SnowBall archive


GE - Shouldn't the truth be what matters

Open door 
Contributors' credentials 
By Ian Mayes 
The Guardian
Saturday February 27, 1999 

A reader asked this week why we failed to declare an interest on the part of
two journalists who have been contributing to our substantial coverage of the
controversy surrounding Dr Pusztai and genetically modified foods. 
One of the journalists was the third-named writer on our front page lead of
February 12 which launched the present story under the headline Food scandal
exposed. He was, the reader claimed "a known Greenpeace activist". He was also
the author of a book "sponsored by Greenpeace", Green Backlash: The Global
Subversion of the Environmental Movement. We'll come to the second journalist
whose background was questioned by this reader in a moment.
The general question raised was why is a newspaper that constantly calls for
openness and accountability in others not franker about the interests of its
own contributors? If a writer is named on a controversial and high profile
story on the front page of the paper, with no qualifying note, then should it
not be safe for the reader to assume that nothing needs to be said about
him? I
described this journalist as the third-named writer on our front page lead. He
was in the company of two vastly experienced investigative reporters who first
appeared in the paper when they exposed the fakery of the Carlton television
programme, The Connection.
We neglected to introduce them to readers and were obliged to do so three days
into the story in the form of an 'Editor's comment', acknowledging their own
work in television and by implication asserting our faith in their work for
Guardian - faith more than justified by subsequent events. Both of them have
expressed their confidence in the third journalist who has worked with them on
the present story.
This journalist is and has been completely frank with the paper. The paper has
been remiss in not forestalling inquiries of this kind by publishing an
introductory note. Not to do so suggests to the healthily sceptical mind that
makes its own inquiries through the Internet that we have something to
hide. We
should have protected ourselves and the journalist in question too.
I have had a long conversation with the journalist. I have seen a very full
The book to which reference has been made was published by Routledge, a highly
respected academic publisher, in September 1996. In the acknowledgments the
following appears: "It should be added, in a sentence that will be repeated
often by the critics of this book, that financial and logistical support for
this project was provided by Greenpeace. This said, Greenpeace had no
control over the content." The author, who describes himself as a freelance
environmental consultant, journalist and writer, has no present financial
arrangement with Greenpeace. We should have acknowledged his book as a
The second journalist whose background was questioned wrote on the environment
pages of our Society section on February 17. He would, readers were told,
separate "fact from fiction in the case of Dr Pusztai and his experiments".
Here again it needs to be said that there have been no complaints of which
I am
aware about the factual content of his article.
We described the writer in a footnote as the author of a forthcoming book on
genetic engineering. We did not say that the author was a friend of Dr Pusztai
and had organised the conference of scientists in support of him at the House
of Commons. We did not say that the author was a prime mover of the Totnes
Genetics Group, which is, putting it mildly, opposed to the spread of GM
He says, very reasonably, that since he was contacted by the paper he assumed
the paper saw no bar to his writing on the subject which the paper itself
proposed. Last August we carried a substantial article by a staff reporter,
largely about this journalist and his work with the Totnes community. He
assumed we knew all we needed to know. He emphasised that, in his words, "No
one employs me. No one pulls my strings." We should have said some of this. We
should have wondered whether, without saying any of this, it was a good
idea to
speak of separating fact from fiction, even though, in my opinion, that is
he did. We all have a great deal to think about in this area.
Two readers contacted me this week to complain that in a front page report on
February 20 about the ER star, George Clooney, we plagiarised a report which
had appeared in the London Evening Standard the previous day. Plagiarised was
the word used by both correspondents.
Alas it turned out to be all too true. The paragraph was lifted, not by the
media correspondent whose name appeared on the piece, but by one of the
on the news desk. It is not (no pun intended) a standard practice.
It is the policy of the Guardian to correct errors as soon as possible. Please
quote the date and page number. Readers may contact the office of the Readers'
Editor by telephoning 0171-239 9589 between 11am and 5pm Monday to Friday.
Surface mail to Readers' Editor, The Guardian, 119, Farringdon Road, London
EC1R 3ER. Fax: 0171 239 9897. e-mail:
and a reply that says it all:

Date: Sat, 27 Feb 1999 16:09:56 -0500
From: John Parfitt <>
Subject: Contributors' credentials (Open Door 27/2/99)
Sender: John Parfitt <>
To: Ian Mayes <>

John and MV (Jill) Parfitt
38 Maple Close ~ Stockwood ~ BRISTOL BS 14 8 HY
Phone 01275 - 838804 ~ Email

February 27th 1999

Ian Mayes, Readers’ Editor
The Guardian, by e-mail:

Dear Mr Mayes

Contributors’ credentials (Open door, 27 February, Saturday Review p.2)

I think you are too ready to castigate your collective self, certainly in
the matter of Luke Anderson’s article. You say there have been no complaints
about its
factual content; and if Jack Cunningham’s statement about the toxicity of the
snowdrop lectin wasn’t deliberate fiction, at least it was an error about
should have consulted someone more knowledgeable before making it in public.
trouble is, I understand there are few real experts in this rather recondite
field; Dr
Nigel Halford of Long Ashton, who is researching genetic modification and
isn’t working for Monsanto, made the same error in an e-mail to me. The
Government has connived in the sacking and silencing of the most obvious
man they could have asked, and probably most of the others are under
contract to biotechnology companies and wouldn't dare say anything at all
to anyone!

