A Lesson From Overseas
When Susan answered the door, she was startled to see several reporters standing in front of her. More were running from their cars in her direction and she could see other cars and TV news vans parking along her street.
“But you all know that we can’t speak about what happened. We would be sued and—”
“It’s OK now,” the reporter from Channel Four Television interrupted, waving a paper in front of her. “They’ve released your husband.
He can talk to us.”
Susan took the paper.
“Arpad, come here,” she called to her husband.
Arpad Pusztai (pronounced: Are-pod Poos-tie), a distinguished looking man in his late sixties, was already on his way. As his wife showed him the document, the reporters slipped past them into the house. But Arpad didn’t notice; he was staring at the paper his wife had just handed him.
He recognized the letterhead at once—The Rowett Institute, Aberdeen, Scotland. It was one of the world’s leading nutritional institutes and his employer for the previous thirty-five years—until his sudden suspension seven months ago. And there it was, clearly spelled out. They had releasedtheir gag order. He could speak.
The document was dated that same day, February 16, 1999. In fact, less than twenty minutes before, thirty reporters had sat in the Rowett Institute press conference listening to its director, Professor Phillip James, casually mention that the restrictions on Dr. Pusztai’s speaking to the press had been lifted. Before James had finished his sentence, the reporters leaped for the door. They jumped into their cars and headed straight to the Pusztai’s house on Ashley Park North, an address most were familiar with, having virtually camped out there seven months earlier. Now those thirty reporters, with TV cameras and tape recorders, were piled into the Pusztai’s living room.
Arpad Pusztai read the document—twice. As he looked up, the reporters started asking him questions all at once. He smiled, and breathed more easily than he had in a long time. He had all but given up hope. Now he finally had the chance to share what he knew about the dangers of genetically engineered foods.
The story of Arpad Pusztai made headlines throughout Europe for months, alerting readers to some of the serious health risks of genetically modified (GM) foods. It was barely mentioned, however, in the U.S. press; the media watchdog group Project Censored described it as one of the ten most underreported events of the year. In fact, major U.S. media avoided almost any discussion of the controversy over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) until May 1999. But that was all about saving the monarch butterfly from GM corn pollen, not about human food safety.
It wasn’t until the massive food recall prompted by StarLink®* corn that Americans were even alerted to the fact that they were eating GM foods everyday. Moreover, the American press was forced to question whether GM foods were safe. Up until then, the media had portrayed European resistance to America’s GM crops as unscientific anti-Americanism. But as the story of Arpad Pusztai reveals, the European anti-GMO sentiment had been fueled, in part, by far greater health risks than the scattered allergic reactions attributed to StarLink.
* StarLink® is a registered trademark of Aventis.
Arpad Pusztai was more than good at his work. In other professions, they would call him great. But in the conservative and exacting world of experimental biology, the accolade given was “thorough.” Pusztai’s thoroughness over fifty years had put him at the top of his field. He had published nearly 300 scientific articles, authored or edited twelve books, and regularly collaborated with other leading researchers around the globe.
In 1995, Arpad, his wife Susan—also a distinguished senior scientist— and colleagues at the Rowett Institute, Scottish Crop Research Institute, and University of Durham School of Biology were awarded a £1.6 million research grant by the Scottish Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Department. Selected over twenty-seven other contenders, this consortiumof scientists, with Arpad Pusztai as their coordinator, was chosen to createa model for testing genetically modified (GM) foods, verifying that they were safe to eat. Their testing methods were to become the standard usedin Britain and likely adopted throughout the European Union.
At the time of the grant, no research had yet been published on the safety of GM foods, and the world’s scientific community had plenty of questions and concerns. Pusztai and his team, therefore, were charged with designing a testing regimen that would create confidence and, of course, be thorough.
The team’s research had been underway for about two years when, in April 1998, the Rowett Institute’s director, Professor Phillip James, walked into Pusztai’s office and placed a sizable stack of documents on his desk. He called in Susan from the adjoining office.
He told the Pusztais that ministers from throughout Europe were about to meet in Brussels to cast their votes regarding regulation of genetically engineered foods. The documents were submissions from biotech companies seeking approval of their own varieties of GM soy, corn, and tomatoes. The British Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) was attending the conference and needed a scientific basis with which to recommend them.
Professor James was one of twelve scientists who comprised the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP), which was responsible for evaluating GM foods for sale in Britain. James was in charge of the nutritional analysis.
Pusztai looked at the stack of papers. There were about six or seven folders, each representing a different request for approval—nearly 700 pages in all. Pusztai knew that James and the other eleven ACNFP members would never actually read these documents themselves. They were extremely busy men. Professor James, for example, served on about a dozen such committees and spoke regularly at international conferences. He was away from the institute so often, Pusztai would frequently greet him in the halls with, “Hello stranger.” Besides, James and most of the others were not active scientists. They were commit-teemen—involved in raising money, setting policy, and looking after the politics of science. Arpad and Susan, on the other hand, had already been working for more than two years on designing the methods for approving GM foods. And as part of their grant, they were conducting tests on a new variety of genetically engineered potatoes that the Scottish Ministry had hopes of commercializing. They didn’t just know the theory; they had practical experience. The Pusztais were therefore among the most qualified scientists in the world to read and evaluate the stack James had just handed to them.
“How soon does the minister need his recommendations?” asked Pusztai. “Two and a half hours,” said James.
Arpad and Susan quickly got to work. They divided the submissions and focused right in on the most substantial evidence in the documents—the research design and the data.
As Arpad Pusztai looked first at one submission, and then another, he was flabbergasted.
“As a scientist, I was really shocked,” Pusztai said. “This was the first time I realized what flimsy evidence was being presented to the committee. There was missing data, poor research design, and very superficial tests indeed. Theirs was a very unconvincing case. And some of the work was really very poorly done. I want to impress on you, it was a real shock.”
Whereas Arpad and Susan had originally thought that two and a half hours would be enough only to give the minister preliminary recommendations onthe submissions, it turned out to be more than enough time to give him an answer with confidence. The research presented was in no way adequate to demonstrate that the genetically modified foods described were safe for
human or animal consumption. All of them failed to produce sufficient evidence. Pusztai made the phone call.
“I told the minister, on the basis of what we had seen so far, even with just two and a half hours of review, I advised him to be extremely cautious and not accept it,” said Pusztai. “And then he said something on the phone which I found really amazing: ‘I don’t know why you are telling me this, Professor James has already accepted it.’”
Pusztai was stunned. It turned out that not only had the committee approved the GM food submissions based on flimsy evidence, the approvals had taken place two years earlier—James had only wanted some scientific assurances for the minister to use. And neither Pusztai, nor other scientists working in the field, or the more than 58 million people of the UK knew that they were already eating GM tomatoes, soy and corn— and had been for almost two years. The approvals had all been done underthe cloak of secrecy.
The incident was a turning point for Pusztai. Up until then, he had been confident that the scientific and regulatory community would carefully and thoroughly scrutinize this new technology. But now he was concerned. Very concerned.
After the call, Pusztai talked to Professor James and told him why he thought the committee’s approval of the foods was a mistake. He said that there were critical pieces of evidence missing and described how the model that his team had developed with their own research was many, many times more rigorous and detailed than what was presented by the biotech companies. Already he was seeing some evidence of dangers in the potatoes he was studying that would not have been picked up in the superficial research done on GM tomatoes, corn, and soy.
Professor James was not defensive of the committee’s decision. In fact, he was supportive of Pusztai’s conclusions, even enthusiastic. If scientists at his institute had created a better way to test GM foods, he reasoned, this could result in very lucrative contracts—millions of pounds pouring in.
