Pusztai interview - The Gene Genie
He points out that the changes they found in the rats' guts could trigger cancers. He worries reproductive potential could be damaged and thinks his work on potatoes could have implications for other GM crops.
"The technology which they use to create GM soya and GM corn and GM tomatoes was exactly the same as we used for creating the GM potatoes. And our results actually pointed in the direction that it was the technology which was at fault," he says.
Pusztai is very critical of the current arrangements for checking on the safety of GM foods in Britain... "The Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes as the regulatory authority has no laboratory of its own. So, therefore, they have to rely on the data they get from the GM companies... Can you really imagine a GM company, or any company for that matter, will disclose data which will question the safety of their product? It's preposterous. The whole thing is a sham. It's not properly done. It's not based on good science. If we are lucky we will get away with some of it. But if we are unlucky, then we are not going to get away with it."
The Gene Genie
The Sunday Herald, 20th July 2003
Five years ago Professor Arpad Pusztai was vilified for daring to suggest GM foods could be harmful. But, as Environment Editor Rob Edwards discovers, the retired researcher is now even more fearful
WHEN Aberdeen scientist Arpad Pusztai appeared on television five years ago to talk about the safety of genetically-modified (GM) food, he only spoke for 150 seconds. But it changed everything.
A huge political row erupted around him. He lost his job, his reputation was trashed and he suffered two heart attacks. Yet, at the same time, he lit a fire of public fury about GM food, which has raged ever since, engulfing the government and GM industry.
For a man who has endured and caused so much trouble, he now sounds remarkably cheerful. He chuckles as he recounts some of the worst moments of his life. He stands by everything he said, certain he was right. And he remains convinced the introduction of GM food would be a big mistake.
"The downside is fantastically dangerous," he says. "The present generation of GM is certainly rubbish. The sooner we can get rid of it, the better. We do not know the outcome, and we are playing with fire. And when we do know the outcome, it may be too late to reverse it."
Before he shot to unwilling fame on TV, Pusztai was one of Britain's most respected food scientists. A refugee from communist Hungary and a chemistry graduate, he was invited in 1963 to join the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, one of the main centres of expertise on food and nutrition in Europe. There, over 35 years, he became the world's leading expert on plant proteins known as lectins. He published more than 270 scientific papers and three books, two written with his wife, Susan Bardocz.
In 1995, he was commissioned by the Scottish Office to lead a three-year research project into the safety of GM food. Part of his work was to test whether potatoes which had been genetically modified to include a lectin from a snowdrop would harm rats. When he began feeding the GM potatoes to rats, they suffered worrying and unexpected changes. Their livers, hearts and brains shrank. There was also evidence that the rats' immune systems, vital for protecting them from disease, were getting weaker.
So when he was asked by ITV's World In Action to take part in a programme about the safety of GM food, he agreed. In his short interview, broadcast on Monday, August 10, 1998, he said that the rats fed GM potatoes had experienced "slight growth retardation and an effect on the immune system". He said that, personally, he would not eat GM food. "We are assured that this is absolutely safe," he said. "But as a scientist looking at it, actively working in the field, I find that it's very, very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs."
All hell then broke loose. Despite initial support from the Rowett , Pusztai was suspended within 48 hours. Professor Phillip James, Rowett director , said at the time: "The problem was that in an enormously complex study, Professor Pusztai muddled up two experiments and ended up misleading us, himself, and the world when, anyway, he should not have being doing this under the intense media interest."
Pusztai was threatened with legal action if he spoke to anyone, and his phone calls and e-mails were diverted. An investigation into his findings was launched. He now feels that the Rowett treated him badly, but does not blame them outright. Having talked to colleagues and thought about it over the years, he has concluded there must have been political interference. "Some people were put in an impossible situation," he says.
There is evidence of this, but it is not proof - and it is denied by both the government and senior management at the Rowett. Pusztai says that an agreement reached on the Tuesday after the TV programme to issue a news release backing him was reversed without explanation the following morning. He believes this was because the government, known GM supporters, put pressure on the Rowett. A book published this month by investigative journalist Andrew Rowell quotes several sources as suggesting phone calls were made by Downing Street to the Rowett on the Tuesday evening. The book, called Don't Worry - It's Safe To Eat, also argues that then US President, Bill Clinton, could have put pressure on the government in order to protect US GM multinationals, such as Monsanto.
Pusztai accepts the evidence of this kind of conspiracy is "tenuous", but regards it as the most credible explanation of what happened. Talking from his summer house on Lake Balaton in Hungary last week, he remembers with feeling how bad things became over the months after the TV programme.
