GENTECH archive


BBC menu- on Royal Soc. report regarding work by Arpad Pusztai

MY Apologies if the editing is rough - Three separate
BBC reports repeat repeat phrases and comments.

BBC -Tuesday, May 18, 1999 Published at 15:04 GMT 16:04 UK

GM food study was 'flawed'

Dr Arpad Pusztai: Stands by his work

 The experiments suffered from poor design

The research by Dr Arpad Pusztai which triggered the row in the UK over
the safety of genetically-modified (GM) food was flawed, a panel of
leading scientists said on Tuesday. 

Dr Pusztai claimed rats in his Scottish laboratory suffered damage to
their vital organs and immune systems as a result of being fed GM

But the panel of six toxicologists, appointed by the influential Royal
Society, has dismissed the research as irrelevant and inconclusive. It
said the work undertaken by the Hungarian-born scientist was flawed in
many "aspects of design, execution and analysis". 

The panel said: "It would be unjustifiable to draw from it general
conclusions about whether genetically-modified foods are harmful to human
beings or not." 

Scientific protocol

Dr Pusztai lost his job at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen as
result of his claims, which he made on television last summer. 

The institute said he had ignored scientific protocol by going public with
his claims before the research had been peer reviewed and published in a
recognised scientific journal. 

Nonetheless, the claims were the catalyst for the big debate on GM crops
and food now underway in the UK. The row came to a head in February when a
group of 20 scientists held a press conference to declare their support
for Dr Pusztai. 

Summoned before the House of Commons Science and Technology select
committee, Dr Pusztai stood by his claims and said he had no regrets. The
committee, which also published a report on Tuesday on the handling of the
whole affair, said the UK risked losing the benefits of GM technology
unless the government led a rational debate on the issue. 

Snowdrop gene

Dr Pusztai's #1.6m research project, was funded by the Scottish Office. He
modified potatoes to contain a gene from the snowdrop. This produced a
natural insecticide, lectin, in the potatoes. 

When these were fed to the rats over a period of 10 days, Dr Pusztai
claimed some of their organs shrank or did not develop properly, including
the kidney, the spleen and the brain. He said the rats' immune systems
also suffered. 

However, the Royal Society Working Group said: "We found no convincing
evidence of adverse affects from GM potatoes. 

"Where the data seemed to show slight differences between rats fed
predominantly on GM and on non-GM potatoes, the difference were
uninterpretable because of the technical limitations of the experiment and
the incorrect use of statistical tests." 

The panel said the whole episode underlined the importance of scientists
exposing their work to critical appraisal from their colleagues before
releasing information to the public. 

Further research

The working group stressed its report related solely to Dr Pusztai's
research and said other studies on the health effects of GM food would be
needed to resolve the arguments over the safety of the technology.

"There are going to be new foods which must be analysed properly and they
must be done to the highest scientific standards and peer reviewed, and
then published in the public domain," Professor Patrick Bateson, vice
president of the society, said. 

Dr Jack Cunningham, who has taken responsibility for GM foods in the
Cabinet, welcomed the findings of the Royal Society Working Group. A
report by the UK Government's Chief Medical Officer to be published in the
next few days would echo the findings of the panel, he said. 

The pressure group Friends of the Earth, which has campaigned against GM
foods, said the report from the Royal Society did not change its view of
the dangers - both to human health and to the environment - of GM foods.

"There's no concrete proof that they are safe," said its spokesman Tony
Juniper.  "The public are concerned about the use of biotechnology in
agriculture and I think they are behind the British Medical Association
(BMA) which is calling for a pause so that we can properly assess the
upsides and downsides of the application of biotechnology in food." 

The BMA said on Monday that the UK Government should adopt a more cautious
approach to GM foods. It said more research was needed into the
environmental, agricultural and health impacts of the technology. 

[But in a separate news item, the BBC reports that the UK government has
rejected the BMA's position (MichaelP) 


BBC Tuesday, May 18, 1999 Published at 17:54 GMT 18:54 UK

Pusztai attacks his critics

Dr Pusztai: The RS didn't look at the most recent data

Dr Pusztai responds to the Royal Society criticism

Dr Arpad Pusztai, the scientist at the centre of the row over the safety
of genetically-modified (GM) foods, says he has been unfairly treated by a
Royal Society (RS) review of his research.  