“He thought it was a good opportunity to get more funds for scientific research,” said Pusztai. “You understand, we are all strapped for cash, all academics. He thought that we should carry on with this research and come up with really great things.”
Pusztai, on the other hand, was not enthusiastic. He had serious concerns about the untested GM tomatoes, soy, and corn being sold in grocery stores. This was compounded by the fact that he knew that soy, corn, and their derivatives are found in about 70 percent of all processed foods.
As Pusztai continued his research, his concerns about GM food intensified.
Pusztai’s consortium of scientists was altering the DNA of a potato so that it would do something no potato had ever done before. It was to produce its own pesticide, a lectin, normally found in the snowdrop plant that protects it from aphids and other insects. The industry’s goal was to mass produce this combination potato/insecticide, relieving farmers of the burden of having to spray the fields themselves. As part of the research, Pusztai and the team at the Rowett were to test the potato’s effects on the health of rats.
Genetically modified potatoes were already being sold and consumed in the United States. Their DNA was spliced with a gene from a soil bacterium similar to Bacillus anthrax. The added gene caused the potatoes to create their own pesticide called Bacillus thuringiensis toxin or Bt. If insects had the misfortune to eat one of these genetically modified wonders, the Bt, which was manufactured by every cell of the plant, quickly killed the insect. The same Bt-creating genes have also been placed into the DNA of corn and cottonseed, also sold and consumed in the United States, and all officially classified as pesticides by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. However, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had made it clear that in their view, genetically modified crops were assumed to be safe and to offer similar nutritional value as their natural counterparts. This assumption is the cornerstone in U.S. policy, allowing millions of acres of GM food to be planted, sold, and eaten without prior safety testing.
Pusztai’s team engineered a potato plant to create a different pesticide—a lectin, a natural insecticidal poison that some plants produce to ward off insects. Arpad Pusztai had spent nearly seven years researching this lectin’s properties. He was the world’s expert on lectins and he knew this particular lectin was safe for humans to eat. In fact, in one of his published studies, he fed rats the equivalent of 800 times the amount of lectins that the GM potatoes were engineered to produce, with no apparent damage. So when he fed the rats his lectin-producing potatoes, Pusztai didn’t expect any problems.
What Pusztai and his team found was quite a shock. First, the nutritional content of some GM potatoes were considerably different from their non- GM parent lines, even though they were grown in identical conditions. One GM potato line, for example, contained 20 percent less protein than its own parent line. Second, even the nutritional content of sibling GM potatoes, offspring of the same parent grown in identical conditions, was significantly different.
If Pusztai’s results were limited to just these facts, they alone might have undermined the entire regulatory process of GM foods. FDA policy was based on the assumption that genetically modified foods were stable. Nutrient levels were not supposed to vary.
But these findings were completely eclipsed by Pusztai’s other, more disturbing discoveries. He found that rats which were fed GM potatoes suffered damaed immune sstems. Their white blood cells resonded much more sluggishly than those fed a non-GM diet, leaving them more vulnerable to infection and disease. Organs related to the immune system, the thymus and spleen, showed some damage as well.
Compared to rats fed a non-GM control diet, some of the GM-fed rats had smaller, less developed brains, livers, and testicles. Other rats had enlarged tissues, including the pancreas and intestines. Some showed partial atrophy of the liver. What’s more, significant structural changes and a proliferation of cells in the stomach and intestines of GM-fed rats may have signaled an increased potential for cancer.
The rats developed these serious health effects after only ten days.
Some of these changes persisted after 110 days, a time period corre sponding to about 10 years of human life.
In preparing the diet, Pusztai had been characteristically thorough.
Comparisons had been made between rats fed GM potatoes, natural potatoes, and natural potatoes spiked with the same amount of pure lectin as found in the GM potato. The researchers varied the potato preparation, using raw, boiled, and baked potatoes, and varied their amounts in the diet. They also varied the total protein content of the diets and tested all these variations over both 10-day and 110-day periods. These testing protocols had all been thoroughly scrutinized and approved in advance by the government’s funding office and were consistent with several published studies.
In the end only the rats that ate the GM potatoes suffered the serious negative effects. From the evidence, it was clear that the lectins were not the major cause of the health damage. Rather, there was some effect fromthe process of genetic engineering itself that caused the damaged organs and immune dysfunction of the adolescent rats. “We used exactly the samemethods of genetic engineering as used by the food companies,” says Pusztai.
Pusztai knew that his results strongly suggested that the GM foods already approved and being eaten by hundreds of millions of people every day might be creating similar health problems in people, especially in children.
Pusztai was in a terrible bind. He knew that if his potatoes had been subjected to the same superficial studies and approval process that the GM tomatoes, soy, and corn had, they too would have flown through the ACNFP approval process without a hitch. They would have ended up on supermarket shelves and in frying pans worldwide.
And Pusztai knew that the superficial research that had been done on the GM tomatoes, soy, and corn would not have picked up the types of serious problems he encountered. Furthermore, if human beings developed problems similar to his rats, it could take years to appear and it would be highly unlikely for anyone to suspect GM foods as the cause.
“I had facts that indicated to me there were serious problems with transgenic food,” said Pusztai. “It can take two to three years to get science papers published and these foods were already on the shelves without rigorous biological testing similar to that of our GM potato work.” If he waited that long, he thought, who knows what kind of serious damage might be inflicted on unsuspecting consumers.
As Arpad Pusztai contemplated these ramifications and compiled his findings for publication, he was approached by the British TV show “World in Action.” They were anxious to air a scientist’s opinion on the safety of genetically modified foods and were particularly keen to hear from Pusztai. They knew that his team was the only one in the world conducting thorough feeding trials on GM foods.
Their request brought Pusztai’s conflict to a head. The traditional code of practice of a scientist dictates that he remain silent about his findings until he can present them at a conference or via publication.
But his codes of ethics dictated that he warn the public immediately about his findings.
Pusztai was also encouraged to speak out by the fact that the research was publicly funded. “The British taxpayer has spent 1.6 million pounds for this Rowett-based research. [They] have paid for it,” he said. He also knew that the interview would only provide time for a two- to three-minute summary. It would therefore not preempt the more detailed disclosure that would come with publication.
He sought the permission of James, who was encouraging. They both agreed, however, that Pusztai should not be forthcoming with the details of the data, as that would be more appropriately debuted in his research paper. James had the Rowett Institute’s public relations officer join Pusztai at the studio for the taping.
Pusztai’s interview lasted about two hours and was eventually edited for a 150-second broadcast. The final cut included Pusztai saying that the effect of the experimental GM potatoes on rats “was slight growth retardation andan effect on the immune system. One of the genetically modified potatoes, after 110 days, made rats less responsive to immune effects.”
Asked if he would eat GM foods himself, he said, “If I had the choice I would certainly not eat it till I see at least comparable experimental evidence which we are producing for our genetically modified potatoes. I actually believe that this technology can be made to work for us. And if genetically modified food will be shown to be safe then we have really done a great service to all our fellow citizens. And I very strongly believe in this, and that’s one of the main reasons why I demand to tighten up the rules, tighten up the standards.”
He added, “We are assured that: ‘This is absolutely safe. We can eat it all the time. We must eat it all the time. There is no conceivable harm which can come to us.’ But, as a scientist looking at it, actively working on the field, I find that it is very, very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs. We have to find the guinea pigs in the laboratory.”
Pusztai was aware that his comments would cause a stir, but he never imagined the magnitude of the controversy that it created.
