GM foods: When the truth really hurts

02 March 2000 by
GM foods: When the truth really hurts

Tony Blair has done a U-turn on genetically modified foods, saying they might pose a risk to human health after all. But where do U-turns leave the scientists who lost their jobs after raising the alarm? Angela Frewin spoke to two of them

Dr Arpad Pusztai's brief television appearance in 1998 threatened both the biotechnology industry and Government hopes of reaping huge revenues from it. The plant biologist was the first senior scientist with evidence that seemed to contradict Government assurances that GM food was safe. He warned that the public was the guinea pig in a "haphazard and botched experiment".

He was immediately suspended, his data confiscated and his then-unpublished work rubbished by his employer, Aberdeen's Rowett Research Institute, the Government and by other scientists. The 69-year-old, who has published more than 270 papers, suffered a heart attack shortly afterwards.

Pusztai's crime had been to report that male rats fed on modified potatoes suffered damage to the gut, immune system and organs. His results suggested that the problem lay with the imprecision and unpredictability of the GM process itself, rather than the potatoes in particular.

Pusztai's vilification was prefigured by the fate that befell Indian-born Government virologist Dr Harash Narang, who in 1989 first linked scrapie-induced BSE in cattle to CJD in humans. He was branded a "loose cannon", suspended, and retired in 1994. The Government accepted his findings only after their publication the following year.

Narang believes the Government could have slashed the cost of the BSE crisis from £4b to just £100m had it acted earlier on his recommendations. The Irish government did and limited its BSE cases to just 100.

Pusztai rejects claims that his work was flawed and finds it ironic that he is treated like a Luddite blocking the path of progress when, as he says, "I want more science, not less science".

Pusztai is not alone in his views. More than 140 scientists have called for a moratorium on GM crops until the questions have been answered.

The Hungarian-born scientist expected to find no problems when he started his Scottish Office-funded project. He emigrated to Britain in 1956 after the unsuccessful uprising against the Communists and expected to find a "fair and tolerant" society. But he has been dismayed by the machinations and duplicity he has encountered. He believes things started to go wrong in the 1980s when research funding shifted from the State to private enterprise, and governments began putting profits over ethics.

Dependence on industry, say Pusztai and Narang, means that scientists who have not signed gagging clauses risk losing their funds or jobs if they reveal data unfavourable to sponsors.

"Academic freedom does not exist," declares Pusztai. "My colleagues still working are frightened out of their lives."

And the absence of hard research means nobody knows if the current crop of insecticide- and herbicide-resistant GM crops are as damaging as his potatoes.

Narang points to a cover-up culture within the Civil Service and failures by ministers to confer with specialists with no vested interests. The solution, he says, is to hold civil servants legally accountable for their advice and ministers for their decisions, and not to hide behind the "best scientific evidence at the time" argument.

Neither scientist regrets what he did, despite the cost. Narang says, simply: "I cannot keep quiet when people are dying."

"I have never developed the habit of lying," says Pusztai, adding that if he had, we could be eating the GM potatoes now. "I can feel at peace with myself. I wonder how many others can say that?"


Dr Pusztai
Dr Narang

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