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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:
- Could you recount how the row over your research work began? It is now over two years. With the consent of my director and my Institute I gave a very, very short interview for television. It was all of 150 seconds. I simply said, and this is on record, that we had done some work with one particular GM crop _ we are not eating this_and we found that when we fed this to rats, we had some problems. Some of the rats were not growing as well, some of the rats had problems in the development of the insides, the immune system. Our concern was that, even though this is not eaten, British public is already eating things that had not been tested by similar methods. Because of this, as a publicly funded scientist, I should really raise my concerns. And that was it.
- What methods are you referring to? I have been doing this kind of work for 20_odd years. Not with GM, though. Since the War, quite literally, no food has been tested in Europe, while this huge explosion of technology occurred. In contrast, with animal feedstock, everything has been tested. If we are doing this with animals, because of their economic importance - I don't really understand why we cannot do this with human food, regardless of whether it is GM or non_GM. With regard to GM food, we step into a totally new and differrent area. What we found was against my own expectations. Because we had tested the effect of the gene product previously and found nothing; I had thought nothing is going to happen.
- What was the gene product and how was it tested previously? This is a lectin from snowdrop. We don't eat snowdrop, nor do we eat bacillus thuringiensis (BT) toxin. We now have genetically modified BT corn and BT potatoes. We don't eat a lot of these things in GM foods that are now being sold. So it should be in our interest to get it properly tested. Before we did the genetic potato work, what we did was to isolate this gene product from the snowdrop bulb to see whether it did have any effect on the absorption of normal diet.
We have high quality animal feedstock If you use some animal protein like egg protein or casein from milk mixed with it we can measure with great precision how well they are utilised. For example, egg albumen will be utilised with 92_94 per cent efficiency. This is very high efficiency. Now you can do the same thing with potatoes. Does the lectin reduce the efficiency of the diet or does it interfere with the immune system? We tested with as high a concentration - at milligram level per gram level. It still did not do any harm. In case of genetic modification we need it only at a concentration that is 100_fold less.
We expressed it at lower levels of micrograms per gram in the potato and wanted to know what kind of possible effects it can have. We had two kinds of potatoes _ one GM and the other non_GM. I had expected that the GM potato, with 20 micrograms of a component against the several grams of other components, should not cause any problems. But we found problems. Our studies clearly show that the effects were not due to that little gene expression, but it depended on the way the gene had been inserted into the potato genome and what it did to the potato genome. That is why industry and politicians reacted so strongly against me.
We had two successful lines, both coming from the same genetic transformation of the parent line at the same time. They were going through the same laboratory tests and were growing in the fields for two years done in the South of England. And when we looked at the two lines, we found that against our expectations they were different. They were different compositionally. For example, one of the lines contained exactly the same amount of protein as the parent line but the other line, even though it was as successful in protecting the plant against aphids nematodes, it contained 20 per cent less protein. Now this was a totally unpredictable effect.
- You mean to say that genetic engineering in addition to expressing the foreign protein, leads to other differences as well?
Yes. Now this is well accepted that there are other unintentional changes. Consider the human genome project. It is a great project. I'm really very much for it. But it is totally overclaimed because it will get us about 5 per cent of the total genome because the genes are only about that much. The 95 per cent, which is the junk DNA as they used to say, is not junk. That's what controls the genome. Now you shoot at it. Now you don't know where it is going to land. You have a big parasitic element containing the construct going in and it could land anywhere.
So in the two genetically modified lines which were different, what I think happened was that the lectin gene landed in two different places. The question is how well you can find out what is happening. This is possible if you know the whole sequence. Now if you don't know the sequence and you don't know what exactly is the job of the sequence, then we cannot know. So all the selection after genetic modification is empirical. Does it grow? Does it do the job? Does it have enough proteins? Does it do us any harm? This last bit has never been investigated.
- In your paper you had suggested that there were problems like immune system malfunction and growth malfunction. What do you think was the mechanism of action?
