Another item to mark the 7th anniversary of the programme that transformed the GM debate - the 'World in Action' documentary featuring Dr Arpad Pusztai that was broadcast on the 10 August 1998.
This article - WATCHING DR PUSZTAI - was previously published by NGIN - GM Watch's predecessor organisation. Dr Pusztai was subsequently asked to verify the accuracy of NGIN's report, which he did - see item at end.
Its account of the treatment of Dr Pusztai at what was supposedly a meeting centered on science speaks volumes and, sadly, 7 years on little has changed.
WATCHING DR PUSZTAI
They had to invite Aarpad Pusztai to the OECD conference (on the Scientific and Health Aspects of Genetically Modified Foods, 28th February - 2nd March 2000) to give the event any semblance of credibility in terms of its claims to represent a range of views, but the way in which he was treated while there exposed the shallow pretence of this very carefully staged event. Here's an account of a week spent observing what was happening around Dr Pusztai in Edinburgh.
Watching Dr Pusztai
Dr Pusztai gave his eight and a half minute talk on Monday afternoon and in a sane world his contribution to the conference should not have been that controversial. Quite deliberately, he said that he was not going to participate in a sterile debate about whether GM-food is good or bad but rather would outline a practical scientific protocol for actually testing the biological health effects of GM-crops. Clearly, Pusztai's intent was to move the argument forward, but the biotech nasty brigade were having none of it!
Although nobody at the conference managed to come up with a single criticism of Pusztai's actual proposals, biotech evangelists like Nigel Halford (of Institute of Arable Crop Research), Mike Wilson (formerly Scottish Crop Research Institute and before that John Innes Centre), and Phil Dale (John Innes Centre), not to mention, of course, Monsanto, took every opportunity they could throughout the Conference to make personal attacks on Dr Pusztai based on their version of his past "contribution" to the GM-debate.
Most of these attacks were openly allowed by the Chair without any requirement to confine their remarks to what Pusztai had actually proposed. Dr Pusztai was also granted almost no opportunity to reply to these personal attacks. On one occasion I even saw a former scientific adviser to Marks & Spencer on the very verge of physically attacking Dr Pusztai while telling him he was a disgrace to science who for personal glory would make millions starve in the Third World!!!
Halford and Wilson presented Pusztai's Lancet article as if it were the worst thing that had ever been published, implying that all the referees had rejected it (which is completely untrue). Despite Sir John Krebbs giving Pusztai no chance to reply to these spurious attacks, no matter how long Pusztai had his hand in the air, it was a great pleasure to see Dr Pusztai corner Halford after the meeting and make him eat his words! Unfortunately, Halford's grovelling response was heard by very few while the biotech brigade's attacks were made in front of the entire conference.
By the last day, when most of those such as Steve Druker (of the FDA documents fame), Patrick Holden (of the Soil Association) and so on had long gone, the event had become rather like a pro-GM rally, with just a few token sceptics present. The biotech brigade used the opportunity to try and rubbish Pusztai one last time while proclaiming the various glories that biotech held out for our global future.
The supposed reasons for the hate campaign against Dr Pusztai are pretty well rehearsed. He was the man who spoke out about the results of his unpublished GM potato research and the true scientist would, of course, only present sound peer reviewed data open to critical scrutiny etc etc. (The fact that scientists are forever talking to journalists about their work in progress, or that Dr Pusztai had permission from the Rowett Institute to make the comments he did, is of course conveniently ignored.)
How ironic, then, that while Pusztai was repeatedly vilified in Edinburgh, the Conference darling was Professor Zhangliang Chen, Vice President of Beijing University, who reported that in testing the health effects of their GM foods on rats in China no adverse effects had been found. Chen, needless to say, provided absolutely no details of the protocols, design, methodology etc - there were just these glorious results and that apparently was quite sufficient to serve as a glowing "certificate of worth" to GM-crops, while Pusztai continued to be lacerated for research published in such little known journals as The Lancet and The Journal of Nutrition.
People were even coming up to Pusztai to tell him, with no apparent sense of irony, that Prof Chen had shown that when you do the experiments right, you get the right results! The fact that these wonderful results were not open to critical scrutiny or that Prof Chen divulged not a word about how he had done these experiments, was treated as a complete irrelevance. Such is sound science.
Dr Pusztai has, of course, also repeatedly been belaboured for making some of the rats in his experiments eat raw potatoes (in addition to boiled/ baked ones), so it was equally apt that another Conference hero was Prof. Charles Arntzen of the Boyce Institute USA, who extolled the virtues of edible vaccines in, wait for it, GM potatoes. Arntzen failed to mention that, as heat destroys the vaccine, in order to get the intended benefit these GM potatoes would have to be eaten raw!
Even if Arntzen had made this clear, however, one somehow doubts that it would have given rise to very much concern. After all, the subtext of the OECD conference was that it matters little what sort of rubbish you feed people... as long, that is, as you are pro-GM!
It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that most of Dr Pusztai's severest critics at Edinburgh - ie Drs Halford, Wilson, Dale + Monsanto - have all come under fire for the highly misleading statements they have made in the course of their avid promotion of GM crops - see:
False reports and the smears of men
Pro-GM scientists and the radical right
Dr Pusztai was asked by PSRAST about the accuracy of the NGIN report above on his treatment at the OECD/Edinburgh Conference.
Dr Pusztai commented:
"The report of NGIN about the events at the OECD/Edinburgh Conference is essentially correct. Even though there were many personal attacks on me by the GM biotech enthusiasts at the Conference, totally unrelated to the points I raised during my short talk, I was not given adequate opportunity by the Chairmen of the sessions to reply to them, particularly on the second and third day of the
Conference. Unfortunately under these conditions I was left with the impression that the Conference was not an impartial, objective and scientific forum for discussions on food safety. To most impartial observers and participants and certainly to me it appeared to be more of a propaganda forum for airing the views and promoting the interests of the GM biotechnology industry."