3-Food: Interview with Dr. Pusztai in Indian magazine "Frontline"
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SOURCE: Frontline 17(22), published by The Hindu, India
DATE: October 28, 2000
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GM foods and denial of rights and choices
The introduction of genetically modified (GM) foods has generated a debate
around the world, particularly in the West. Notwithstanding the fact that
GM foods have hit the market shelves in Europe and the United States, there
is growing opposition, notabl y in Europe, to their introduction into the
food chain. In this mounting campaign, the treatment meted out to Arpad
Pusztai, a biologist from Rowett Research Institute (RRI), Aberdeen,
Scotland, by the British scientific and political establishmen t has become
a cause celebre.
The 69-year-old Hungary-born Pusztai, who had been working at the RRI for
36 years, was removed from service, his research papers were seized, and
his data confiscated; and he was prohibited from talking to anyone about
his research work. All this for ha ving spoken - "all of 150 seconds," he
says - in a programme called World in Action on Granada TV in August 1998,
about his findings on the effects of GM foods that ran counter to the
prevalent scientific dogma that they were safe. He had also expressed
concern that the testing procedures to establish the safety of GM foods may
not be adequate.
Pusztai's controversial experiments, which he carried out in collaboration
with his colleague Stanley W.B. Ewen, for over 30 months between 1995 and
1998, comprised the use of GM potatoes expressing the gene for snowdrop
lectin called Galanthus nivalis a gglutinin (GNA) as feed to rats.
(Snowdrop is a small white flower that hangs from a bulb and blooms in
spring; lectin is a protein normally obtained from plants that have
antibody characteristics.) This, he found, resulted in impairment in the
condition of the rats. This was a surprising finding for Pusztai, because
in six years of work with the lectin itself, he had found no toxic effect
when it was mixed with feed as a protein supplement. But when genetically
expressed it showed health effects.
Even before his work was published, based on incomplete information and
data, it was denounced at various levels, including the Royal Society and
the Parliamentary Committee on Science and Technology. Also, a campaign was
unleashed in the media to discre dit Pusztai. But it was a slap in the face
of critics when Pusztai's paper got accepted for publication in The Lancet.
This, in fact, prompted a senior biologist of the Royal Society to threaten
The Lancet's editor with dire consequences. A fter the publication of the
paper, there was a spate of letters to The Lancet attacking Pusztai's work.
Pusztai responded adequately and forcefully.
The comments by Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, in response to
remarks by the President of the Royal Society, are illuminating. He wrote
in November 1998: "Aaron Klug defends the Royal Society's wish to damn Ewen
and Pusztai's work in the ab sence of both investigators. What he cannot
defend is the reckless decision of the Royal Society to abandon the
principle of due process in passing judgment on their work. To review and
then publish criticism of these researchers' findings without publis hing
either their original data or their response was, at best, unfair and ill-
Considering the all-round assertion in scientific circles as well as by
biotechnology companies that GM foods and crops are safe, it may be
shocking to know that there are just five papers that have been published
in peer-reviewed journals until June 200 0 (Jose Domingo, Science, June 9)
and the Pusztai-Ewen Lancet paper is one of them.
Irrespective of whether Pusztai's findings stand scientific scrutiny and
the test of time, and whether GM foods are safe or not, the case reflects
how those in the citadels of science administration have abandoned ethics
in order to defend a biased agend a - in this case promoted by biotech
multinationals. It also shows how, contrary to the cardinal principles of
academic freedom and objectivity, any research that went against the
dominant view evoked collective intolerance.
Pusztai, who has authored nearly 300 research papers and nine books, says
his scientific credibility is still intact. Since the termination of his
services at the RRI, he has been offered visiting professorship in three
countries: Brazil, Hungary and Nor way but, for the present, he has decided
to stay in Aberdeen and accept short lecture tours. He was in India
recently on one such tour to attend meetings on GM foods. He spoke to R.
Excerpts from the interview:
- Could you recount how the row over your research work began?