Eruption in the Media
In contrast to the nearly complete lack of information onGMOs in the United States, the controversy was already running at a low boil in the UK. Monsanto Corporation, the biotech giant, was running full-page advertisements in newspapers touting the benefits of GM foods and attempting to enlist a skeptical public. Major newspapers, on the other hand, were running articles and editorials accusing these ads of misleading the public with false statements. Scientists were quoted in the papers expressing doubts about the foods’ safety. And the public was already reeling from the impact of mad cow disease, blamed for having killed several people in spite of the government’s earlier assurances of safety. Onto this fertile field dropped Pusztai’s bombshell.
On Sunday, August 9, 1998, the day before the airing of “World in Action,” the station broadcast advertisements of the interview, highlighting some of Pusztai’s points and urging listeners to tune in the next day. At midnight, the station sent a news release throughout the British press. Some reporters started calling immediately, keeping Pusztai up until the early hours.
When Pusztai arrived at work, “the Institute was already bombarded with all sorts of questions from the press and from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in London, who hadn’t been told about the interview,” says Pusztai.
But by late morning, the phones fell silent. Pusztai initially figured that the flurry was over, and he could go back to his work. “I found out later that I was sort of made to shut up by eleven in the morning,” recalls Pusztai. “The director took over everything, all the PR work, by switching my phone in my office to his office and intercepting faxes and emails; so much so that even our son couldn’t get in touch with us.”
Professor James, in the meantime, was enjoying unprecedented popularity. “He was on TV every ten minutes or so. He gave his interpretation of how great this work was—a huge advance in science.”
Pusztai recalls, “He tried to milk every drop of that publicity.” Professor James even issued a press release that morning about the team’s research, without discussing it or checking it with Pusztai. For further information, it said, contact Dr. Phillip James.
“He thought this was a great thing and he’s going to be world famous for it,”said Pusztai.
James had reason to have big aspirations. Tony Blair, the British prime minister, had asked James to draw up the blueprint for a new Food Standards Agency—a kind of British version of the U.S. FDA, only dealing exclusively with food. This was to be a prestigious agency, staffed by 3,000 civil servants. And everyone assumed that Professor Phillip James, Ph.D.was to be its first director—a significant political appointment.
Now it appeared that James was intent on adding another feather to his cap and perhaps impressing his future boss Tony Blair. So James commandeered the publicity and started giving out the information about the potato research himself.
The problem was—he was wrong. The information he gave to the press, wrote in the release, and spoke about on TV was incorrect.
He hadn’t bothered to check his facts with Pusztai or any member of his team.
Most critical among his mistakes was the type of lectin the research team had used. They had engineered a potato to produce a lectin from the snowdrop plant, called GNA, known to be completely harmless to rats and humans. The lectin James described, however, was “concanavalin A”—a well-known toxic immune suppressant.
His mistake completely misled the public. If the rats were damaged by an experimental potato that was genetically engineered to produce a known toxin, so what? Press reports acknowledged that’s what toxins do—so what’s the problem? The potato was not on the grocery shelves and never would be.
But Pusztai’s lectin was harmless. James’ mistake, therefore, sidesteppedthe bigger issue—the damage to the rats did not come from the lectin, but apparently from the same process of genetic engineering that is used to create the GM food everyone was already eating.
By Monday afternoon, Arpad and Susan figured out that their phones had been re-routed so James could handle the press himself.
And by that evening’s broadcast, they realized that James had been feeding the press the wrong story. On Tuesday the scientists made several attempts to get to James, to tell him he was giving out the wrong information to the press. James blocked each attempt. The Pusztais couldn’t get to James and no one could get to the Pusztais.
“Our frustration grew with every hour,” recounts Pusztai. “All the time he was giving out these press releases and appearing on TV and we could see that he was talking a lot of rubbish. So my wife decided to stop this stupid false misinformation.” Susan, with help from the team, wrote down a summary of the actual facts about the research. She limited it to two pages. “We knew if it was a lengthy document he would never read it,” says Pusztai.
They were finally able to get a meeting with James at 3 pm on Tuesday. Even though James did not invite Arpad to the meeting, Arpad went along with Susan, their research immunologist, the division head, and the deputy director to James’ office. Susan handed James the summary.
Everyone became silent as James read the two pages. Pusztai watched the despair surface in James’ face when he realized that he had been giving out the wrong information. As James finished the summary, he said softly, “This is the worst day of my life.”
“At that point we all agreed that our deputy director, who was very good with words, would make up a much shorter version to be press released on the next morning, so that the controversy would be on a strong scientific foundation. This is how we parted company with Professor James. We were to reconvene the next morning on the twelfth,” Pusztai reported.
The next day the Pusztais came to work encouraged that the truth would finally get out. When they were called to a meeting, Arpad Pusztai expected to be handed the corrected release for review. But when he entered the room, the whole top management was assembled.
Professor James spoke in a manner that was quite different from that of the previous day. In fact, the Pusztais had never heard him speak that way before.
“He said Iwas to be suspended, and they will have an audit of the whole business, and then I shall be made to retire,” recounts Pusztai.
“And my retiring wasn’t dependent on what the audit found.”
The Institute blocked the team’s computers and confiscated all research notes, data, and everything related to the GMO experiments.
The research was immediately stopped and the team dismantled.
“This was such an abrupt change in his attitude,” says Pusztai. “We part company before five o’clock in the afternoon on Tuesday and on Wednesday morning out of the blue Iwas suspended. This was coming from someone who for two days was milking every ounce of the PR effort, which appeared at the time to be beneficial for him and for the Institute.
Something extremely serious must have happened to explain his very sudden and almost 180 degree turn in his opinion and pronouncements.”
Pusztai is not sure what prompted this change in Professor James, but he has some ideas. “It was most likely that he had some political interference.” In his interviews and releases during the previous two days, James was applauding research that was ultimately critical of the way GM foods on the shelves had been tested. He was also suggesting that more research needed to be conducted (presumably at his Rowett Institute). But, Pusztai points out, “It’s no secret that the British Government, particularly
Tony Blair, is a supporter of the biotech industry.” Pusztai’s theory was that James—Blair’s primary candidate to head up a major government office —“suddenly blew it. Because for two days he was advocating something which was not the government’s policy.”
“There are some reports which are not verified,” says Pusztai, “that there were two telephone calls late in the afternoon on the eleventh from Downing Street, from the prime minister’s office,” forwarded through the Institute’s receptionist. (According to the British press, Tony Blair himself had been the recipient of telephone calls from Bill Clinton, who was leaningon Blair to increase support for GM foods.)
Whether it was a directive from the prime minister or some other jolt that prompted James’ about-face, suspending Pusztai was clearly an opportunity for James to protect his credibility. If he had released the corrected report and admitted he was giving out false information, his reputation would have been seriously damaged.
Arrows Fly, No Defense
The press was ravenous. “The newspaper men and reporters were almost bedding down on the drive at home,” says Pusztai. “I couldn’t move out of the house because we were besieged by reporters. The German TV gave hourly updates on the events. I was absolutely blown over by the whole business. I knew that what I did say was not easily accepted. But the reaction to it was absolutely overwhelming.”
But soon, Pusztai received two threatening letters from Professor James, dated August 18 and 20, which ultimately stopped the press from appearing at the Pusztais’ door. “The director invoked my contract which had a prohibition put on me.” Pusztai explained that he “could not say anything to anyone without the written permission of the Director.”
Pusztai was well aware of the large sums of money that came to the Institute in the form of grants and research contracts. If James claimed that the Rowett Institute lost a project due to Pusztai’s statements, he could sue Pusztai for a substantial amount.
“If I say anything to any media person or in fact anybody, Iwould be taken to court and the Institute would ask for substantial damages from me because I acted against their interest.”
