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The Political Science of GM Food

The Political Science of GM Food

Interview With Arpad Pusztai

Arpad Pusztai was in New Zealand earlier this year to give evidence to the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification. Arpad is a scientist who has become a world figure in the debate concerning GM foods. He conducted research into the effects of GM potatoes on laboratory rats at the Rowett Institute in Scotland. His experiments gave unexpected results and he published them. What followed was the kind of witch hunt that is beginning to characterise the GE debate, and is helping science to lose its credibility with the public.

Interviewed by Sean Weaver.

First published in Soil and Health March/April 2001. pp10, 11, 20.

SW. Could you explain why you originally got involved in genetic engineering research.

AP. Most of my research work has been concerned with glycoproteins and lectins and this is how I came into the field of genetic engineering. To increase the insect resistance in plants we are often using lectins and lectin genes. This is because they are a natural insecticide.

SW. Tell me about your research into the GM potatoes.

AP. In some of our previous work we showed that the snowdrop bulb lectin, although it is a very effective insecticidal protein, it is not doing anything else that could be considered harmful. So, we had an ideal gene or GM product, that affected the insects but would not affect us.

SW. What happened with your experiments when you tested the GM potatoes?

AP. Well, we found some problems, and this was surprising to us.

SW. Was it a problem with the target gene or gene product or was it related to some other factor?

AP. I think that it is still not clear but we do know that it was not the target gene or target gene product. The gene construct, of course, contained another four genes including the viral promoter, the transcription terminator, the selection marker, and the reporter gene. We did not test for these. But these other genes are present and their products are present. So, therefore you cannot exclude them as possible sources of the problem. Also, even if you have a gene construct that has proven to be safe, you then have to insert this whole thing into the host genome. Now, we don't know where it lands. It can land anywhere.

SW. And what happens when it lands unpredictably in the host genome?

AP. We don't know. This is part of the problem. And it will land in different places each time you do it.

SW. Can you tell me a little about the organisation that you worked for.

AP. I worked for the Rowett Research Institute of Aberdeen, Scotland, which is usually regarded as the premier nutritional research institute of Britain and more or less Europe. This particular research project was funded by the Scottish office of the Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Department.

SW. Did the funder set the research agenda in this case?

AP. Yes. They asked for proposals. Ours was picked out as the best and won the contract. Our proposal was extensively peer reviewed. You don't give away 1.6 million pounds these days without peer reviewing the proposal.

SW. Do you think that the funders were worried what the findings might be?

AP. Not at the beginning. Remember that the gene was picked out on our recommendations. So I could not really imagine that the insertion of a gene at that expression level would cause any problems. After all, it is expressed at only 16 micrograms per gram - it is a very small contribution to the potato genome.

What we did not consider at the time, was that the insertion of this gene would have an effect on the potato's own genes, and that this may prove troublesome.

SW. What proved to be troublesome?

AP. Our studies with GM potatoes showed that genetic engineering not only substantially altered their composition, but that it has also affected their nutritional value and wholesomeness to rats that were fed the potatoes. We found that the GM potatoes were not substantially equivalent to their parent lines or to each other in terms of nutritional constituents. One of the GM lines had significantly less protein than the parent line. The levels of starch, glucose and anti-nutrients were also significantly different between the GM potatoes and the parent line.

We used these potatoes in feeding studies with rats. We found that the metabolic consequences of feeding these GM potatoes to rats was substantially different to the control study using the non-GM parent line. We also found that the presence of GM-potatoes in the diet for 10 days significantly reduced the rats' immune response to mitogenic stimuli. Our data showed that these differences could not have happened by chance and also that they were not due to the expression of the target gene itself.

SW. What happened when you published your findings?

AP. It started when I had a television interview that lasted for 150 seconds at which I made my concerns known to the public. Remember that this is publicly funded research. I thought that the public ought to know about my concerns. This was done with the full approval of my director at the Rowett Institute.

SW. What did you say in that 150 seconds?

AP. Well, I simply said that we had done some studies with a line of GM potatoes and that we found some problems with the growing of the young rats that were fed the potatoes. I said that there were problems with their organ development and their immune responsiveness. This is a potato that we don't eat - it has not been approved yet. But when I compared it with all those GM foodstuffs which we are eating, to see what had been done to them and how much regulation had been affecting them, I found that there was nothing even remotely comparable to the rigour of scientific investigation that had gone into our potato studies. So, I said that it is very unfair to use fellow citizens as guinea pigs. Guinea pigs should be in the laboratory, and GM foods should be properly tested before they are approved for the market. They didn't like that.

