Pusztai on TJ Higgins' attack (9/6/2005)

Recently a letter highly critical of Dr Arpad Pusztai and his research was published in the Australian press (item 2). The letter came from the plant biotechnologist, Dr T.J. Higgins, and it has been widely circulated on pro-GM lists.

I asked Dr Pusztai for his comments and these can be seen below (item 1). Although Dr Pusztai's response is very much to the point, it is of a general nature and so Claire Robinson has provided a commentary on the letter (item 3) that deals with the more specific charges that Dr Higgins makes about Dr Pusztai's research.

Jonathan Matthews
www.gmwatch.org / www.lobbywatch.org

2.HIGGINS LETTER: 'Disturbing' GM findings were not based on sound science


Hi Jonathan,

It has taken almost seven years for Dr Higgins to work up enough scientific steam to deny the validity of our findings with GM potatoes. Although I am not in favour to "personalize" the debate on the wrongs or rights of various pieces of research relating to GM plants, in the case of T.J. Higgins I have to make an exception as will become obvious from my comments:

1. T.J. Higgins is a plant geneticist and has no expertise or track record on nutritional/toxicological testing of anything, including GM crops. Thus, he obviously voices his opinion but in his case this cannot be taken for more than an opinion. And opinions do not count in science!

2. As the final refuge of the incompetent, T.J. Higgins keeps referring to the opinion of others. In meritocracies the higher "the standing" in the scientific/political establishments of the body from which the opinion originates the more weight the opinion is hoped to carry. However, in science it is only the factual criticism that counts and I cannot find anything of this nature in his writing.

3. Rather interestingly I have several letters from Dr Higgins in which he asked for my help to do a proper nutritional testing of a GM pea line expressing a bean alpha-amylase inhibitor that he and Dr Chrispeels has developed. This we did and the results have been published in 1999:

Pusztai, A., Grant, G., Bardocz, S., Alonso, R., Chrispeels, M.J., Schroeder, H.E., Tabe, L.M., Higgins, T.J.V., 1999. Expression of the insecticidal bean ?-amylase inhibitor transgene has minimal detrimental effect on the nutritional value of peas fed to rats at 30% of the diet. J. Nutr. 129, 1597-1603.

Hopefully, Dr Higgins is aware of the fact that the design of this study that he happily co-authored at the time was exactly the same as that GM potato study he now criticizes. Or perhaps he did not understand this at the time, but now as he realizes his mistake that he co-authored a study that was as "flawed" as the GM potato study, to quote the favourite phrase of our Royal Society, Dr Higgins will now write to the Editors of the Journal of Nutrition to withdraw his name from our paper. I am waiting for this to happen with bated breath.

4. Even more interestingly both Drs Higgins and Chrispeels also wrote a letter in my support to my then Director of Professor WTJ James in 1998. When I look at the date of this letter I find it somewhat interesting that this was before the publication of the above paper, raising my suspicion that this was to get my Director's agreement and support that the J. Nutrition paper should be published and that Dr Higgins may use this published paper to get more funds for his plant genetic modification work. But Dr Higgins need not worry - I shall not take this personalizing business as far as to publish this letter and all his complimentary letters to me thanking us for carrying out a piece of biological testing of his GM peas, even though that at the time he thought we were the most competent people to do this for him.

5. As regards FSANZ sterling work on biological testing of GM crops, much lauded by Dr Higgins, this is rather unknown to the outside world. I am afraid, Dr Higgins has taken up this not very nice habit of name-dropping and referring to what he thinks to be "high and almighty" but I wonder whether, in view of his lack of competence in this field of safety (or rather the lack of it) may be that this "august body", the FSANZ, will not be too thankful for the praises heaped on them.

I am very sorry for to be so harsh on Dr Higgins and I even understand that these are hard times and one needs all the brownie points from the establishment one can get. I can only hope for him that those 30 silvers will be readily exchanged into research money by the granting agencies for his future research funding.

A final point: Just to be pedantic most of Dr Higgins' comments are factually incorrect but as he did not take the trouble to spell out precisely his concerns about our work I am not going to be specific and explain what is factually incorrect in his writing either. In any case, if Dr Higgins, whom I received in my lab and who was treated by us as a friendly guest and for whom we did quite a bit of unpaid work, had any problems with the quality of our work it would have been more civilized of him to write to me about it in the first place and not to criticize me in a newspaper article before he had done that.

Best regards

'Disturbing' GM findings were not based on sound science
Letters to the editor,
The Canberra Times, 4 June 2005

Dr Arpad Pusztai's "crime" (CT Forum, May 28, pB8, "A scientist crushed in GM push") was not that he "found disturbing evidence that the genetically modified potatoes he'd been studying damaged the immune systems, brains, livers and kidney's of rats", but rather the hurried reporting of his research.

Dr Pusztai fed rats potatoes modified with a snowdrop lectin gene to produce a particular lectin called GNA.

Lectins are plant toxins thought to be part of the plant's defense against herbivores (maybe including humans). The GM potatoes were produced for the experimental purpose of testing the potential of GNA to strengthen insect resistance in plants.

It is prudent to consider that any plant modified to produce an additional lectin could potentially become harmful when eaten.

Dr Pusztai reported

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