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Hot Potato - Don't Worry It Is Safe To Eat
Tuesday July 15, 2003 14:02 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 in
telligence 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 bi
otech 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 sensitiv
e 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 effects’.
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 h
ave spoken in private about the phone calls. ‘On Tuesday, Blair phoned the Rowett twice, although everybody denies it’, Ewen says.
Another ex-employee who was prepared to talk is Professor Robert Ørskov OBE. Professor Ørskov 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 Ørskov 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 do something.’
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 cal
led the claims “total rubbish”.
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 co
veted 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 GM.
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 wa
s. 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 too.
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’.
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 Pusztai.
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 fe
lt 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