“Now I wasn’t a very young man,” says Pusztai. “Iwas at the end of my career. Iwas suspended. I had some savings and my house, which I had worked for all my life. So I wasn’t a rich man, and you know how expensive it is to get into litigation. I decided to shut up.” His wife, also under contract with the Rowett Institute, was likewise silenced.
With both Pusztais under its gag order, the Institute’s PR machine really got rolling. They put out a series of press statements, sometimes contradicting each other, but all designed to discredit Pusztai and his results.
The formal reason given for Dr. Pusztai’s suspension was that he had publicly announced the results of his research before they had been reviewed by other scientists, as required by the Rowett Institute. The press was not informed, however, that Director James had enthusiasti-cally givenhis permission for Pusztai to speak with the press and even called his home after the show to express congratulations. Furthermore, the taping of the show had taken place seven weeks before it aired. If the director had had any second thoughts about airing the show, he had seven weeks to cancel it.
Press statements issued by the Rowett Institute said that results reported by Dr. Pusztai were misleading because he had mixed up the results of different studies. Other statements tried to paint a picture of him as a senile and confused old man or as “muddled,” and “on the verge of collapse.” James described Pusztai as “absolutely mortified. He is holding his hands up and is apologizing.”
Still other statements asserted that the research had not been done on GM potatoes at all, but on a mixture of natural potatoes and lectin.
They also indicated that the quality of Dr. Pusztai’s research was deficient and claimed that the GM potatoes were not intended to be used as food.
A November article in the Institute’s publication by the chief executive of the Institute of Biology went even further. He alleged that Pusztai had fabricated findings, “a view he appears to have come to,” exclaims Pusztai, “wholly in the absence of seeing any of my working data.”
“The Institute thought they could get away with blue murder because they knew I could not reply,” says Pusztai. The unchallenged lies about his “mistakes” were sent all over the world and people were led to believe that there was no scientific basis for his warning about GM foods. The Times wrote an article “Scientist’s Potato Alert Was False, Laboratory Admits.” Another headline from the Scottish Daily Record and Sunday Mail read, “Doctor’s Monster Mistake.” Pusztai’s credibility and reputation were ruined.
James did not act alone. He handpicked a panel of scientists to conduct an audit of Pusztai’s work. It was quite telling that the scientists he selectedwere not working nutritionists. “That a nutritional institute should select non nutritionists to do this audit is quite unbe-lievable,” says Pusztai. Moreover, the panel was not given the complete data, did their entire review in less than a day, and didn’t consult with Pusztai at all.
A summary of their audit report was released onOctober 28. It claimed that there were important deficiencies in Pusztai’s study. The full audit report, however, was never publicly released. To prevent leaks, only ten copies were printed. Even the chairman of the panel that produced the report was not given a copy.
Throughout this period, Pusztai received inquiries from senior scientists around Europe. They had collaborated with him for years and were not fooled by reports of malpractice and senility. They wanted to know the truth. With the threat of a lawsuit by the Rowett over his head, however, Pusztai couldn’t tell them what he knew.
But then Pusztai discovered a legal loophole. The contract with the Rowett Institute did not bar him from sharing unpublished research with other scientists. Exchange of information is a long established tradition in scientific circles. Pusztai could, in theory, share his data with these top scientists, provided that it wasn’t published.
But a major hurdle remained. “They had confiscated our data,” says Pusztai. “I could not use my recollection because science is very precise.
If I say something based on my recollection which later turns out not to be absolutely correct, Iwould truly be destroyed.”
In late November he got a break. In response to what had become an enormous media controversy, the British Parliament asked James to send his evidence against Pusztai for evaluation and to testify before a House of Lords committee. James realized that Pusztai would likely be asked to defend himself and would need his data. James also remembered that the Institute’s contract with employees stipulated that when an audit takes place, the “accused” has a legal right to reply to the findings of the audit—again with data in hand. The Institute begrudg-ingly sent Pusztai some, but not all, of his confiscated data.
Pusztai could now respond to his fellow scientists’ requests. He sent themthe research design and findings, a copy of the Rowett’s audit report and his response to it. The data was compelling. So much so that twenty-three of these scientists from thirteen countries chose to form their own independent panel to conduct a formal peer review and send their report tothe British Parliament.
The panel analyzed Pusztai’s data and the Rowett’s report. The twenty three scientists released a memorandum on February 12, 1999, charging that the Rowett’s report seemed to select and interpret only those results that would disprove Pusztai’s conclusions, while selectively ignoring more relevant data. In spite of this bias, the independent panel said the data analyzed in the audit report nevertheless “showed very clearly that the transgenic GNA-potato had significant effects on immune function and this alone is sufficient to vindicate entirely Dr.Pusztai’s statements.” They further stated that the data from the audit report combined with Dr. Pusztai’s material would in fact be suitable for publication in a peer reviewed journal. The report stated that “although some of the results are preliminary, they are sufficient to exonerate Dr. Pusztai by showing that the consumption of [GM]-potatoes by rats led to significant differences in organ weight and depression of lymphocyte [immune] responsiveness compared to controls.”
The panel of scientists also called for a moratorium on the sale of genetically modified crops.
The controversy was re-ignited in full force. A report published two days later exposed the fact that Monsanto had given the Rowett Institute £140,000 before the blow-up, adding even more fuel to the media’s fire.
Under the intense pressure of a highly publicized scandal, Parliament invited Pusztai to present evidence before the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons. Parliament’s request overrode the Rowett contract—James was forced to release the gag order. That was February 16; the day the Pusztais unexpectedly hosted thirty members of the press in their living room.
The Battle for Public Opinion
While the European media were hungry for controversial GM food stories, major press in the U.S. had presented them only a couple of times. On October 25, 1998, a cover story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine introduced the pesticide-producing Bt potato and how it slipped through the FDA and EPA bureaucracies into the market without thorough safety testing. A major news network ran a GM food story the next week, but then there was nothing for months.
In the UK and parts of Western Europe, however, substantial reporting had led to growing public contempt of GM foods. A leaked October 1998 report prepared by pollster Stan Greenberg for Monsanto said, “The latest survey shows an ongoing collapse of public support for biotechnology and GM foods.” Greenberg, who had also conducted opinion polls for President Clinton, Tony Blair, and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, wrote, “At each point in this project, we keep thinking that we have had the low point and that public opinion will stabilize, but we apparently have not reached that point. . . . Negative feelings have risen from 38 percent a year ago to 44 percent in May to 51 percent today. A third of the public is now extremely negative, up 20 percent.” When the press finally heard the truth about the potato research directly from Pusztai, their reports were destined to push that figure even higher.
The media went wild. That third week in February 1999, more than 1,900 column inches were published about genetic engineering. An editorial declared, “Within a single week the specter of a food scare has become a full scale war.” During the month of February, the British press spewed out more than 700 articles onGMOs. A columnist in New Statesman wrote, “The GM controversy has divided society into two warring blocs. All those who see genetically modified food as a scary prospect —‘Frankenstein foods’—are pitted against the defenders.”
Among the defenders was the Royal Society, an organization that included many scientists who viewed the attack onGM foods as a threat to their own continued funding and livelihood. On February 23, nineteen fellows of the Society published a letter in The Daily Telegraph and the Guardian criticizing researchers who “triggered the GM food crisis by publicizing findings that had not been subjected to peer review.”
Two weeks later, when Pusztai and James testified before the House of Commons Committee, James also denounced Pusztai for discussing unpublished research. But one Member of Parliament, Dr.Williams, challenged him:
“There is a real problem for us here, and that is that you say that it is not right to discuss unpublished work; as I understand, all of the evidence taken by the advisory committee [that approves GM foods for human consumption] comes from the commercial companies, all of that is unpublished. This is not democratic, is it? We cannot discuss the evidence because it is not published; there is no published evidence. So we leave it completely to the advisory committee and its good members to take all of these decisions on our behalf, where all of the evidence comes, simply, in good faith, from the commercial companies? There is a hollow democratic deficit here, is there not?” The MP added, “how is the general public out there to decide on the safety of GM foods when nothing is published on the safety of GM foods?”
