Standing up for the truth about GM food (17/3/2004)

"They say in the US, everyone has been eating GM food for the past eight years and nothing has happened... how do they know... GM food is not labelled. A lot of people don't know whether they are eating it or not. That is why industry does not want labelling. They know they can get sued."

for details of how publicly funded scientists are prevented from speaking out about their concerns about GM see:

Standing up for the truth about GM food
New Straits Times (Malaysia) March 16, 2004,
By Sarah Sabaratnam

A PROMINENT scientist and his wife tell SARAH SABARATNAM about their study on genetically-modified food and what happened when they went public with the results.

IN 1998, Dr Arpad Pusztai, one of the world's leading scientists in biologically active food components, discovered that rats which were fed genetically altered potatoes had become stunted, and their immune systems depressed. The rats also had proliferative growths in their stomach, small and large intestines. As a result, the then 68-year-old became entangled in a long drawn controversy.

He was branded as senile, his contract was invoked and he was forced to retire, and he was ordered not to speak to anyone about the results of his research at the Rowett Research Institute, in Aberdeen. His wife Dr Susan Bardocz, also a scientist involved in the research, was similarly given a gag order. Pusztai and his wife were in Kuala Lumpur recently to attend the first Meeting of Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.

He explained that it all began when his institute was commissioned to work out a general protocol for the safety testing of Genetically Modified crops. "We were given a [GBP]STG1.6 million grant (RM11.2 million) by the Scottish Department of Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries to work out risk assessment methods for the testing of GM crops and foods."

The risk assessment was to become the standard used in Britain to verify that GM crops to be commercialised was safe to eat. To work out the methods for risk assessment, Pusztai's team needed something to test their ideas on. "We used as a model, a potato genetically engineered by the same technology employed by biotech companies," says Pusztai.

The potatoes were genetically modified to produce the snowdrop lectin GNA, which is not only an effective insecticide, but non-toxic to mammals. GM potatoes currently in the market are engineered to produced Bt Toxin which is also an insecticide. Pusztai, who was then all for Genetically Modified Organisms, found much to his surprise, that although the snowdrop lectin by itself was non-toxic when fed to the rats, when potatoes were engineered to produce the lectin, it showed worrying toxicity and depleted immune systems in test animals. To him, this indicated that something in the genetic engineering process causes the potato to become harmful to the rats. When Pusztai first reported the results to his director, Professor Philip James, he claims he was given the go ahead to publicise his findings in a television broadcast. "I had a short TV interview - 150 seconds. In the interview I said 'We have looked at one of the GM crops and found worrying results concerning its safety. None of the GM food that people have been consuming has been tested by similarly strict scientific methods. So in my opinion the only thing you can say about them is that they are potentially unsafe because they have not been tested.'

His announcement sparked a chain of events in Britain and Europe. On the one hand, through public pressure the government was forced to label all food that contain GMOs, on the other, scientists are no longer free to speak about the results of their studies. To make an example of him, Pusztai's career was driven to an end. A panel of scientists was put together to review his work and although the full results of the audit was never publicised, it claimed that there were deficiencies in Pusztai's study.

The Royal Society, Britain's most distinguished scientific body that has not conducted scientific reviews in its 350 history, made an exception that year and published one criticising the results of Pusztai's study. They said his tests were "flawed in many aspects." While Pusztai was attacked from all angles, he was not allowed to rebut.

Until the end of that year. "The British parliament has given special dispensation to me overriding my contract," says Pusztai. "For six and the half months I couldn't speak or write about the research results. But because the British parliament asked for a submission from me regarding the work in Rowett, the institute had to release me. I am the only scientist in Britain now who can speak freely."

Naturally at that time, Pusztai was confused by the reaction of all parties concerned. "We never claimed that GM food was unsafe. What we did claim was that the GM potato we worked with had shown really worrying results for safety. Therefore by implication, the minimum requirement would have been to test by the same methods all the other already released food crops by the same rigorous methodology. That is the reason they didn't like it."

They didn't like it because biotech companies and the US Food and Drug Administration maintain that GM food is substantially equivalent to its non GM counterpart.

