Seventh anniversary of GM safety scandal (10/8/2005)

Much of the information below comes from 'Don't Worry: Its Safe To Eat' by Andy Rowell. [Earthscan, 2003, ISBN 1853839329]. See also: http://www.lobbywatch.org/profile1.asp?PrId=113

Seventh anniversary of GM safety scandal

Seven years ago today on the 10th August 1998 the GM debate changed forever.

The story began three years earlier. That's when the UK government's Scottish Office commissioned a three-year multi-centre research programme into the safety of GM food under the coordination of Dr Arpad Pusztai. At that time there was not a single publication in a peer-reviewed journal on the safety of GM food.

Dr Pusztai, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, was an eminent scientist. He was the world's leading expert on the plant proteins known as lectins. He had published three books and over 270 scientific studies.

He and his team fought off competition from 28 other research organisations from across Europe to be awarded the GBP1.6 million contract by the Scottish Office. The project methodology was also reviewed and passed by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) - the UK government's main funding body for the biological sciences.

The research involved feeding GM potatoes to rats and monitoring physiological changes. By late 1997 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.

Dr Pusztai was interviewed for a programme about GM food being made by Granada TV's 'The World in Action'. The filming took place in late June 1998 with the agreement of the director of the Rowett Institute, Professor James, and in the presence of the Rowett Institute's press officer. The World in Action interview was broadcast on the evening of Monday 10th August 1998.

Later that evening Professor James congratulated Dr Pusztai on his TV appearance, commenting on 'how well Arpad had handled the questions'. The next day a further press release from the Rowett noted that 'a range of carefully controlled studies underlie the basis of Dr Pusztai's concerns'. However, reportedly following two calls to the Rowett from the Prime Minister's Office, the Government, the Royal Society and the Rowett launched a vitriolic campaign to sack, silence and ridicule Dr Pusztai.

He was accused of unprofessional conduct because his work had not been peer-reviewed. However, his research subsequently passed peer-review after being reviewed by a larger than usual panel of scientists and was published (see below). Many people also take the view that in circumstances where research is giving rise to serious concerns that may need to be addressed sooner rather than later, it is acceptable for scientists to act as whistle blowers and draw attention to the problems their research is uncovering even prior to peer-reviewed publication.

The Government criticised the methodology of Pusztai's research despite the fact that this had been approved in advance by its own Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. Neither the Government nor any other official body has ever repeated or refined Dr Pusztai's experiments to test the validity of his results.

The Royal Society and its leading Fellows were key players in the attacks on Dr Pusztai from the time he went public with doubts about the safety of GM foods. In February 1999, for instance, nineteen Fellows of the Royal Society condemned Pusztai, in all but name, in a letter published in the national press. Among the signatories was Peter Lachmann, who played a key role in the attacks on Pusztai.

Three months later in May 1999 the Royal Society published a partial 'peer review' of Pusztai's then unpublished research. This review was based not on a properly prepared paper, like that Pusztai and his collaborator Ewen submitted to The Lancet for peer-review, but on a far-from-complete internal report intended for use by Pusztai's research team at the Rowett Institute.

Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, described the Royal Society review as 'a gesture of breathtaking impertinence to the Rowett Institute scientists who should be judged only on the full and final publication of their work.'

The Royal Society's review was organised by members of a working group appointed by the Society in coordination with the Society's officers. The Royal Society claimed that anyone who had already commented on the Pusztai affair had been excluded from this decision making process in order to avoid bias. However, William Hill, Patrick Bateson, Brian Heap and Eric Ash, who were all involved, were all among the co-signatories of the letter condemning Pusztai that had been published in The Daily Telegraph back in February.

In addition, four key people involved, including the Chair of the working group, Noreen Murray, as well as Brian Heap, Rebecca Bowden and Sir Aaron Klug, were all part of the earlier working group that had issued the Royal Society's 1998 report supporting GM foods.

There were other issues of bias. For instance, William Hill, the chair of the Pusztai working group, was also the deputy chair of the Roslin Institute, famous for genetically modifying animals and for cloning Dolly the sheep. Roslin in turn had links to Geron Biomed for whom Lachmann consulted. Similarly, Noreen Murray was the wife of the co-founder of Europe's first biotechnology company, Biogen.

Undaunted by the Royal Society's attack on their unpublished work, Pusztai and his co-researcher, Prof Stanley Ewen, submitted their final paper on their experiments to The Lancet. It was sent to six reviewers, double the normal number, and a clear majority were in favour of its publication.

However, prior to publication the Lancet's editor Richard Horton received a phone call from Peter Lachmann, the former Vice-President of the Royal Society. According to Horton, Lachmann called him 'immoral' for publishing something he knew to be 'untrue'. Towards the end of the conversation Horton says Lachmann also told him that if he published Pusztai's paper, this would 'have implications for his personal position' as editor.

The Guardian broke the news of Horton being threatened in November 1999 in a front-page story. It quoted Horton saying that the Royal Society had acted like a Star Chamber over the Pusztai affair. 'The Royal Society has absolutely no remit to c

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