3-Food: Analysis of the Pusztai case
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- Date: Tue, 16 Feb 99 13:17:40 -0000
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Stop the crops
by George Monbiot
[George Monbiot was the first British journalist to draw attention to the
hazards of genetic engineering in the national press.]
Guardian (London)Saturday February 13, 1999
The geneticist Dr Arpad Pusztai is a dangerous man. He has released into
the environment a virulent self-replicating organism, which is already
running riot across Britain. It's called the truth. Yesterday, the
Government moved rapidly to round it up and shove it back into the flask
from which it spilt.
Jack Cunningham, the government's pest control officer, told the Today
programme that the public had nothing to fear from Dr Pusztai's
that rats fed with genetically modified potatoes suffered damage to their
immune systems and internal organs. Human health, he claimed, was the
Government's overwhelming priority. Genetic engineering had only been
deployed experimentally in Britain so far. Europe was introducing
new labelling requirements for engineered foods. And no, English Nature
had not called for a moratorium. The nation could breathe a sigh of
relief. The verminous truth was on the retreat.
But, like all dangerous pathogens, it has a nasty habit of cropping up
again, just when you thought it was under control. It has even managed to
infect English Nature's website. The agency, the website says, will
'continue to recommend a moratorium on commercial releases'. In fact,
beginning to look as if the only place the bug has not re-infected is the
well-guarded inner sanctum of the Government.
Dr Cunningham has used subtle tactics to shut it out. Yes, genetically
engineered crops have only been deployed experimentally: in British
fields. But they have been deployed wholesale in British food. Most
processed food now contains genetically modified products.
Yes, there are new labelling requirements for engineered foods. But no,
they are not rigorous. Thanks to lobbying by the British government,
European regulations are now so weak as to be almost meaningless. The
British delegation insisted that there need be no warning about the
presence of food additives, refined oils and flavourings made from
And no, Dr Cunningham, the British government has not put human health
ahead of other priorities. Two weeks ago, it announced that it is giving
A13 million to the biotechnology industry, to help improve its profile
win public confidence. Last summer, both Jack Cunningham and Jeff Rooker,
the deputy agriculture minister, held meetings with Monsanto, the world's
most aggressive biotech company. The meetings were arranged by Monsanto's
public relations consultants, Bell Pottinger. In October, Bell Pottinger
was joined by Cathy McGlynn, previously Jack Cunningham's special adviser.
Monsanto's lobbying has been spectacularly successful. The Government's
Invest in Britain Bureau now boasts that the UK 'leads the way in Europe
in ensuring that regulations and other measures affecting the development
of biotechnology take full account of the concerns of business.'
Business concerns are also heeded elsewhere. Last summer, a part-time
employee of Monsanto's called Bill Clinton telephoned Tony Blair to
that nothing be done to restrict the biotech sector's expansion in
Britain. Monsanto was one of the largest donors of 'soft dollars' to
Bill's 1996 presidential campaign.
It was these considerations which underlay Tony Blair's statement to the
Commons last week. He told the House that imposing a moratorium on
engineered crops would increase rather than decrease public concern. What
he meant, of course, was that it would be bad for the image of the
The Government contends that genetically engineered crops will help both
to feed the world and save the environment. But the world already
50 per cent more food than it needs. People go hungry not because there
too little food but because food and the land on which it grows are
concentrated in the hands of the rich and powerful.
The biggest threat to future supplies is the environmental destruction
caused by large-scale agro-industry: precisely the type of farming
facilitated by genetic engineering. The corporate control of the food
chain that modification allows will ensure that even less of the world's
food reaches those who need it most. We are Dr Cunningham's guinea pigs,
the subjects of a vast global experiment from which no good can come.
When Dr Pusztai told the truth, he was sacked from the government-funded
institute for which he worked. Its director, Philip James, had given him
permission to speak to a television crew about his research. When the
programme was broadcast, Professor James supported him. A day later, he
sacked him and made him sign a gagging order. The 22 eminent scientists
who wrote a statement of support for Dr Pusztai this week are among
thousands who would like to know why Professor James changed his mind.
The row over genetic engineering has long been portrayed as a dispute
between environmentalists and scientists. But many of the most persuasive
and cogent critics of this technology are themselves gene scientists,
among the foremost in their fields.
The environment cannot sustain genetically engineered crops. Science
mistrusts them. The public doesn't want them. Isn't it time the
stopped forcing us to eat them, and fed us, instead, with the truth?
We are Dr Cunningham's guinea pigs, subjects of an unwanted, vast global
-| Hartmut Meyer
-| The European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering
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-| D - 37083 Goettingen
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