In any case, Mr Anderson wasn’t writing a scientific paper complete with
references and footnotes and submitting it for the judgement of twelve
referees; the
intelligent reader surely understands the conditions under which newspapers
And if you are going to commit yourselves to including the qualifications of
writers and reporters and their outside interests, where do you stop? Are you
going to
credit every word of the paper's reporting to a named writer and list his
credentials? Are you going to include a statement in every issue of the
constraints imposed by your editors and circulation figures and the
politics and state of health of the sub-editors? Do you know the political
views of the compilers of the PA reports you quote?

The whole idea is farcical and you should have known better than to make
even a token gesture towards it. What matters in science and science reporting
not who says it but whether the statements are correct and can be proved,
and that's a matter of experiment, not authority. We stopped relying on the
word of Aristotle a long time ago.

Yours sincerely, John Parfitt
and the article in question - 

Hot Potatoes
Luke Anderson, The Guardian, society section environment pages
Wednesday February 17
     Cabinet “enforcer” Jack Cunningham last week responded to widespread
concerns about the implications of Rowett Institute scientist Dr. Arpad
Pusztai’s experiments with genetically engineered potatoes: “It is simply not
sensible,”he said, “ to conclude that if a laboratory experiment with a known
toxin added caused damage to rats, that all other GM potatoes are therefore
     Mr. Cunningham had clearly not looked at the research, nor, it seems, had
many of the other so-called experts who repeated this argument in the past few
     The potatoes concerned were genetically engineered (GE) with a snowdrop
lectin. It is not true that all lectins are toxic. Dr. Pusztai, a leading
authority on lectins, who has published 270 scientific papers, had been
with the snowdrop lectin for seven years and was using it precisely because it
was not thought to be toxic to mammals. Lectins are a family of molecules that
recognise and bind to sugars. The human body, for example, contains many
different ones. 
      Dr. Pusztai’s research is significant because a control group of
which had the snowdrop lectin added to them did not affect the rats in the
way as the potatoes genetically engineered with the snowdrop lectin  even
though the lectin was present in both. 
     This points to the process of genetic engineering itself, the same
used for the genetically engineered foods currently approved for human
consumption in the UK, none of which has been tested to see if it has the same
effects on the immune system or internal organs. 
     Last August it was widely reported that these experiments were not
actually carried out with potatoes genetically engineered with the snowdrop
lectin, but involved potatoes which had a different lectin taken from the
jackbean added to them. 
     This is not the case. Potatoes which had the jackbean lectin added to
were used in the experiments as a control group to test the responsiveness of
the immune system. The jackbean lectin, unlike the snowdrop lectin, is
known to
be toxic to mammals and, for this reason, Dr. Pusztai never seriously
considered its use in food crops. He was unable to clarify this at the time
because he was sacked and threatened with legal action if he spoke out. 
     The snowdrop lectin has already been genetically engineered into a number
of crops like rice and oilseed rape with a view to commercialisation. This
year, cabbages genetically engineered with the snowdrop lectin will be tested
and grown in Holland. Lectins are already used in GE food on sale in Britain.
Many crops, such as maize for example, have been genetically engineered with
the Bt toxin, now understood to be a form of lectin. 
     Genetically engineered Bt crops were grown last year on 7.7 million
hectares world-wide. We are eating this Bt maize now in the UK, and it has not
been tested to see if it has similar effects to the snowdrop lectin. In fact,
talk as it might about the long regulatory process that GM products need to go
through before they are approved, the government does not at present
require GM
foods to undergo thorough feed trials.
    Some twenty-one scientists from twelve countries contacted Dr.Pusztai and
asked to look at the data, the official Audit Report carried out by the
and the ‘Alternative Report’ written by Pusztai himself as the co-ordinator of
the project. These scientists include highly respected pathologists,
geneticists, immunologists, physiologists, and molecular biologists. 
     On Friday they released statements vindicating Pusztai’s original
conclusions and condemning the Rowett for their handling of the issue and for
omitting essential data from the Audit Report.
    Cunningham has said “The scientists who spoke out have not as yet provided
any evidence to our advisory groups, to our scientists. They have been asked
for it now for some considerable time. As soon as they do make their findings
available to us of course we shall examine them quickly and comprehensively.”
    The only scientist to have been contacted by the government is Dr. Stanley
Ewen, a pathologist at the University of Aberdeen Medical school who has been
conducting related research of his own. It is not yet available because it is
about to be published and peer reviewed. But the government has had all the
information which was reviewed by the scientists for three months.
      The Scottish Office acknowledged receipt of the data and both the
last October. Dr.Pusztai has not been approached by the government.
      It seems extraordinary that Dr. Pusztai is still unable to speak due to
the threat of legal action while the rest of the country speaks about him. He
is the best qualified to talk about this research and about the circumstances
of the whole affair, yet he is gagged under a staff code which applies to all
publicly funded research scientists in the country.
      If a renowned expert working in apublicly funded institute can have his
reputation destroyed and his research suppressed, what message does this give
to other scientists in the UK working on research that may be controversial? 

Luke Anderson, the Guardian, Wednesday February 17