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Brewster Kneen wrote:

GM foods and denial of rights and choices.

Interview with Arpad Pusztai.

The introduction of genetically modified (GM) foods has generated a debate around the world, particularly in the West. Notwithstanding the fact that GM foods have hit the market shelves in Europe and the United States, there is growing opposition, notably in Europe, to their introduction into the food chain. In this mounting campaign, the treatment meted out to Arpad Pusztai, a biologist from Rowett Research Institute (RRI), Aberdeen, Scotland, by the British scientific and political establishment has become a cause celebre.

The 69 year old Hungary born Pusztai, who had been working at the RRI for 36 years, was removed from service, his research papers were seized, and his data confiscated ~ and he was prohibited from talking to anyone about his research work. All this for having spoken_ "all of l5O seconds," he says _ in a programme called World in Action on Granada TV in August 1998, about his findings on the effects of GM foods that ran counter to the prevalent scientific dogma that they were safe. He had also expressed concern that the testing procedures to establish the safety of GM foods may not be adequate.

Pusztai's controversial experiments, which he carried out in collaboration with his colleague Stanley W.B. Ewen, for over30 months between 1995 and 1998, comprised the use of GM potatoes expressing the gene for snowdrop lectin called Galanthus nivalis agglutinin (GNA) as feed to rats. (Snowdrop is a small white flower that hangs from a bulb and blooms in spring; lectin is a protein normally obtained from plants that have antibody characteristics.) This, he found, resulted in impairment in the condition of the rats. This was a surprising finding for Pusztai, because in six years of work with the lectin itself; he had found no toxic effect when it was mixed with feed as a protein supplement. But when genetically expressed it showed health effects.

Even before his work was published, based on incomplete information and data, it was denounced at various levels, including the Royal Society and the Parliamentary Committee on Science and Technology.

Also, a campaign was unleashed in the media to discredit Pusztai. But it was a slap in the face of critics when Pusatai's paper got accepted for publication in The Lancet. This, in fact; prompted a senior biologist of the Royal Society to threaten The Lancet's editor with dire consequences.

After the publication of the paper, there was a spate of letters to The Lancet attacking Pusztai's work. Pusztai responded adequately and forcefully.

The comments by Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, in response to remarks by the President of the Royal Society, are illuminating. He wrote in November1998: "Aaron Klug defends the Royal Society's wish to damn Ewen and Pusztai's work in the absence of both investigators. What he cannot defend is the reckless decision of the Royal Society to abandon the principle of due process in passing judgment on their work. To review and then publish criticism of these researchers' findings without publishing either their original data or their response was, at best, unfair and ill_judged."

Considering the all_round assertion in scientific circles as well as by biotechnology companies that GM foods and crops are safe~ it may be shocking to know that there are just five papers that have been published in peer_reviewed journals until June 2000 (Jose Domingo, Science, June 9) and the Pusztai_Ewen Lancet paper is one of them.

Irrespective of whether Pusztai's findings stand scientific scrutiny and the test of time, and whether GM foods are safe or not; the case reflects how those in the citadels of science administration have abandoned ethics in order to defend a biased agenda _ in this case promoted by biotech multinationals. It also shows how, contrary to the cardinal principles of academic freedom and objectivity, any research that went against the dominant view evoked collective intolerance.

Pusztai, who has authored nearly 300 research papers and nine books, says his scientific credibility is still intact. Since the termination of his services at the RRI, he has been offered visiting professorship in three countriesi Brazil, Hungary and Norway but; for the present, he has decided to stay in Aberdeen and accept short lecture tours. He was in India recently on one such tour to attend meetings on GM foods. He spoke to R.Rmiiandzan..

Excerpts from the interview:

Date: 11-december-2000

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