It is now over two years. With the consent of my director and my Institute
I gave a very, very short interview for television. It was all of 150
seconds. I simply said, and this is on record, that we had done some work
with one particular GM crop - we ar e not eating this - and we found that
when we fed this to rats, we had some problems. Some of the rats were not
growing as well, some of the rats had problems in the development of the
insides, the immune system. Our concern was that, even though this is not
eaten, British public is already eating things that had not been tested by
similar methods. Because of this, as a publicly funded scientist, I should
really raise my concerns. And that was it.
- What methods are you referring to?
I have been doing this kind of work for 20-odd years. Not with GM,though.
Since the War, quite literally, no food has been tested in Europe, while
this huge explosion of technology occurred. In contrast, with animal
feedstock, everything has been tested. If we are doing this with animals -
because of their economic importance - I don't really understand why we
cannot do this with human food, regardless of whether it is GM or non-GM.
With regard to GM food, we step into a totally new and different area. What
we found was against my own expectations. Because we had tested the effect
of the gene product previously and found nothing, I had thought nothing is
going to happen.
- What was the gene product and how was it tested previously?
This is a lectin from snowdrop. We don't eat snowdrop, nor do we eat
bacillus thuringiensis (BT) toxin. We now have genetically modified BT corn
and BT potatoes. We don't eat a lot of these things in GM foods that are
now being sold. So it should be in o ur interest to get it properly tested.
Before we did the genetic potato work, what we did was to isolate this gene
product from the snowdrop bulb to see whether it did have any effect on the
absorption of normal diet. We have high quality animal feedstock. If you
use some animal protein like egg protein or casein from milk mixed with it,
we can measure with great precision how well they are utilised. For
example, egg albumen will be utilised with 92-94 per cent efficiency. This
is very high efficiency. Now you can do the same thing with pota toes. Does
the lectin reduce the efficiency of the diet or does it interfere with the
immune system? We tested with as high a concentration - at milligram level
per gram level. It still did not do any harm.
In case of genetic modification we need it only at a concentration that is
100-fold less. We expressed it at lower levels of micrograms per gram in
the potato and wanted to know what kind of possible effects it can have. We
had two kinds of potatoes - on e GM and the other non-GM. I had expected
that the GM potato, with 20 micrograms of a component against the several
grams of other components, should not cause any problems. But we found
problems. Our studies clearly show that the effects were not due to that
little gene expression, but it depended on the way the gene had been
inserted into the potato genome and what it did to the potato genome. That
is why industry and politicians reacted so strongly against me.
We had two successful lines, both coming from the same genetic
transformation of the parent line at the same time. They were going through
the same laboratory tests and were growing in the fields for two years done
in the South of England. And when we lo oked at the two lines, we found
that against our expectations they were different. They were different
compositionally. For example, one of the lines contained exactly the same
amount of protein as the parent line but the other line, even though it was
a s successful in protecting the plant against aphids nematodes, it
contained 20 per cent less protein. Now this was a totally unpredictable
- You mean to say that genetic engineering, in addition to expressing the
foreign protein, leads to other differences as well?
Yes. Now this is well accepted that there are other unintentional changes.
Consider the human genome project. It is a great project. I'm really very
much for it. But it is totally overclaimed because it will get us about 5
per cent of the total genome be cause the genes are only about that much.
The 95 per cent, which is the junk DNA as they used to say, is not junk.
That's what controls the genome. Now you shoot at it. Now you don't know
where it is it going to land. You have a big parasitic element con taining
the construct going in and it could land anywhere.
So in the two genetically modified lines which were different, what I think
happened was that the lectin gene landed in two different places. The
question is how well you can find out what is happening. This is possible
if you know the whole sequence. No w if you don't know the sequence and you
don't know what exactly is the job of the sequence, then we cannot know. So
all the selection after genetic modification is empirical. Does it grow?
Does it do the job? Does it have enough proteins? Does it do us any harm?
This last bit has never been investigated.
- In your paper you had suggested that there were problems like immune
system malfunction and growth malfunction. What do you think was the
mechanism of action?