Although the ruling party in Parliament was quite pro-GMO, members of the Committee also confronted James for issuing public statements about research he knew nothing about and for incorrectly describing the lectin used in the research. Pusztai was further redeemed when James admittedthat he had never suspected Pusztai of any wrongdoing or fraud.
In April 1999, the British food industry bowed to consumer pressure. Unilever, England’s biggest food manufacturer, announced it would remove GM ingredients from its products sold in Europe. “The announcement started a weeklong stampede by leading companies, all household names,” reported the Independent. Nestlé made its announcement the next day, as did the major supermarket chains includingTesco, Sainsbury, Safeway, Asda, and Somerfield. McDonalds and Burger King also committed to remove GM soy and corn from their ingredients in European stores. In the end, no major retailer was left standing in the GMO camp. They would eventually spend millions sourcing new supplies of non-GM corn, soy, and their derivatives, or re-formulating their recipes, removing corn and soy products altogether.
(The European Union passed a law requiring foods that contain ingredients with more than 1 percent GM content to be labeled. Most European producers have eliminated GM ingredients in order to avoid the label. On July 2, 2003, the European Parliament voted to lower the labelingthreshold to .9 percent.)
Science in the Corporate Interest
With billions at stake, the biotech industry was desperate to contain the anti-GM food rebellion. They needed to do something and fast. But the corporations, particularly Monsanto, couldn’t appear to defend themselves directly. “Everybody over here hates us,” admitted Dan Verakis, Monsanto’s chief European spokesman. He was spotlighted by The Observer in a February 21 article entitled: “Food Furor: The Man with the Worst Job in Britain.”
Indeed, Norman Baker, a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament told the House of Commons in March that Monsanto is “public enemy number one.”Baker said, “They insist on thwarting consumer choice, bulldozing elected governments, and forcing their wretched products on the world’s population.” He demanded that the corporation’s activities be curtailed.
Monsanto and the industry obviously had to work through intermediaries. And according to pollster Greenberg’s leaked document, they had friends in high places. The report revealed that Monsanto’s strategy was to win over “a socio-economic elite” consisting of Members of Parliament and “upper-level civil servants.”
Norman Baker’s animosity toward Monsanto, it turns out, was not shared by the leaders of the ruling Labour party. According to a February 1998 report in the Globe and Mail, since the Labour party took office the previous year, “government officials and ministers have met companies involved inGM foods eighty-one times (twenty-three with Monsanto alone).”The corporations’ efforts paid off handsomely.
“More than $22 million has been earmarked in aid for British biotech firms,” and government leaders had been unabashedly pro-biotech.
But now those same leaders were in trouble. Their constituents had become overwhelmingly anti-biotech. According to the minister’s own poll, only 35 percent of the British people trusted “the government to make biotechnology decisions on their behalf.” The people did not believe that their government would “provide honest and balanced information about biological developments and their regulations.” And only 1 percent of the public thought that GM food “was good for society.”
The government’s credibility on the issue had suffered repeated setbacks. For example, in spite of its claims that GM foods were absolutely safe, a report leaked at the beginning of the year showed that the government wasn’t quite sure. The Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) had been secretly talking with supermarket executives who had access to the food purchasing records of about 30 million customers who used supermarket “loyalty cards.” The committee wanted to cross-reference purchasing records with health databases to see if those eating GM foods were more prone to get sick.
“The study would specifically look for increases in childhood allergies, cancer, birth defects, and hospital admissions.” When the report was leaked, the embarrassed government withdrew plans for any monitoring.
Now the government leaders were preparing an initiative to win back public confidence inGM foods. According to a leaked private document obtained by the Independent on Sunday, the Health minister, Environment minister, and the Food Safety minister met on May 10 and prepared “an astonishingly detailed strategy for spinning, and mobilizing support for” GM foods. “One of [the] ministers’ main concerns,” said the report, “was to rubbish research by Dr. Arpad Pusztai.”
The ministers somehow knew in advance that three pro-biotech reports due out in May—by the Royal Society, the House of Commons Committee, and the ACNFP—would all attack Pusztai. The ministers therefore plannedto have pro-biotech scientists further denounce his work when the reports were released. The scientists, carefully selected by the Office of Science and Technology, would also use the opportunity to “trail the Government’s Key Messages,” one of which was to convince the public “that industry should be given time to develop and demonstrate possible benefits from GM products.” According to the Independent on Sunday, many of these so called “independent” experts, whom the ministers wanted “available for broadcast interviews and to author articles,” conveniently “gained their expertise in the pay—direct or indirect—of the [biotech companies].”
In addition, the ministers themselves decided to make numerous media appearances, to “speak with one voice” directly to the people. The Health minister volunteered to write an article that would be published in the prime minister’s name. “An instant rebuttal system was to be set up to counter reaction by ‘activists and other pressure groups.’” And the ministers were to seek endorsements from the Royal Society and others, which, the document said, “will help us to tell a good story.”
It was all to start with the three pro-biotech, anti-Pusztai reports due out in the same week, followed immediately by the ministers’ announcement of new programs related to GM food and a high profile media blitz. It was to be a week to regain consumer confidence.
One of the reports to be made public came from the House of Commons Committee that had heard testimony from Pusztai and James. Pusztai hadbeen confident that they would vindicate him.
Although during his testimony, for some reason, the MPs did not allow Pusztai to go into the scientific details of his case, he had given them the facts in a document he had carefully prepared over the previous month.
But when the report came out, it selectively omitted or twisted much of his testimony, “flying directly in the face of what actually was said.” Indeed, even a cursory comparison between the public transcript of the testimony and the Committee’s report shows substantial disparities. It was also clear to Pusztai that they hadn’t even read his document. Observers interpreted the Committee’s report as the government’s attempt to protect the reputation of GM foods, while sacrificing the reputation of Pusztai.
“This was the final straw,” confessed Pusztai. When he had escaped communist Hungary as a youth, he chose to relocate in the UK, believing that the people were tolerant and the system was just. But the day he read the report from the highest authority in the land, he says, “My belief in the democratic process was totally shattered.”
As the ministers had predicted, Pusztai received a similar rebuff from the Royal Society. The Society had supposedly undertaken a peer review of Pusztai’s study. Although the Society does not conduct peer-reviews—not one in their 350-year history—they made an exception.
The problem was, they didn’t have complete data. They also refused to meet with Pusztai or to reveal the names and qualifications of the scientists who conducted the review. Not surprisingly, their anonymous committee declared Pusztai’s work “flawed.”
(It was also around this time that Pusztai suffered another indignity—his house was burglarized and many of his papers were taken. Soon after, the security camera at the Rowett Institute revealed that a burglar broke into Pusztai’s old office, and a burglar was caught breaking into the house of Stanley Ewen, a sympathetic colleague who was following up Pusztai’s work.)
After the reports came out, the ministers and their handpicked “independent” scientists did their rounds in the British media. But the week that was designed to regain the public’s confidence in GM foods didn’t go entirely as planned.
According to the ministers’ poll, the public trusted doctors far more than they trusted their government. The ministers were therefore not too pleased when the British Medical Association that same week “called for amoratorium on planting GM crops commercially” and “warned that such food and crops might have a cumulative and irreversible effect on the environment and the food chain.” Also that week, it was disclosed that Sir Robert May, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser said, “the GM crops now being tested should not be approved for commercial use until at least 2003.”
