3-Food: Pusztai tells his side of the story
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How I told the truth and was sacked
INDEPENDENT (Sunday) March 8
By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Correspondent
NO ONE, says Dr Arpad Pusztai, could have been more surprised to find
rats he had given genetically modified (GM) food developing alarming
ill-effects. He had been "a very enthusiastic supporter" of the
technology, and fully expected his experiments to give it "a clean bill
of health", he said.
"I was totally taken aback; no doubt about it," he told the Independent
on Sunday last week. "I was absolutely confident I wouldn't find
anything. But the longer I spent on the experiments, the more uneasy I
His unexpected findings have landed him, bewildered, in one of the
hottest scientific controversies for years. They have abruptly ended his
career, and destroyed his international reputation. He was magisterially
rebuked by a score of Britain's most august Fellows of the Royal Society,
attacked by a collaborator on the study, and accused by Sir Robert May,
the Government's respected Chief Scientific Adviser, of violating "every
canon of scientific rectitude". Only now is he able to reply.
I spent nearly six hours with him in his modest semi-detached home in
Aberdeen on Wednesday, as he told his side of the story in full for the
first time. He is a small, vital man - grey-faced with the strain (he has
recently had a minor heart attack which he ascribes to it), but retaining
a self-deprecating humour - he spoke of the "intolerable burden" of being
unable to clear his name.
>From the day after he briefly mentioned some of his findings on
television in August until three weeks ago, he was bound to
confidentiality by his employer for 37 years, Aberdeen's Rowett Research
Institute. Since then he has been preparing to make his case before the
House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology tomorrow.
"All I need is a chance," he said. "For the past seven months I haven't
had one. I could not even defend myself against very heinous accusations.
Sometimes I felt I should just get on a plane and go away. I couldn't
It has been a devastating end to a brilliant career. He is the son of a
Hungarian wartime resistance hero and fled when the 1956 rising was
suppressed. But he had published his first scientific papers while still
at university, and the Ford Foundation found him in an Austrian refugee
camp. They gave him a scholarship to study anywhere in the world he chose.
He picked Britain, partly "because I knew I was an odd sort of guy, and
the country then had a certain tolerance". He was recruited to the
Institute in 1963 personally by Dr Richard Synge, a Nobel prizewinner in
Dr Pusztai, 68, has published 270 scientific papers, and the Institute
acknowledges he became "probably the world's expert" on lectins, proteins
used in genetic modification. So valuable was his work he was asked to
stay on after retirement age.
His nemesis began in 1995, when his group beat 27 contenders to win a
#1.6m Scottish Office contract to test the effects of GM foods. He was
particularly interested because he could find only one previous
peer-reviewed study on feeding them to animals. It was led by a scientist
from Monsanto, the controversial GM company, and found no ill-effects.
Dr Pusztai fed rats on two strains of potatoes genetically engineered
with a lectin from snowdrop bulbs, a third with the snowdrop lectin
simply added and a fourth of ordinary potatoes.
He has been repeatedly accused by top politicians and scientists of
merely adding a poison to potatoes. But he says he spent six years up to
1990 proving the snowdrop lectin was safe, even at high concentrations -
and it is due to his work that it is used in genetic engineering at all.
To his surprise he found the immune systems and brains, livers, kidneys
and other vital organs of the rats fed the GM potatoes were damaged, but
not those of the rats fed the ordinary ones or those simply spiked with
the lectin. This, he says, suggests the genetic modification could be
largely to blame.
By last summer, he says, the Scottish Office money was running out, and
the Institute refused funding. He therefore agreed to appear in a World
in Action documentary, with the Institute's support, to raise the profile
of the work in the hope of attracting funds. He says the Institute's
press officer sat through the interview and no objection had been raised
to what he had said in the seven weeks before screening on 10 August last
He was "absolutely surprised" his brief comments hit the headlines, but
the Institute put out press releases supporting him the same day, and the
next. But on 12 August he was suspended from work on the experiments. The
study was stopped.
He worked out his contract until the end of the year, but found himself
"sent to Coventry" by his colleagues. His computers were "sealed" and all
his data from the experiments "confiscated". Dr Pusztai was forced into
An audit committee of four scientists, set up by the Institute, reviewed
his work and disagreed with his conclusions. He says he was given three
days to write a reply, without access to his full data.
This reply, which the Institute put on the internet, has been attacked as
"unpublishable". He agrees and says this is hardly surprising given the
limitations. He has also been condemned for not publishing a refereed
scientific paper in the normal way. He says this was impossible without
access to the complete data, which he has only just recovered.
Martin Polden, of the law firm Ross and Craig and president of the
Environmental Law Foundation, who has taken up Dr Pusztai's case, says
this is "a classic case for the need for openness in science". The
Institute says it has nothing to add to previous statements.
Dr Pusztai insists: "I believe in the technology. But it is too new for
us to be absolutely sure that what we are doing is right. But I can say
from my experience if anyone dares to say anything even slightly contra-
indicative, they are vilified and totally destroyed."
But surely others will do the same research elsewhere? "It would have to
be a very strong person. If I, with my international reputation, can be
destroyed, who will stand up?"
-| Hartmut Meyer
-| The European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering
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