In my opinion - it is an opinion and not an established fact - we have
somehow destabilised the potato genome. It is no longer functioning as
previously. Some of those things which make the other parts toxic (for
protection against insects, for example) are now making the tuber toxic.
This is the best we can come up with. Now this toxicity is very important.
For any food the effect can be anywhere along the alimentary canal. Now in
our case as well as in the Flavr Savr tomatoes, which is the only thing the
FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has ever looked from the safety point of
view, and the BT toxin potatoes investigated in Egypt, similar effects seem
to have occurred. The FDA had found that the Flavr Savr tomato had caused
"mild" gastritis rats. T hey scored the effect on a scale of 4. The effect
found was between 2 and 3. Now you can decide whether one can call it mild.
Even though the FDA suppressed this information, it had to come out with
its data because it was sued and I could get the data.
All these three studies found something very similar in the stomach. Some
sort of proliferative response, as if you are stimulating production of
something - usually acid. The FDA never went further down. But we did and
so did the Egyptians. And we found , in fact, that the most useful part of
the digestive tract - the small intestines where 99 per cent of useful
absorption occurs - was also affected. And we took it even further down
into the colon and that was affected too.
- How do you quantitatively determine the effect?
It is a proliferative response of making more of the gut. You take out the
guts, if it weighs x grams in the control, it weighs x + y grams after
feeding with GM food.
- There is mention in the literature over the Internet that Rowett had got
large funds from Monsanto.
Though they did have contracts with Monsanto, I had nothing to do with it.
What was most important is at the time when the potato business blew up,
they were also trying to set up a major research project with Monsanto and
that fell through because Monsa nto got very annoyed with Rowett. I had
done some independent work, not sponsored by any commercial concerns and
that's the reason I could speak because it was publicly funded research.
- What is the mechanism of getting a project approved? Does the director or
the research council approve it before it is put before the funding body?
Because I was a very senior scientist, I negotiated it myself and Rowett
agreed to it mainly because they benefited from it. Though officially I
retired at the age of 60 in 1990, they kept me there because I was very
good at raising money. They liked me very much. This project of ¤1.6
million was actually funded by the Scottish Office Department of
Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries. The programme started in October 1,
1995 and it was supposed to have lasted till October 1, 1998. But it ended
two da ys after my great TV appearance, on August 12.
How could they suspend you just because your results were not to their
In my case it was very simple. Because I had actually retired, I had an
annual renewable contract. The only thing they had to do was not to renew
my contract. But I was suspended by August 12. I had the rest of the year
What reason was given for the suspension?
A senior scientist can be suspended only if he is suspected of cheating.
But they never actually put it in writing. Then they would have been liable
and I could have sued them.
- Were there orders to not to speak to anyone?
Yes. Sure. It was in writing. There is no doubt about it.
- Before your paper actually got published, the Royal Society had
scrutinised the work and had made some adverse remarks.
Now when I was gagged for seven months and there were all these media
reports about me. When the British Parliament ungagged me in order to find
out what was really happening, the Rowett in their desperation put their
internal confidential reports on the ir website. They are no longer there -
they were there for about two and a half months - because they realised it
was counter-productive. These two reports - one was an audit report
compiled by an external three-member audit committee which investigated my
science and the other one was my response to that report. But none of them
was meant for publication. In a sense, without even being published my data
were in the public domain. Those people who wanted to know did get this.
They simply downloaded. Whe n they could no longer access it on the Web,
people were phoning me in desperation and asking me to give it to them. I
said I had never published this and I wanted to publish it properly. You
have to go to Rowett to get it.
The Royal Society came in after Rowett put those reports on the Web. They
simply said that the experiments were badly designed, badly executed and
they had no validity. I don't know how they could say this because they had
only the copies of the internal reports. They did not ask me. The design of
the experiment was not mentioned at all in the reports. The report had
quite literally only factual tables and things like that because that was
prepared for people who already knew what was the design of the experiment.
