Damning findings by scientist raise alarm about safety of GM foods
As preparations were underway for the Cartagena Conference, a controversy broke out in Britain with the exposure by the Guardian that a highly respected scientist at a prestigious research establishment had been sacked because of concerns which he had expressed, on the basis of his scientific research, about the safety of genetically modified foods. The dismissal of Dr Arpad Pusztai by Rowett Research Institute and the suppression of his findings only served to confirm the power and influence of the biotech industry.
by Chee Yoke Heong
WHEN highly respected British scientist Dr Arpad Pusztai took on a publicly-funded research project to study the effects of genetically modified crops on animal nutrition and the environment, little did he know his findings would place him in the midst of a controversy raging in the UK over the safety of GM foods that eventually led to his forced retirement.
The Guardian reported that Dr Arpad's preliminary findings showed that rats fed on GM potatoes (both raw and cooked) after 10 days suffered a weakened immune system as well as severe impairment in the development of the internal organs such as heart, liver, kidney and even the brain. These findings, which were reconfirmed in his subsequent experiments, were suppressed by the Rowett Research Institute to which he was attached for 35 years until his ouster in August 1998.
A more recent research conducted on the same rats used in Dr Pusztai's original experiments by Dr Stanley Ewen, a pathologist at Aberdeen University Medical School, is reported to have supported Dr Pusztai's findings and points towards new potential health risks.
Dr Ewen found that rats fed on the GM potatoes suffered from an enlarged stomach wall after 10 days of feeding trials. He believed he had established that something in the GM potato had caused substantial elongation of a section of the stomach.
Both scientists had not anticipated the worrying results when they embarked on the research project sponsored by the Scottish Office in 1995 to look into the effects of GM crops on animal nutrition and environment which included, for the first time, feeding rats to see if there are any harmful effects on their guts, bodies, metabolism and health.
Hungarian-born Dr Pusztai told the Independent in an exclusive interview in March that he had been 'a very enthusiastic supporter' of the biotech-nology, and fully expected his experiments to give it 'a clean bill of health.' He was therefore 'totally taken aback' by the findings.
'I was absolutely confident I wouldn't find anything. But the longer I spent on the experiments, the more uneasy I became,' he said.
The research project was an attempt to fill the gap existing at a time when research into the human nutritional and environmental consequences of GM foods was given scant attention.
According to Dr Pusztai, he was particularly interested in the project as he could only find one previous peer-reviewed study on feeding GM foods to animals. It was conducted by a scientist from Monsanto who found no harmful effects.
Dr Pusztai, an internationally-renowned lectonologist and senior research scientist at Rowett, beat off 28 other contenders to coordinate the project whose task was to identify the genes that are suitable for transfer into plants to enhance their resistance towards insects and pests but will have minimum impact on non-target beneficial organisms, the environment, livestock and which will have no health risks for humans either directly or indirectly through the food chain.
The research programme was therefore to find novel methods for testing safety for humans of GM potatoes with increased resistance against pests. It was also to make recommendations to the regulatory authorities for effective risk assessment procedures.
The findings of Dr Pusztai and his team are supported by an international group of 20 scientists (2 of whom previously worked at Rowett), who agreed with his conclusions after analysing his data and results. In a joint memorandum, the scientists urged for further funding for follow-up research on the controversial findings and demanded the immediate reinstatement of Dr Pusztai.
One of these scientists, Dr Beatrix Tappeser of Germany, visited Dr Pusztai in the UK and reviewed his scientiifc data. She then presented the findings at a workshop during the United Nations negotiations on an international biosafety agreement in February 1999 in Cartagena, Colombia. Those negotiations collapsed when the United States led five other grain-exporting countries (Canada, Australia, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay) to prevent any international regulation of GM seeds targetted for food, animal feed and processing. A case such as the GM potato would have been excluded from scrutiny if it had been commercialised.
The importance of the unpublished results was also recognised by Nick Tomlinson, secretary to the UK's Advisory Committee on Novel Foods.
In a letter to Dr Ewen on 4 February, he stated: 'If there are lessons to be learned, it is vital that these are taken on board as soon as possible.' He was said to have asked for Dr Ewen's research as 'a matter of urgency.'
The unexpected results, though preliminary, have far-reaching implications on the biotech industry already suffering from public backlash against GM foods in the UK and Europe which have lived through the harrowing experience in the BSE or 'Mad Cow disease' fiasco not too long ago and are unlikely to want a repeat of the same mistakes.
The answer the group of 20 scientists and others want to know is what causes the changes in organ sizes and weight in the rats - whether the problem was the new gene or the method of transplanting, or perhaps the 'virus promoter', the so-called cauliflower mosaic virus which Dr Pusztai was studying, which GM companies use to turn on the genes to produce the traits that are wanted.
If it was the latter, the implications for the GM industry and public health are tremendous because this is the same virus that had already been used in the modified tomato paste, soya oils and maize that the UK and European Union had approved for use in foods which are found in hundreds of products now available in the market.
What is also critical is that the research has called into question the safety testing for GM foods, which until now has not taken into account all possible impacts and points to the need for the biotech industry to conduct more rigorous hazard assessment on GM foods. A number of scientists are also calling for these foods to be at least tested as rigorously as new drugs, before they are commercialised.
'One key problem that keeps coming back time and again is that regulation of food is nothing like as strict as the regulation for drugs,' Prof Jonathan Rhodes of Liverpool University said to the Guardian. 'And when you start tinkering around with the genetic structure of food you have to move towards thinking of them as pharmaceuticals.'
Having stumbled upon the worrying and unexpected results which raised yet many more questions, Dr Pusztai had requested for more public money to continue with the research but this was rejected.
Faced with a funding crisis and the prospects of his findings not being published, the Hungarian scientist decided to voice his concerns about the likely adverse effects of GM foods to the public.
In January 1998, in what would be the beginning of a series of media interviews that was also approved by the institute, he told BBC television of his concern about the weakening of the immune system in rats fed by GM potatoes.
In another TV interview in August, Dr Pusztai said he would not eat GM food, and found it 'very, very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs.' Comments which were backed by the Institute in its press release.
But two days later Dr Pusztai was suspended and forced to retire from the Rowett Institute and was denied access to his research data, and an audit of his research was called for. The latter concluded that Dr Pusztai's findings remained unproven and that the research did not link GM potatoes to any health risks.
But on allegations of scientific fraud against Dr Pusztai which appeared in a scientific journal, the institute's director Prof Philip James told the House of Lords that 'there is no question of any malpractice' by Dr Pusztai. He apologised for the confusion and said: 'Dr Pusztai has come out of this audit review exonerated.'
However, his professional reputation remained severely damaged and he told the Independent about the 'intolerable burden of trying to clear his name.
He insisted that he still believes in the technology. 'But it is too new for us to be absolutely sure that what we are doing is right,' he said. As such, he joined a group of world scientists to launch a global call on governments to impose an immediate moratorium on further environmental releases of transgenic crops, food and animal feed products for at least five years.
Both Dr Pusztai and Dr Ewens are now seeking further fundings to continue with their research to further tests their results and their implications for human beings.
They are demanding that the British government honour its commitment to transparency on the issue of biotechnology and initiate an immediate evaluation of the potential health risks associated with the technology. (Third World Resurgence No. 104/105, April/May 1999)
Chee Yoke Heong is a freelance journalist based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.