SW. What was the reaction to that 150 seconds?

AP. An explosion. I knew there would be some problems but I did not anticipate the size of the reaction. And I now understand why. You see, if it had been the gene itself that caused the problems then there would not have been all that much trouble. Because then you simply take another gene and try that one. But the implication of our research results is that the genetic technology as it is done today is the problem.

We used exactly the same technology to create these GM potatoes as is used for other GM foods that are on the market, and it was not the target gene which was causing the problem. Therefore, the clear logical conclusion was that the process of genetic modification was the source of the problem. Our research findings and our announcement translated into a frontal attack on the GM technology as it is done today.

SW. What was the reaction of the scientific community to your research findings?

AP. My research institute sent around a memo that simply forbade people at the Rowett to talk to me. I was cut off totally. I don't know if you have ever heard the expression "you are sent to Coventry" - that is total isolation. Although I stayed at the Rowett, as I had still four months to my one year contract, I was totally isolated, my research people were taken from me - I had 4 PhD students at that time - they were all taken. All money and lab facilities were removed.

SW. Were you a junior member of the staff at the Rowett Institute?

AP. I was a very senior member of the staff. I spent 35 years there. I'm also a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

SW. How did the Royal Society treat you?

AP. The Edinburgh Royal Society (which I belong to) refused to get involved. The London Royal Society on the other hand, decided to get involved and they said they would look at the available data to give an impartial and high scientific evaluation. Then, without my approval the Rowett Institute gave some internal reports from the project to the Royal Society in London, who then said that they had our data and could evaluate it.

SW. What was their conclusion?

AP. They eventually said that "Dr Pusztai's experiments were flawed in design and execution and he drew the wrong conclusions." But the Royal Society never had our research design - the one that had passed through the peer review process when we won the contract. So, they were commenting on material they had not seen. The internal reports that they did get hold of were basically just numbers.

And I should say that this is the first time in the 350 year history of the Royal Society that they have set up a process like this. There is no precedent. They obviously had to do a hatchet job, and they did it.

SW. What is this sort of process doing to science?

AP. Independent science and academic scientific research is now practically dead.

SW. How can ordinary people evaluate the quality of science in situations like this?

AP. Ask where the money comes from.

SW. Where do you get your funding?

AP. When we testified at the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification here in New Zealand we began by saying that we don't belong to any political party, we don't belong to any NGO, we don't get money from the biotech industry and we don't get any money from green pressure groups. We are independent scientists. Ask those who are sympathetic to GM food where their money is coming from.

SW. What message would you give to governments and regulators on GM food safety?

AP. In science we always try to set up as large a data base as possible, from as many sources and as many labs as we can find. Why is it that this does not apply to GM food? There must be something wrong. People normally would feel this - that something is being kept from them.

SW. Why is it that GM is not going through the same public process that we would expect from scientific research?

AP. Well, I think there are two main reasons. One is that if they did more research that produced findings similar to ours, it would have to be actively suppressed. And this is very difficult in a democratic society. The other reason, of course, is money. Our potato research cost 1.6 million pounds. Now, if you multiplied it up to the scale of all the GM crops - and there are well over 40 now in the USA - it would require a great deal of money to do proper testing. So, this is a very strong combination.

SW. Do you think GM foods are safe?

AP. I don't know. I doubt if anybody does. I can certainly tell you that those GM potatoes that I studied were not safe.

In my personal opinion, certainly regarding the first generation of GM foods, the sooner they are got rid of the better. Eventually they will be. But in the mean time they may be doing a lot of damage.

You can get more information about this research project and the way it was treated from Arpad Pusztai's web site:

For further reading on the science of this particular issue see: Ewen S.W.B., and Pusztai A, Lancet, 354, 1353-1354, 1999 Pusztai A et al, Digestion, 46 (suppl 2), 308-316, 1990 Pusztai A et al, J Appl Bacteriol, 75, 360-368, 1993 Fares NH and El-Sayed AK, Nat Toxins, 6, 219-233, 1998


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