Also that week, one of the world’s leading medical journals, the Lancet, described the Royal Society’s unprecedented condemnation of Dr. Pusztai as “a gesture of breathtaking impertinence to the Rowett Institute scientists who should be judged only on the full and final publication of their work.” The editorial also said, “it is astounding that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not changed their stance on genetically modified food adopted in 1992,” which states that they do not believe it is “necessary to conduct comprehensive scientific reviews of foods derived from bioengineered plants.” The Lancet said, “This stance is taken despite good reasons to believe that specific risks may exist. . . . Governments should never have allowed these products into the food chain without insisting on rigorous testing for effects on health. The companies should have paid greater attention to the possible risks to health.” They added, “The population of the U.S.A., where up to 60 percent of processed foods have genetically modified ingredients, seem, as yet, unconcerned.”
Researchers at Cornell University announced that same week that monarch butterflies died when they came into contact with pollen from corn engineered to create its own pesticide. This was “the first clear evidence that these crops pose a threat to wildlife.” This news shattered the near boycott of coverage on the GMO issue by the U.S. press.
Although major media had avoided reporting onGM food safety issues, when the butterfly appeared to be under attack, the press rushed to its aid with months of attention.
And finally that week, the Independent on Sunday broke the story about the ministers’ secret media plans, which were depicted as the “most damning description yet, of ministers’ objectives in the controversy.” The paper described the government’s actions as a “a cynical public relations exercise,” attempting to “save ministers’ faces.”
The article also said, “The Government has been attacked previously for trying to get sympathetic scientists exposure in the media.” In defense, onlya week earlier Agriculture minister Jack Cunningham had assured the paper that “there is no spin-doctoring exercise with scientists” and no attempt to recruit them to “join in some government media campaign.” His assurances notwithstanding, the paper now described “secret meetings in which ministers try to spin the issue, even down to trying to fix which ‘independent’ scientist appeared on the Today program to support the Government line.” The paper concluded, “this is the boldest admission so far that [the government] is trying to co-opt [scientists] as part of its PR strategy.”
The Royal Society Fights Back
In the coming months, the Royal Society picked up where the ministers left off. According to the Guardian, they set up their science policy division in “what appears to be a rebuttal unit.” Its purpose “is to mould scientific and public opinion with a pro-biotech line,” and to “counter opposing scientists and environmental groups.” Among its functions is maintaining “a database of like-minded Royal Society fellows who are updated by email on a daily basis about GM issues.”
Rebecca Bowden, who had coordinated the critical peer review of Pusztai, headed the division. Bowden had formerly worked in the government office that regulated GMOs.
Now, in the fall of 1999, her rebuttal unit sprang into action when it learned that the Lancet was considering publishing Pusztai’s research and had already circulated the paper to six scientists for peer review.
Richard Horton, the Lancet’s editor, told the Guardian, “there was intense pressure on the Lancet from all quarters, including the Royal Society, to suppress publication.”
The paper passed the peer review and was set to appear on October 15, 1999. On October 13, Horton received a call from a senior member of the Royal Society. According to the Guardian, Horton, “said the phone call began in a ‘very aggressive manner.’ He said he was called ‘immoral’ and accused of publishing Dr. Pusztai’s paper which he ‘knew to be untrue.’ Towards the end of the call Dr. Horton said the caller told him that if he published the Pusztai paper it would ‘have implications for his personal position’ as editor.”
Although Horton declined to name the caller, the Guardian “identified him as Peter Lachmann, the former vice-president and biological secretary of the Royal Society and president of the Academy of Medical Sciences.”
Lachmann had been one of the nineteen co-signers on the Royal Society’s open letter attacking Pusztai. He also had extensive financial ties to the biotech industry: According to the Guardian, Lachmann had consulted with the company that markets “the animal cloning technology behind Dolly the sheep,” has a directorship on another biotech company, and “is also on the scientific advisory board of the pharmaceutical giant SmithKline Beecham, which invests heavily in biotechnology.”
In spite of his threats, the Lancet went forward with publication.
Eventually . . . Follow-up Studies Still Not Done
A lot of energy was being spent attacking and defending viewpoints. Very little energy was spent on safety testing.
It would have been fairly straightforward to conduct a follow-up study on Pusztai’s research to find out, for example, if any of the GM products we are eating create similar organ or immune system problems. But, having seen what happened to Pusztai, no one was willing to go there.
The British government clearly wasn’t. According to one observer from the UK’s Natural Law Party, the reason the government had commissioned the research team from the Rowett Institute “in the first place was that it was convinced that it would come up with a favorable result in relation to the safety of the GM potatoes.” When Pusztai first discovered the health problems of his rats, even before his TV appearance he requested additional government funding to identify its source.
But the government wanted nothing to do with it. In fact, after Pusztai’s unexpected discovery, the British government ended all funding in safety testing.
Pusztai’s potato study, plus his earlier paper on experimental GM peas, therefore, remain the only two published independent peer-reviewed feeding studies on the safety of GM foods. As of early 2003, there were only eight other peer-reviewed published feeding studies, all of which were funded directly or indirectly by the biotech companies.
One of these, which has been used by the biotech industry as their primary scientific validation for safety claims, studied the GM soybean called Roundup Ready ®*. This soybean is engineered to withstand the normally fatal effects of Monsanto’s herbicide called Roundup®*. Using these herbicide-tolerant crops, a farmer can spray his or her field several times during the growing season, making weeding easier. Roundup, which is Monsanto’s brand name for glyphosate, is the world’s bestselling herbicide. Its patent was due to expire in 2000. To prevent a huge loss in market share, Monsanto introduced Roundup Ready crops. Now when farmers buy the GM seeds, they sign a contract requiring them to use only Monsanto’s brand, or one of their licensees.
* Roundup Ready® and Roundup® are a registered trademarks of Monsanto Company.
In 1996, Monsanto scientists published a feeding study that purported to test their soybeans’ effect on rats, catfish, chicken, and cows.
But, Pusztai says, “It was obvious that the study had been designed to avoid finding any problems. Everybody in our consortium knew this.”
For example, the researchers tested the GM soy on mature animals, not young ones. Young animals use protein to build their muscles, tissues, and organs. Problems with GM food could therefore show up in organ and body weight—as it did with Pusztai’s young adolescent rats. But adult animals use the protein for tissue renewal and energy.
“With a nutritional study on mature animals,” says Pusztai, “you would never see any difference in organ weights even if the food turned out to be anti nutritional. The animals would have to be emaciated or poisoned to show anything.”
But even if there were an organ development problem, the study wouldn’t have picked it up. That’s because the researchers didn’t even weigh the organs, “they just looked at them, what they call ‘eyeballing,’” says Pusztai. “Imust have done thousands of post-mortems, so I know that even if there is a difference in organ weights of as much as 25 percent, you wouldn’t see it.”
Even more troubling was that in a feeding test supposedly designed to detect the effects of GM soy, in one of the trials researchers substituted only one tenth of the natural protein with GM soy protein. In two others, they diluted their GM soy six- and twelve-fold. Scientists Ian Pryme of Norway and Rolf Lembcke of Denmark wrote, the “level of the GM soy was too low and would probably ensure that any possible undesirable GM effects did not occur.”
Pryme and Lembcke, who published a paper in Nutrition and Health that analyzed all peer-reviewed feeding studies onGM foods, also pointed out that the percentage of protein in the feed used in the Roundup Ready study was “artificially too high.” This “would almost certainly mask, or at least effectively reduce, any possible effect of the [GM soy].” They concluded, “It is therefore highly likely that all GM effects would have been diluted out.”