In my opinion - it is an opinion and not an established fact-we have somehow destabilised the potato genome. It is no longer functioning as previously. Some of those things which make the other parts toxic (for protection against insects, for example) are now making the tuber toxic.
This is the best we can come up with. Now this toxicity is very important. For any food the effect can be anywhere along the alimentary canal. Now in our case as well as in the Flaw Savr tomatoes, which is the only thing the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has ever looked from the safety point of view, and the BT toxin potatoes investigated in Egypt, similar effects seem to have occurred. The FDA had found that the Flaw Savr tomato had caused "mild" gastritis rats. They scored the effect on a scale of 4. The effect found was between 2 and 3. Now you can decide whether one can call it mild. Even though the FDA suppressed this information, it had to come out with its data because it was sued and I could get the data.
All these three studies found something very similar in the stomach. Some sort of proliferative response, as if you are stimulating production of something - usually acid. The FDA never went further down. But we did and so did the Egyptians. And we found, in fact, that the most useful part of the digestive tract - the small intestines where 99 per cent of useful absorption occurs _ was also affected. And we took it even further down into the colon and that was affected too.
- How do you quantitatively determine the effect?
It is a proliferative response of making more of the gut. You take out the guts, if it weighs x grams in the control, it weighs x+y grams after feeding with GM food.
- There is mention in the literature over the Internet that Rowett had got large funds from Monsanto.
Though they did have contracts with Monsanto, I had nothing to do with it. What was most important is at the time when the potato business blew up, they were also trying to set up a major research project with Monsanto and that fell through because Monsanto got very annoyed with Rowett. I had done some independent work, not sponsored by any commercial concerns and that's the reason I could speak because it was publicly funded
- What is the mechanism of getting a project approved? Does the director or the research council approve it before it is put beforethe funding body?
Because I was a very senior scientist, I negotiated it myself and Rowett agreed to it mainly because they benefited from it. Though officially I retired at the age of 60 in 1990, they kept me there because I was very good at raising money. They liked me very much. This project of £1.6 million was actually funded by the Scottish Office Department of Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries. The programme started in October 1,1995 and it was supposed to have lasted till October 1, 1998. But it ended two days after my great TV appearance, on August 12.
- How could they suspend you just because your results were not to their liking? In my case it was very simple. Because I had actually retired, I had an annual renewable contract. The only thing they had to do was not to renew my contract.But I was suspended by August 12.I had the rest of the year to go.
- What reason was given for the suspension? A senior scientist can be suspended only if he is suspected of cheating. But they never actually put it in writing. Then they would have been liable and I could have sued them.
- Were there orders to not to speak to anyone? Yes. Sure. It was in writing. There is no doubt about it.
- Before your paper actually got pub1ished, the Royal Society had scrutinised the work and had made some adverse remarks.
Now when I was gagged for seven months and there were these media reports about me. When the British Parliament ungagged me in order to find out what was happening, the Rowett in their desperation put their internal confidential reports on their website. They are no longer there they were there for about two and a half months - because they realised it was counter productive. These two reports-one was an audit report compiled by an external three_member audit committee which investigated my science and the other one was my response to that report. But none of them was meant for publication. In a sense, without even being published my data were in the public domain. Those people who wanted to know did get this. They simply downloaded. When they could no longer access it on the Web, people were phoning me in desperation and asking me to give it to them. I said I had never published this and I wanted to publish it properly. You have to go to Rowett to get it.
The Royal Society came in after Rowett put those reports on the Web. They simply said that the experiments were badly designed, badly executed and they had no validity. I don't know how they could say this because they had only the copies of the internal reports. They did not ask me. The design of the experiment was not mentioned at all in the reports. The report had quite literally only factual tables and things like that because that was prepared for people who already knew what was the design of the experiment. There was no methodology described in the report. And again I do not know how they could comment on it. They must have had some special communication from God to know what sort of methods were used. The Rowett audit committee was very useful for mc. You see the only way they could actually suspend me was if I had cheated. That's the law. It gave me the oportunity to defend myself strongly that I had done the experiments. In that respect at least the Royal Society agreed with them.
