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.
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1.COMMENT FROM DR PUSZTAI
2.HIGGINS LETTER: 'Disturbing' GM findings were not based on sound science
3.COMMENT ON HIGGINS' LETTER - Claire Robinson
1.COMMENT FROM DR PUSZTAI
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.
2.DR HIGGINS' LETTER
'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 his preliminary results publicly before they were repeated and complete. After much publicity and controversy in the media, his work was submitted for publication and in addition was reviewed by four separate, independent groups - the Royal Society, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and in the Donaldson/May Report.
Each group raised serious doubts about Dr Pusztai's conclusions, including the lack of proper controls in his experiments, and found no reason to question the general safety of GM foods based on his findings.
Dr Pusztai's own research institute also questioned the validity of the results and conclusions. The editor of the scientific journal noted the results were "preliminary and non-generalisable" but felt justified in publishing them because they would enhance the "dialogue of accountability that needs to be forged between scientists and the public".
Australia has a tough regulatory system in place, with Food Standards Australia New Zealand and the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator assessing the safety of GM foods and the safe conduct of gene technology research, respectively.
Any "dissident scientist" with accurate, quality and reproducible results based on sound science would get a good hearing by these authorities as well as by their peers.
Dr T.J. Higgins, CSIRO Plant Industry
3.COMMENT ON HIGGINS' LETTER
Claire Robinson, GM Watch editor
To put a charitable interpretation on Higgins' letter, he is being disingenuous. The uncharitable interpretation would be that he is being dishonest. His points are factually incorrect and have been countered many times in public arenas.
1. Higgins criticises Dr Pusztai for the "hurried reporting" of his research, as he "reported his preliminary results publicly before they were repeated and complete". Hurried reporting goes on all the time in science and scientists are always reporting "preliminary results" suggesting "breakthroughs" that could shake down more funding. No one complains when the millionth "cancer breakthrough" or "AIDS vaccine" is reported on half-cooked results but then disappears without trace; indeed, the entire GM industry keeps itself afloat on preliminary and often imaginary findings.
In Dr Pusztai's case, he went public with his results on TV with the full agreement of the head of his institute, Dr James, because it was in the public interest. He was extremely conservative in what he said about his findings and when the results were peer reviewed and published, they were totally consistent with what he had said on the TV. Dr James had no apparent problem with the study findings until the political storm broke after Dr Pusztai's TV appearance.
2. Far from being potentially "harmful" as Higgins claims, the snowdrop lectin was chosen precisely because it had been found in tests to be harmless to mammals, while being insect-resistant. Also, the group of rats given non-GM potatoes spiked with the snowdrop lectin did not suffer the same ill effects found in the rats who ate the GM lectin-expressing potatoes. Hence the GM process was the problem, not the lectin. This point has been made time and time again and it is libellous of Higgins to say otherwise.
3. Dr Pusztai's main results were successfully peer reviewed and published in The Lancet. The peer review process, not the opinion of the Royal Society, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and the Donaldson/May Report (who rushed out their 'reports' and WHO DID NOT SEE THE FULL DATA, OR DO ANY EXPERIMENTS OF THEIR OWN TO CONTRADICT DR PUSZTAI'S FINDINGS) is where qualified people consider the full data and give their views.[* see note below]
4. Higgins claims that Dr Pusztai's experiments lacked proper controls. This is untrue and the study design followed accepted nutritional/toxicological designs such as Dr Pusztai had been carrying out and publishing for years. The design of this study was reviewed by the BBSRC, the UK's main public science funding body, and won a grant from the Scottish Office of 1.6 million pounds of public money over 27 other competing designs. Otherwise, the research would not have been done at all. There is no suggestion that Dr Pusztai departed from the study design approved by the BBSRC.
5. The Lancet editor's comments that the results were "preliminary and non-generalisable" does not mean that they were wrong, and there is no suggestion that he meant that they were wrong. For the "preliminary" argument, see point 1 above. For the "non-generalisable" argument, science in general is particular and non-generalisable; in experiments such as Dr Pusztai's, you are testing one food for a limited variety of effects. It is for other studies to see if those results are common to more foods or restricted to one.
*additional note from Jonathan:
There is also a certain amount of recycling going on here. The Vice President of the Royal Society was sitting on the Nuffield Council group when it produced its critical appendix on Pusztai. Robert May was not only a Fellow of the Royal Society but shortly afterwards became its President. Members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee are understood to have been briefed by the Royal Society. One member, Dr Ian Gibson, was also subsequently shown to have made a parliamentary speech which regurgiatated almost word for word whole sections of an article by an extreme pro-GM scientist involved in the Nuffield Council report, and Gibson subsequently admitted they were working together on combatting criticism of GM.
Finally, these reports all came out within days of each other amidst with much talk of a fight back. The Royal Society was subsequently shown to be operating a rebuttal unit to coordinate responses in the media, and its Biological Secretary was named in The Guardian as the person the editor of The Lancet said had threatened him in an effort to prevent publication of Dr Pusztai's research.
FOR MORE ON THE ROYAL SOCIETY: http://www.gmwatch.org/profile1.asp?PrId=113
FOR MORE ON DR HIGGINS' EMPLOYERS, CSIRO: http://www.gmwatch.org/profile1.asp?PrId=187&page=C