The Monsanto paper was “not really up to the normal journal standards,” says Pusztai, who had published several studies in that same nutrition journal. In addition to its design flaws, the paper didn’t even describe the exact feed composition used in the feeding trials—normally an important journal requirement. “No data were given for most of the parameters,” according to Pryme and Lembcke.
The study did, however, reveal several significant differences between Roundup Ready and natural soy in spite of the authors’ claims to the contrary. There were significant differences in the ash, fat, and carbohydrate content. Roundup Ready soy meal contained “more trypsin inhibitor, a potential allergen.” This increase might help explain the sudden jump in soy allergies in the UK beginning right after Roundup Ready soy was introduced. This public health concern is discussed in a later chapter. Also, cows fed GM soy produced milk with a higher fat content, further demonstrating a disparity between the two types of soy.
Researchers measured additional differences betweenGM and natural soy that, for some reason, were left out of the published paper and were not part of the FDA’s review. Years after the study appeared, medical writer Barbara Keeler obtained this missing data from the journal that published the study and broke the story in the Whole Life Times News. The omitted information demonstrated that Monsanto’s GM soy had significantly lower levels of protein, a fatty acid, and phenylalanine, an essential amino acid. Also, toasted GM soy meal contained nearly twice the amount of a lectin—one that may interfere with the body’s ability to assimilate other nutrients. According to Keeler’s opinion piece published in the Los Angeles Times, the study had several red flags and “should have prompted researchers and the FDA to call for more testing.”
Pusztai says that if he had been asked to referee the paper for publication, “it would never have passed.” He’s confident that even his graduate assistants would have taken the study apart in short order.
According to Michael Hansen of the Consumers Union, the organization that publishes Consumer Reports in the U.S., Pusztai’s potato research is “a much better-designed study than the industry-sponsored feeding studiesI have seen in peer-reviewed literature that deal with Round-Up Ready soybeans or Bt corn.” A quick review of these is telling.
Two studies looked at GM corn varieties that are currently approved and sold for human and animal consumption. The research was designed for commercial purposes, however, not as safety assessments.
Another corn study employed an experimental variety never marketed. It was neither a proper nutritional study nor a safety assessment.
Apparently the primary variable used to evaluate the effects of feeding the corn to adult mice, for example, was that the animals did not die.
A Japanese paper attempted to evaluate the effects of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soy on mice and rats, but for some inexplicable reason, researchers used a starvation diet. The young animals gained little or no weight during a very long feeding trial. According to Pusztai, this is equivalent to a child gaining no weight for more than a decade. One possible explanation is that the feed was overheated and lost its nutritional value. Whatever the reason, no valid conclusions can be drawn from the data.
Besides Pusztai’s, there were three additional studies onGM potatoes: One used a potato engineered with a soybean gene. The combination failed to provide the intended increase in protein. The second used a potato engineered with a strong insecticidal toxin.
Researchers did not provide a balanced diet to the animals resulting in severe loss of weight and very little usable data. The third looked at potatoes that created their own insecticide using Bt toxin. According to Pusztai, these three were not nutritional studies and the first two were not designed to properly evaluate safety.
The third study, however, did include one important component of a safety assessment—an analysis of tissue samples. Although the authors examined only a small portion of the small intestine, they discovered the same type of unusual increase in cell growth that Pusztai had discovered inthe small and large intestine of the rats that ate his GM potato. In fact, that same cell proliferation could explain the increased weight of the cecum and small intestines discovered in Pusztai’s earlier study using GM peas. Thus, indications of unusual cell growth in the intestines were found in the only three studies that had the capacity to find it. The implications of this cell growth are unclear, but Pusztai and others say it may be a precursor to cancer.
It is important to note that none of the published studies refuted Pusztai’s discovery of damage to organs and the immune system.
Similar problems may have afflicted laboratory animals from the other studies, but since the scientists weren’t looking for that, their research designs would not have detected them.
One additional unpublished study is worth mentioning. It was conducted on FlavrSavr tomatoes. These tomatoes were genetically engineered to have a prolonged shelf life. As this was the first GM crop to be approved in the U.S., the manufacturer actually requested the FDA to review their feeding study data—a gesture no subsequent manufacturer has repeated. Documents revealed that many of the rats that ate the GM tomatoes developed lesions in their stomachs. For unknown reasons, researchers did not examine tissue elsewhere in the digestive tract. They also did not provide an explanation as to why seven of the forty rats that were fed the GM tomatoes died unexpectedly within two weeks.
The complete body of research on the safety of GM foods also includes: a study published in a non-peer-reviewed journal, which demonstrated that tissue samples from the digestive tract of both humans and monkeys reacted with GM tomatoes in a test tube; an unpublished feeding study of a GM corn grown in the U.S., which showed an increased death rate among GM-fed chickens; studies comparing the nutritional content of GM foods with their natural counterparts, demonstrating clear differences between the two types of food; research demonstrating that GM foods can produce new allergens (see Chapter 6); highly controversial studies on the GM bovine growth hormone, which apparently omitted incriminating data (see Chapter 3); and the industry’s own studies, such as those submitted to the UK committee that had shocked Pusztai by their inadequacy.
In spite of this small body of research, GM foods are a regular part of the U.S. diet. Approximately 80 percent of the soy and 38 percent of the corn planted in the U.S in 2003 is genetically engineered.
Derivatives from these two crops are found in about 70 percent of processed foods. In addition, 70 percent of the cotton crop and more than 60 percent of the canola crop, both used for cooking oil, are also genetically modified. About 75 percent of these crops are engineered to withstand otherwise deadly applications of an herbicide, 17 percent produce their own insecticide, and 8 percent are engineered to do both.
There are also hundreds of foods produced with genetically engineered cooking agents, food additives, and enzymes, as well as varieties of GM squash and papaya. And there are dairy products from cows injected with a GM bovine growth hormone. All these are sold without labels identifying them as GMOs.
The regulations in the U.S. are so lax, there are no required premarket safety tests. There is no way to determine if these GM foods are creating serious health problems. People get sick all the time without tracking their illness to food, or pesticides, or air or water pollution. The causes remain well hidden.
According to a March 2001 article in the New York Times, “The CDC [Center for Disease Control] now says that food is responsible for twice the number of illnesses in the United States as scientists thought just seven years ago. . . . At least 80 percent of food-related illnesses are caused by viruses or other pathogens that scientists cannot even identify.” The reported cases include 5,000 deaths, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 76 million illnesses per year. This increase roughly corresponds to the period when Americans have been eating GM food. In addition, obesity has skyrocketed. In 1990, no state had 15 percent or more of its population in the obese category. By 2001, only one state didn’t. Diabetes rose by 33 percent from 1990 to 1998, lymphatic cancers are up, and many other illnesses are on the rise. Is there a connection to GM foods? We have no way of knowing because no one has looked for one.
Follow the Money
With such slim research on the safety of GM food and such enormous risks, why are respected institutes, scientific panels, research journals, even government officials lining up to defend it as proven safe? And why are they so quick to condemn evidence that might be used to protect the public? Although subsequent chapters will illustrate how pervasive and dangerous these trends really are, a key to understanding why they happenis to follow the money.
With less research money available from public sources, more and more scientists in the U.S. and Europe are dependent on corporate sponsors, and hence, corporate acceptance of their research and results.
Among Britain’s top research universities, for example, dependence on private funds often amounts to 80 to 90 percent of the total research budget. But reliance on corporate sponsorship can carry a hidden price.
A poll of 500 scientists working in either government or recently privatized research institutes in the UK revealed that 30 percent had been asked to change their research conclusions by their sponsoring customer.