Dr Pusztai sparked public alarm when he claimed on television last summer
that rats in his laboratory fed on GM potatoes had suffered damage to
their internal organs and their immune systems.

Food under the microscope 

In a report published on Tuesday, the society dismissed his research as
irrelevant and inconclusive. A panel of six un-named toxicologists said
his experiments were flawed in many "aspects of design, execution and

But Dr Pusztai said in a statement to the BBC that the panel had failed to
look at his most recent data and had not taken up an offer to discuss his

Insufficient time

"Unfortunately the RS felt that speed was of the essence and did not
accept my offer of co-operation," he said. The panel did not have
sufficient time to consider all of the issues involved, he claimed. 

"I feel considerable sadness that we have all missed a great opportunity
to find ways to move forward on this important issue. It is my belief that
most people find tampering with the genetic make-up of our basic
foodstuffs a cause for concern, given the perceived lack of proper and
exhaustive biological testing. 

"It is essential that GM foods are made as safe as can be and I reiterate
my concerns about the lack of stringency in their testing at present." 

Dr Pusztai received support from Professor Ian Pryme, from the Department
of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Bergen in

Further consideration

He was one of 20 scientists in February who made public their unhappiness
with the way Dr Pusztai has been treated. Dr Pusztai was removed from his
post at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen shortly after he went
public with his claims. 

Professor Pryme said he was "very surprised and disappointed" at the Royal
Society report. He pointed out that Dr Pusztai had always said his results
were preliminary, adding that they raised questions about
genetically-modified foods which needed further consideration. 

Professor Pryme said Dr Pusztai was willing to discuss these issues but no
one had accepted the challenge of doing so. 

"Why this great reluctance to sit down and have a good scientific
discussion?" asked Professor Pryme. "I think it's just a big cover up -
it's been a big cover up since the start of the whole proceedings." 


BBC Tuesday, May 18, 1999 Published at 18:36 GMT 19:36 UK

GM potatoes and all that

"Everyone is a loser in this sorry affair" 

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

So Dr Arpad Pusztai's poor rats do not throw a dark shadow over all
research into genetically-modified (GM) crops and foods. It is a
conclusion that most scientists had expected, but whether it reassures the
public about the safety of GM crops remains to be seen. 

Food under the microscope Everyone is a loser in this sorry affair. The
research institute concerned appeared harsh and dismissive in its
treatment of Dr Arpad Pusztai. Dr Pusztai himself had his scientific
reputation tarnished, and parts of the media have not come out of it well,
having produced ill-informed, scare-mongering reports of the research in

The green lobby had clearly wanted a fight with scientists over GM foods.
And they got it, winning round one.

The pressure groups were delighted with the reaction they received in
February after they organised a press conference attended by 20 scientists
to highlight what they saw as the dangerous consequences of Dr Pusztai's

Role of news organisations

The news organisations bought it - the conference got headline coverage
and a moral panic was born. But few in the media enquired into the
qualifications of these scientists who were hardly world-class.

Many of those scientists must be feeling a little uncomfortable now after
the Royal Society's findings.

The distinguished organisation's report says that Dr Pusztai's research
was flawed and that it was unjustifiable to draw any sweeping and damning
conclusions about GM foods from his work, which was released to the public
at far too early a stage.

So what are the lessons here?

Peer review

The Royal Society says that scientists working in such delicate areas
should get feedback and criticism from their colleagues so that they are
sure of their results before they release them to the media.

This is a strategy that may work in less contentious areas of research but
as far as GM foods are concerned we can be sure that Dr Pusztai's work
will not be the last controversial study to be picked up early and
exaggerated by the media.

This is the inevitable consequence of the "What do we fear? Who is to
blame?" approach to science that some in the media hold.

Many reports look at things from the perspective of the consumer, not
enough bother to acknowledge the work of scientists whose endeavours have
ensured there is more to buy at the supermarket than just mangy apples and
products made from fungus-ridden, low-grade wheat.

It is to be hoped that the Royal Society's verdict on the Pusztai affair
will bring some sensible debate to the GM issue.


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