There was no methodology described in the report. And again I do not know
how they could comment on it. They must have had some special communication
from God to know what sort of methods were used. The Rowett audit committee
was very useful for me. You see the only way they could actually suspend me
was if I had cheated. That's the law. It gave me the opportunity to defend
myself strongly that I had done the experiments. In that respect at least
the Royal Society agreed with them.
- But when the suspension came about, how did the scientific community in
general react? This is a question of ethics of science and scientific
Obviously there was some reaction. But the trouble was I could not tell
them because I was gagged. I was not even allowed to talk to the scientific
community. I did not have any data since they had confiscated my data. It
was only when they wrote the aud it report and I said that I had the right
to respond to it but I had no data. So then they started to give me back
some of my data. In fact, I could recover all my data only because my wife
was the head of the research group and she still stayed there. S he only
took early retirement this year. And she managed to collect back all my
data, the primary data from the laboratory notebooks from the technicians
and all the others.
- What was the nature of reaction of the scientific community?
When they had written the audit report, they had printed only eight copies.
But I had to be given by law a copy. Then I had a copy of my own reply to
it. So I could send these to people. Because my scientific colleagues asked
for it, I sent copies of bot h the reports, to something like 28
international scientists. I acceded to the request because it is not just
my right but my duty. This was a research programme, ¤1.6 million of it. It
was my moral responsibility that they should actually get this. If i t had
any value, it had to be communicated to people. They cannot stop me. I
could not give it in an open address. I could not give a lecture. That was
in my contract. But I could discuss it in confidence with my scientific
There were only two things that I demanded from them. One was that this was
done in confidence because I still wanted to publish them and that they
should give their evaluation. I also had the evaluations of two very senior
international scientists which they combined into a report called the
Memorandum. And that was signed by 24 international scientists. Of these
about five were from Britain. The rest were from Europe. That really again
exploded the whole situation. That was what actually led to the Pa
rliamentary Science and Technology Committee asking me because there were
so many rumours going around that it had to be clarified.
- Once the paper was published in The Lancet, how did the Royal Society
react to it?
They still rubbished it.
- There were letters in The Lancet questioning the methodology.
First, The Lancet paper went through three bouts of peer reviewing.
Normally there is one, in this case, it was looked at by six referees. We
have done some pioneering work. I certainly do understand all the things
that we have not done. You have to look at what we have done. Two years and
seven months is not a long time and you cannot solve all the problems.
- Overall, is it right to say that you were disillusioned with the role of
the scientific community in general?
No, I do not think it is fair to say that because there has always been a
strict division between the establishment and the practising scientists. A
practising scientist has come in support of me. I still have my scientific
reputation intact. I have been contracted by a major scientific publishing
house to write a chapter on the health effects reviewing all that we know
- Has anybody taken up your work from where you left it?
No. We had brought in something radically new. We had a brainstorming
session at the University of Bangalore on Monsanto's BT cotton. That was
very interesting. The Monsanto representative also gave a paper. They say
this usual thing which you also must have heard: "We are continuously
testing". To which I simply say where are the results? They say "there are
results". Till about June this year there is only one paper on BT cotton
and it is a (chemical) compositional study and not a health effects study .
I know they are doing these studies. But why are they not publishing these
studies? Only published results, preferably in peer-reviewed journals, are
accessible to scientists. They must be compelled to publish these studies.
The public should know what they are doing. The question is whether the
data are good enough to publish. I suspect that the data are not good
enough. I do my public duty and get the data. Let the public decide.
- What is your stand on GM foods at present?
I am not against genetic modification. I am against their dismissal of our
rights. They push something which is not properly tested and is potentially
dangerous on to us and give us no choice. They have no right to do that.
They have only the right to do scientific studies. When I started my
experiments I was for GM foods. But after what they did to me, my
sympathies are with people campaigning against GM foods. All I am saying is
adequate studies have not been done. Because the companies when they rele
ased these things never tested them properly, it is our job to see what
potential hazards we can have. It does not mean that, by definition, it
must occur in nature, but it might occur. With irreversible GM technology
this becomes even more important bec ause you have no chance of having a
remedy. That is the main point.
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