Dr. Arpad Pusztai

Jenny Marsh—10/2002
Trashed by the pro-GM lobby for being a research scientist with integrity, Pusztai's experience indicates the depths to which the biotechnology industry will sink to prevent public knowledge of the dangers of GM foods.

DR ARPAD PUSZTAI is one of the world's leading experts in lectins, which are a type of carbohydrate-binding protein. He led a research team at the renowned Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen which researched genetically modified foods — more specifically potatoes genetically modified to produce the snowdrop lectin GNA which is not only an effective insecticide, but is also non-toxic to mammals. Pusztai found, much to his surprise, that although the snowdrop lectin by itself is non-toxic, when it is produced via a genetically modified second crop, in this case potatoes, it shows worrying toxicity (organ atrophy and depleted immune systems in test animals).

The immediate implication of this is that these genetically modified potatoes were a danger to health and so should never be put on the market or released into the environment. And, from a broader perspective, it means that the process of genetic engineering itself seems to be doing something much more complex than just adding another protein-producing gene in a precise location, and therefore all GM foods should be assumed toxic until proven safe by thorough and prolonged testing. Pusztai believes that although the GNA lectin is non-toxic, the virus (in this case Cauliflower Mosaic Virus which is used to inject the snowdrop DNA into the potato) might be to blame. Biotechnlogy companies would like us to think that gene insertion is an exact science, but it is well known that correct gene insertion is often a matter of luck. As Pusztai comments, "if GM is such a predictable, precise science, then you should be able to produce the same thing again and again. But you can't."

In June 1998, during a television interview for World in Action sanctioned by the Rowett Research Institute, Pusztai made the mistake of truthfully answering the interviewer's questions. When asked if he was concerned by the lack of safety testing of GM foods, he affirmed that he was. And when asked whether he would eat his own genetically modified potatoes, he replied no, adding that it is "very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs." Two days after the program aired in August 1998, he was fired.

He was dismissed for incompetence as part of a disinformation campaign by the influential pro-GM lobby, which was quick to trade the longstanding reputation of a top-level scientist (with a brilliant 36-year career) for continued public ignorance of the potential dangers of GM foods and GM research. They did this by portraying Pusztai as a doddery old fool who had made a mistake with his research by using potatoes, not modified with the non-toxic snowdrop lectin, but with the very toxic Concanavalin A (Con A) lectin. Pusztai's results, therefore, would imply nothing about the safety of genetic engineering, only his own incompetance, which would justify him being "retired".

This smear campaign, led not only by companies like Monsanto but also the director of the Rowett Research Institute himself, Professor Philip James, was effective. Pusztai was discredited and ridiculed by government scientists and newspapers alike, bringing an ignoble end to an illustrious scientific career. And because he was still under contract with the institute, he was effectively gagged and thus prevented from defending himself. The two-faced James would say publicly, "I am desperate to protect him [Pusztai]" whilst privately threatening him with court action if he spoke to the press.

In the end, a scientific audit committee vindicated Pusztai's work — it confirmed that he had been working with the snowdrop lectin and not the toxic Con A lectin, although it stopped short at agreeing with Pusztai's conclusions. (Quite what other conclusions can be drawn from Pusztai's research is a complete mystery! In fact, the committee didn't make a single recommendation on how he could have improved his experimentation, except to nebulously state that it could have been better designed.) Finally, in February 1999, a 20-member international panel of scientists publicly went on record to support Pusztai's research. But by this time it was too late. The disinformation campaign left enough lingering doubts in the public's mind to dilute the biting implications of Pusztai's ground-breaking research.

Although the deliberate and unjustified destruction of a leading scientist's reputation is despicable enough, what is a lot more concerning is the reaction of the biotechnology industry to bona fide evidence that GM foods can be unexpectedly harmful. If they were acting in the public interest, they would have taken Pusztai's research as a serious indication of the dangers of GM foods and the need for thorough testing. But instead, they chose a cover up; they chose to defend their profits at the expense of public safety. And more so when one considers that Professor James, who went along with this charade, is a leading UK government advisor on GM foods!

So the upshot of this sad episode is that the public cannot trust the biotechnology industry when it tells us that its products are safe: they may well not be, but any research indicating toxicity (if indeed adequate toxicity testing is performed at all) is deliberately buried. In this climate of deception, the first we are likely to know of the toxic effects of GM foods is when they are field tested on you and me.