- But when the suspension came about, how did the scientific community in general react?
This is a question of ethics of science and scientific administration. Obviously there was some reaction. But the trouble was I could not tell them because I was gagged. I was not even allowed to talk to the scientific community. I did not have any data since they had confiscated my data. It was only when they wrote the audit report and I said that I had the right to respond to it but I had no data. So then they started to give me back some of my data..In fact I could recover all my data only because my wife was the head of the research group and she still stayed there. She only took early retirement this year. And she managed to collect back all my data, the primary data from the laboratory notebooks from the technicians and all the others.
- What was the nature of reaction of the scientific community?
When they had written the audit report, they had printed only eight copies. But I had to be given by law a copy. Then I had a copy of my own reply to it. So I could send these to people. Because my scientific colleagues asked for it, I sent copies of both the reports, to something like 28 international scientists. I acceded to the request because it is not just my right but my duty. This was a research programme, £1.6 million of it. It was my moral responsibility that they should actually get this. If it had any value, it had to be communicated to people. They cannot stop me. I could not give it in an open address. I could not give a lecture. That was in my contract. But I could discuss it in confidence with my scientific colleagues.
There were only two things that I demanded from them. One was that this was done in confidence because I still wanted to publish them and that they should give their evaluation. I also had the evaluations of two very senior international scientists which they combined into a report called the Memorandum. And that was signed by 24 international scientists. Of these about five were from Britain. The rest were from Europe. That really again exploded the whole situation. That was what actually led to the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee asking me because there were so many rumours going around that it had to be clarified.
- Once the paper was published in The Lancet, how did the Royal Society react to it?
They still rubbished it.
- There were letters in The Lancet questioning the methodology.
First, The Lancet paper went through three bouts of peer reviewing.
Normally there is one, in this case, it was looked at by six referees. We have done some pioneering work I certainly do understand all the things that we have not done. You have to look at what we have done.
Two years and seven months is not a long time and you cannot solve all the problems.
- Overall is it right to say that you were disillusioned with the role of the scientific community in general?
No, I do not think it is fair to say that because there has always been a strict division between the establishment and the practising scientists. A practising scientist has come in support of me.
I still have my scientific reputation intact. I have been contracted by a major scientific publishing house to write a chapter on the health effects reviewing all that we know about GM.
- Has anybody taken up your work from where you left it? No. We had brought in something radically new. We had a brainstorming session at the University of Bangalore on Monsanto's BT cotton. That was very interesting. The Monsanto representative also gave a paper. They say this usual thing which you also must have heard: "We are continuously testing". To which I simply say where are the results? They say "there are results'. Till about June this year there is only one paper on BT cotton and it is a (chemical) compositional study and not a health effects study. I know they are doing these studies. But why are they not publishing these studies? Only published results, preferably in peer_reviewed journals, are accessible to scientists. They must be compelled to publish these studies. The public should know what they are doing. The question is whether the data are good enough to publish. I suspect that the data are not good enough. I do my public duty and get the data. Let the public decide.
- What is your stand on GM foods at present?
I am not against genetic modification. I am against their dismissal of our rights. They push something which is not properly tested and is potentially dangerous on to us and give us no choice. They have no right to do that. They have only the right to do scientific studies. When I started my experiments I was for GM foods. But after what they did to me, my sympathies are with people campaigning against GM foods. All lam saying is adequate studies have not been done. Because the companies when they released these things never tested them properly, it is our job to see what potential hazards we can have. It does not mean that, by definition, it must occur in nature, but it might occur. With irreversible GM technology this becomes even more important because you have no chance of having a remedy. That is the main point.