Therefore, it does not need to be subjected to rigorous animal testing. To date, no follow-up research, using the same methods in the study by Pusztai's team has been carried out by any research institute, which should have been the natural thing to do. However, a group of 23 scientists from 13 countries throughout Europe, enraged at the injustice handed out to Pusztai, used his research design to conduct their own independent review of the study. They also analysed the audit conducted by Rowett.

The scientists found that the Rowett's report interpreted only those results that would disprove Pusztai's conclusions and ignored some relevant data. In a memorandum they released in 1999, they also pointed out that the data analysed in the audit report, despite its bias, also showed that transgenic GNA-potato had significant effects on the immune function of rats. The panel called for a moratorium on the sale of GM crops.

Pusztai contends his methods of study were not followed up by research institutes due to the influence biotech companies have over them. "A lot of money is coming from industry and going into research institutes. When you get commercial money you have to sign a contract. The funding agency will have a major say in what you are allowed to publish. There is therefore undue influence", he says.

Jeffrey M. Smith writes in his book Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies About the Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods You're Eating followed the money and found that among Britain's topresearch universities, dependence on private funds amounts to 80 to 90 per cent of their total research budget.

"A poll of 500 scientists working in either government or recently privatised research institutes in Britain revealed that 30 per cent had been asked to change their research conclusions by the sponsoring customer," he writes.

He quotes in his book, Dr Richard Smith, editor of the British Medical Journal: "competing interests that sponsor research have quite a profound influence on the conclusions... We deceive ourselves if we think that science is wholly impartial."

Smith also cites the example of the genetically engineered sweetener aspartame. About 165 peer reviewed studies were conducted on it in 1995. Of those studies that found no problem, 100 per cent were paid for by the manufacturer of the sweetener. All the independent studies raised questions.

Pusztai explains that in science, one can cheat by changing data or falsifying data "but you can also cheat by not giving the whole picture, by withholding some information."

He feels this is the reason there are so few (only 12 as of last year) published peer reviewed scientific studies on GM safety. "This is because if the study is funded by industry, the worrying features of the study will not be allowed by the industry to be published. "And the scientists involved will say: 'If I can't publish my findings, if I cannot publish the whole thing, I will be cheating'."

If the scientist is ethical and he doesn't want to cheat, he won't publish his study, says Pusztai. The reason he could give that 150 seconds (on television) was "because my director agreed to it and our money came from the British taxpayer, not commercial money. My allegiance and my duties were to the British taxpayer. Not to any commercial organisation."

Both Bardocz and Pusztai agree with the British Medical Association that not enough science has been carried out to attest that GM food is safe. After all, only one human clinical study has been done. You'd think that with all the controversy, it should only make sense that more human studies are carried out to assure the public that it is safe. But this is not happening.

Bardocz says that with food, the effects on the body would only show up after many, many years. "Regulators need to keep records for four generations," says Bardocz. "That is how long it takes to trace something back to its original cause. With cigarette smoking that is how long it took people to make traces from illnesses to tobacco. People have been smoking so long, but only lately we are seeing a direct link."

Pusztai explains this premise further. "The link of food to illnesses takes a much longer time. It is more difficult. It took a long time to link high fat food to obesity and other related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, cardiovascular diseases. Now we have GM. These companies know that they will not be around by the time the problems will truly show up, unless there is a disaster like with Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis."

Even now with BSE, he says, they still don't know what the exact cause is. "That is the reason, if we must have GM food, we must insist on clear labelling and not just for the GM food but anything coming from GM crops."

He recalls the L-tryptophan story where a food supplement containing only tiny amounts of genetically modified bacteria caused fatalities up to 100 and made thousands sick in the US. It had no protein or DNA in it but it was a by-product of a GM fermentation process. It produced a tiny bit of contamination that caused deaths. Most people taking it did not know that it was a result of GM process.

"This is a much more difficult business than any straightforward thing like eating poison and dying. With poison, there is a direct link - you will find the poison in the body. But here, we have a much more subtle connection and cause-and-effect. If you have no labelling you will never find out if there is no connection," he says.

"They say in the US, everyone has been eating GM food for the past eight years and nothing has happened. They say no one has died and got sick," says Bardocz. "But if someone has died and got sick, how do they know it is not related to GM food? GM food is not labelled. A lot of people don't know whether they are eating it or not. That is why industry does not want labelling. They know they can get sued."   


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