"The institute and various government and scientific establishment people put out so many bits of misinformation that I could work until the end of my natural life to try to correct them. They should have been corrected at the time," he says. "I've always had low-blood pressure, but suddenly it rocketed sky high. The pressure was on me. The frustration, the stress, was really very bad. I had what the medical profession euphemistically called a mild heart attack. Those months of silence and all the accusations which I couldn't answer were probably one of the worst periods of my life."
Pusztai's legal gag was lifted in February 1999. Gradually, with the advice and support of his wife and his daughter, a lawyer near Girvan, he began the long fightback to restore his reputation. The first problem he had to face was an inquiry by the Royal Society in London, a kind of old boy's club for distinguished scientists.
They concluded in May 1999 that Pusztai's work was "flawed in many aspects of design, execution and analysis and that no conclusions should be drawn from it". But, he argues, they didn't say what the flaws were, and never repeated his experiments.
"If they were so certain that our experiments were no good, then why the hell didn't they prove that to the world?" he asks.
"But they have not done it. Why is it that they have not done it? Are they afraid that perhaps my experiments were actually telling us that there is a danger. The whole business quite simply stinks."
He alleges none of those on the Royal Society's inquiry team had a relevant track record in his field of nutrition. He does take some comfort from the latest report from the Royal Society this year, which for the first time expressed doubts about the safety of GM food. "They are slowly edging forwards," he says.
Pusztai's work was also criticised by the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, in a way that he thought was unjust. They barred him from discussing crucial scientific points and then questioned the validity of his conclusions. The experience, he says, caused him to lose faith in the impartiality of politicians.
"That was a very sore point with me, a very sore point," he says. "The canteen of the Houses of Parliament is not serving any GM food, it is GM-free. But the rest of the public haven't got the same privileged position. So we may be submitted to this trial and error, and used as guinea pigs in this experiment."
To counter these attacks, Pusztai has received strong backing from other expert scientists. A memorandum published in February 1999 by 30 scientists of international repute from 13 countries concluded that"although some of the results are preliminary, they are sufficient to exonerate Dr Pusztai".
One of those who signed the memorandum was the former principal scientific officer at the Rowett, Dr Kenneth Lough. Another was the top pathologist, Stanley Ewen, with the University of Aberdeen, who helped with Pusztai's experiments. Ewen also collaborated over a scientific paper in The Lancet in October 1999, focusing on how GM potatoes affected the stomach and intestines of rats. It was the first peer-reviewed publication of their work, and attracted criticism and praise. Pusztai regards the Lancet paper as a vindication. He points out that the changes they found in the rats' guts could trigger cancers. He worries reproductive potential could be damaged and thinks his work on potatoes could have implications for other GM crops.
"The technology which they use to create GM soya and GM corn and GM tomatoes was exactly the same as we used for creating the GM potatoes. And our results actually pointed in the direction that it was the technology which was at fault," he says. "You can thank us that you are not eating GM potatoes. After that business in August 1998, there is not a cat-in-hell's chance of those GM potatoes ever going through the regulatory process."
Pusztai is very critical of the current arrangements for checking on the safety of GM foods in Britain, claiming that they are inadequate. "The Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes as the regulatory authority has no laboratory of its own. So, therefore, they have to rely on the data they get from the GM companies [among other sources]," he points out.
"Can you really imagine a GM company, or any company for that matter, will disclose data which will question the safety of their product? It's preposterous. The whole thing is a sham. It's not properly done. It's not based on good science. If we are lucky we will get away with some of it. But if we are unlucky, then we are not going to get away with it."
Instead, he argues that GM food should have to undergo something like the MOT tests cars must pass. "It would be in the interests of everybody to go through a proper regulatory process, beefed up by science, transparently and independently done science. We could go through a number of steps and safety checks."
Now 73 years old and retired, Pusztai spends much of his time rebutting the misinformation about his work that still circulates . Last November, he submitted a damning critique of the GM crop trials in Scotland to the Scottish parliament's Health and Community Care Committee, which subsequently came out against GM foods. He has met with Prince Charles, whom, he says, is sympathetic.
Pusztai is cynical about the government's GM Nation debate which formally ended on Friday, believing Blair will go ahead with the commercialisation of GM crops anyway. This, he says, would be a "thoroughly bad idea" because it would only serve to boost the profits of GM firms against the wishes of consumers and supermarkets.
Looking back, he is pleased that the fuss caused by his 150 seconds of fame on television did succeed in sounding alarm bells . He compares the risks to those of mad cow disease, which has given 137 beef-eaters an incurable and degenerative brain disorder. Something similar - or worse - could result from a rush to introduce GM foods without proper safety testing, he warns. "We are playing God here, that's what we are doing. We are exposing people to risks which they should not be exposed to."