked to Blair since the day of the opening of
Parliament in 1997.' This week Downing Street also called the claims "total
Although there is no proof that phone calls ever took place, Pusztai points
to other evidence about Blair and GM. It is a well-known fact that Blair had
been persuaded to back GM by Clinton, leading even the BBC to remark that in
the GM debate 'a question mark remains over the government's independence of
pressure from Washington'. In the mid-1990s the Clinton administration was
backing the biotech industry 'second to none'. One White House staff member
said the 1990s were going to be the decade of 'successful commercialization
of agricultural biotechnology products'.
When Pusztai spoke out in August 1998, the new Labour administration was
already beginning to shape government policy for its second term. It was
looking for drivers of the economy that could be trusted to deliver the
growth and hence results that Labour needed. Hightech industries, such as
biotechnology, were to be the central cogs of the engine that would drive
the Blairite revolution, and deliver the coveted second term. What Pusztai
was saying could literally derail an entire industry and with it many of the
hopes and aspirations of New Labour.
Pusztai Backed By Colleagues
By the end of 1998, the Pusztai saga could have slowly subsided, with the
scientist forbidden to talk to inquiring journalists. But wherever he went,
scientific colleagues were curious to find out what had really happened to
their colleague. Although banned from talking to the press, he was not
banned from talking to other scientists outside the Rowett. In February 1999
30 international scientists from 13 countries published a memo supporting
Pusztai that was published in the Guardian which sparked a media frenzy over
A week after the international scientists backed Pusztai, a secret committee
met to counter the growing alarm over GM. Contrary to reassurances by the
government that GM food was safe, the minutes show the cross departmental
committee formed to deal with the crisis, called MISC6, knew the
reassurances were premature. It 'requested' a paper by the Chief Medical
Officer (CMO) and the Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) on the 'human health
implications of GM foods'.
What would happen, the minutes asked, if the CMO/CSA's paper 'shows up any
doubts? We will be pressurised to ban them immediately. What if it says that
we need evidence of long-term effects? This will look like we are not sure
about their safety'.
The "Star Chamber"
That very same day - 19 February - The Royal Society publicly waded into the
Pusztai controversy saying it was going to review the evidence on GM, but
Pusztai argues it was nothing more than an attack on him.
'Their remit was to screw me and they screwed me,' he argues. 'They have
never done it before and I had never submitted anything to them. They took
on a role in which they were self-appointed, they were the prosecutors, the
judges and they tried to be the executioners as well. I see no reason why I
should have cooperated with them in my own hanging.'
But hung Pusztai was. On 18 May 1999, the Royal Society issued its damning
verdict against Pusztai, at a press conference. The report said that
Pusztai's work was 'flawed in many aspects of design, execution and analysis
and that no conclusions should be drawn from it'. The same day, 18 May, the
House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee attacked Pusztai
It is beyond coincidence that The Royal Society and the Science and Select
Committee published on the same day. Political insiders say that pressure
was put on the Science and Technology Committee and The Royal Society to
discredit Pusztai, thereby enabling the government to take control again.
This behind-the-scene coordination was partly revealed by a memo showing
that the government had set up a 'Biotechnology Presentation Group', which
included senior Ministers. A decision was taken to 'present the government's
stance as a single package by way of an oral statement in the House. This
would allow the government to get on the front foot'.
This is exactly what happened. On 21 May, just three days after The Royal
Society and Select Committee published - Jack Cunningham stood up in the
House of Commons: 'Biotechnology is an important and exciting area of
scientific advance that offers enormous opportunities for improving our
quality of life.'
Cunningham then laid his killer punch: 'The Royal Society this week
convincingly dismissed as wholly misleading the results of some recent
research into potatoes, and the misinterpretation of it - There is no
evidence to suggest that any GM foods on sale in this country are harmful'.
However Pusztai and Ewen had submitted a paper to the Lancet, which was
finally published in October 1999. Ewen faxed a copy of the article to the
Rowett before publication, as Pusztai was still required to show them any
papers based on his work there. However publication was delayed by two weeks
for technical reasons. 'The rubbishing brigade had been given two weeks to
do the dirty on the article. I was almost sure they would stop it,' says
First of all came the misinformation. 'Scientists Revolt at Publication of
"Flawed" GM Study', ran The Independent, 'the study that sparked the furore
over genetically modified food has failed the ultimate test of scientific
credibility'. Connor said that the referees were against publication.
However four out of the six reviewers were for publication. 'A clear
majority of The Lancet's reviewers were in favour,' says Richard Horton, the
editor of the Lancet. Then came the 'threats'. Three days after The
Independent article, Richard Horton received a phone call from Professor
Lachmann, the former Vice-President and Biological Secretary of The Royal
Society and President of the Academy of Medical Sciences.
According to Horton, Professor Lachmann threatened that his job would be at
risk if he published Pusztai's paper, and called Horton 'immoral' for
publishing something he knew to be 'untrue'. Towards the end of the
conversation Horton maintains that Lachmann said that if he published this
would 'have implications for his personal position' as editor. Lachmann
confirms that he rang Horton but vehemently denies that he threatened him.
After the article was published, Horton and The Lancet were once again
attacked for publishing the work by the biotechnology industry and The Royal
Society. Horton likened the actions of the Royal Society to a "Star
Chamber". The publication of The Lancet paper also had a detrimental effect
on Stanley Ewen's long-term employment with the University of Aberdeen, and
rather than get recognition for his work, all he seemed to get was anguish.
'I felt that I had done so much work that had been unacknowledged', says the
pathologist. 'I felt that I deserved some recognition, but this was being
blocked at a very high level by other spokespersons. It wasn't helpful to my
career. When you do these sorts of things it is very difficult for your
pension. Because that is what it comes down to in the final analysis:
money'. Eventually he felt that he had no option left and Ewen retired on
the 26 March, 2001. He now works as a consultant to the NHS.
Why Have The Experiments Never Been Repeated?
But the fundamental flaw in the scientific establishment's response is that
in 1999 everyone agreed that more work was needed. Three years later, that
work remains to be undertaken. A scientific body, like The Royal Society,
that allocates millions in research funds every year, could have funded a
repeat of Pusztai's experiments. Is it that it is easier to say there is no
evidence to support his claim, because no evidence exists, than it is to say
that no one has looked?
Don't Worry It is Safe to Eat - The True Story of GM Food, BSE, and Foot and
Mouth, by Andrew Rowell was published by Earthscan on 10th July
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