According to the report, published in the UK’s Times Higher Education Supplement in September 2000, “The figure included 17 percent who had been asked to change their conclusions to suit the customer’s preferred outcome, 10 percent who said they had been asked to do so [in order] to obtain further contracts and three percent who claimed they had been asked to make changes to discourage publication.”
If 30 percent admitted to having been asked to change their results, one wonders how many others, having succumbed to their
customers’ requests, were too embarrassed to answer truthfully.
The article, entitled “Scientists Asked to Fix Results for Backer,” said scientists complained that “contracting out and the commercialization of scientific research are threatening standards of impartiality.”
Dr. Richard Smith, editor of the British Medical Journal, says that the “competing interests” that sponsor research have “quite a profound influence on the conclusions.” He warns, “We deceive ourselves if we think science is wholly impartial.”
In the U.S., corporate donations rose from $850 million in 1985 to $4.25 billion in less than ten years. According to the Atlantic
Monthly, “increasingly the money comes with strings attached. . . . In higher education today corporations not only sponsor a growing amount of research—they frequently dictate the terms under which it is conducted.”
Consider the case of the University of California at Berkeley. In November 1998, the biotech company Novartis gave $25 million to the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology for research. In exchange, Novartis gets the first rights to negotiate licenses for about one third of the discoveries made by the department. This includes discoveries funded by Novartis as well as those funded by federal and state sources. Novartis can also delay the publication of research by up to four months, providing time for patent applications and for allowing the company to utilize the proprietary information. In addition, Novartis gets representation on two of the five seats of the committee that determines how the department’s research money is spent.
When informed of this deal, many in the faculty were outraged.
More than half believed it would have a “negative” or “strongly negative” effect on academic freedom, about half thought it would get in the way of “public good research,” and 60 percent thought it would inhibit the free exchange of ideas between scientists.
“Worse than the problems of enforced secrecy and delay,” says the Atlantic Monthly article, “is the possibility that behind closed doors some corporate sponsors are manipulating manuscripts before publication to serve their commercial interests. . . . A study of major research centers in the field of engineering found that 35 percent would allow corporate sponsors to delete information from papers prior to publication.”
In addition, many professors own stock in the company that sponsors their research, or sit on their boards, or hold a corporate endowed position, or simply rely on the corporation for continued research money.
Even universities are investing in companies that fund or benefit from university research. “In a study of 800 scientific papers published in a range of academic journals, Sheldon Krimsky, a professor of public policy at Tufts University and a leading authority on conflicts of interest, found that slightly more than a third of the authors had a significant financial interest intheir reports.” None of these papers, however, disclosed the information. Mildred Cho, a senior research scholar at Stanford’s Center for Biomedical Ethics, says, “When you have so many scientists on boards of companies or doing sponsored research, you start to wonder, How are these studies being designed? What kinds of research questions are being raised? What kinds aren’t being raised?”
Research in the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that studies of cancer drugs funded by non-profit groups were eight times morelikely to reach unfavorable conclusions as the studies funded by the pharmaceutical companies. Or consider the case of the genetically modified artificial sweetener aspartame: About 165 peer-reviewed studieswere conducted on it by 1995. They were divided almost evenly between those that found no problem and those that raised questions about the sweetener’s safety. Of those studies that found no problem, 100 percent were paid for by the manufacturer of the sweetener. All of the studies paid for by non-industry and non-government sources raised questions. The manufacturer of the sweetener, by the way, is GD Searle, which was a wholly owned subsidiary of Monsanto during that period.
Many people agree that the biotech industry has reaped especially great advantage from the academic sector. Sociologist Walter Powell, “believes that the close links between universities and industry are a principal reason why U.S. firms now dominate the biotech market.”
But, according to University of Minnesota professor Anne Kapuscinski who studies GMOs, that same close link may be making it difficult for scientists to raise questions about GMO safety. This was evidenced when David Kronfeld wrote articles and letters to veterinary journals that challenged the animal-safety studies conducted on the genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (rbGH). According to the dairy newspaper The Milkweed, “For his ‘heresy,’ a Monsanto employee . . .wrote three letters to [Virginia Polytechnic Institute, the university where Kronfeld worked] during 1989 implicitly threatening that Monsanto might cease all research grants to that university if Kronfeld didn’t silence his criticisms of bGH research.”
“Scientific experts cannot be expected to be independent and reliable advisors in safety issues considering the increasing dependence of science on financial support from the industry,” writes Jaan Suurküla, M.D., in an editorial for PSRAST (Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Application of Science and Technology).41 And a columnist in New Scientist warns, “Industry-based scientists have influence in high places—they move in the corridors of government.”
Industry-based scientists also appear to be well entrenched in the Rowett Institute, which, according to PSRAST, relies heavily on the profit of its commercial subsidiary, Rowett Research Services. This entity contracts with biotech, pharmaceutical, and other companies for research contracts, the proceeds of which help fund the Institute. Thus, the Rowett is “dependent on the industry for its existence,” and scientists like Arpad Pusztai depend on the Rowett for theirs.
In fact, scientists working for an institute usually cannot publish research without the institute’s written permission prior to submittal. In order to get his work published in the Lancet, for example, Pusztai had to team up with a colleague at Aberdeen University who did further research on Pusztai’s rat analysis. Only then could Pusztai “co-author” his study.
How many other scientists, like Arpad Pusztai, discovered unexpected problems with GM foods, but due to funding or employment considerations, chose not to pursue it? Why was Pusztai thrust into the spotlight?
Pusztai seems to have been propelled into the controversy due to his innocence and integrity. He was dedicated to thorough scientific inquiry and he thought everyone else was. He was a staunch believer in genetic engineering. When he discovered the damaging effects on his rats, Pusztai figured these problems could be worked out. He remained hopeful about the technology even after being suspended. As events unfolded, however, he began to realize how unscientific the business of science had become, when money, politics, and reputation are at stake Dr. Pusztai says: “In the last four or five years when I started to take these things seriously and I looked into similar cases, I became very concerned. The problems withGM foods may be irreversible and the true effects may only be seen well in the future.
“The situation is like the tobacco industry. They knew about it but they suppressed that information. They created misleading evidence that showed that the problem wasn’t so serious. And all the time they knew how bad it was. Tobacco is bad enough. But genetic modification, if it is going to be problematic, if it is going to cause us real health problems, then tobacco will be nothing in comparison with this. The size of genetic modification and problems it may cause us are tremendous.
“If we injure the health prospects of humanity in this and the next and the next generation, then I think those people should be made accountable for the crimes they committed.
“Informing the public is the most important business in this very sorry affair, so one can do something.”
Due to Pusztai’s unexpected “popularity,” he was approached by numerous scientists who quietly described their own surprise discoveries, further condemning the safety of GM foods. Some of these stories are described in this book. Others have to remain secret—for now.
Wisdom of The Geese
There’s a farmer in Illinois who’s been planting soybeans on his 50-acre field for years. Unfortunately, he also had a flock of soybean-eating geese that took up residence in a pond nearby.
Geese, being creatures of habit, returned to the same spot the next year to again feast on his soybeans. But this time, the geese ate only from a specific part of his field. There, as a result of their feasting, the beans grew only ankle high. The geese, it seemed, were boycotting the other part of the same field where the beans were able to grow waist-high. The reason: this year, the farmer had tried the new, genetically engineered soybeans. And you can see exactly where they were planted, for there is a line right down the middle of his field with the natural beans on one side and the genetically engineered beans, untouched by the geese, on the other.
Visiting that Illinois farm, veteran agricultural writer C.F. Marley said, “I’ve never seen anything like it. What’s amazing is that the field with Roundup Ready [genetically engineered] beans had been planted to conventional beans the previous year, and the geese ate them. This year, they won’t go near that field.”