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Peer review vindicates scientist let go for "improper" warning about genetically modified food

Rats fed GM potatoes
Photo: BBC

March 11, 1999: Speaking last August on the U.K. television programme "World In Action," Arpad Pusztai of the government-funded Rowett Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland said that his tests with potatoes modified by the insertion of snowdrop and jackbean genes that code for insecticidal proteins stunted the growth of rats and damaged their immune system. "We are assured" he said, that "this (genetically modified food) is absolutely safe, and that no conceivable harm could come to us from eating it. But if you gave me the choice now, I would not eat it" (Guardian, August 11, 1998). Furthermore, he stated that "We need to be far more careful in devising testing programmes. It is expensive, it is long, but nevertheless it is the only way that you will be able to pick up differences." "We are asking for less haste and more testing.

In response, the Rowett Institute announced that Dr. Pusztai's comments were "improper and misleading" (The Times, August 13, 1998). Subsequently, Dr. Pusztai was forced to retire from the Institute after the Institute had completed an Audit Report purporting to show that Dr. Pusztai's conclusions were not justified by his experimental data.

Now, an independent panel of 23 scientists from 13 countries led by Professor E. Van Driessche of the Laboratory of Protein Chemistry, Vrije University, Brussels has reviewed the Audit Report and a report prepared independently by Dr. Pusztai. In its review, the panel states that although the results included in the report appeared to be arbitrarily selected with a view to disproving Dr. Pusztai's conclusions, they 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." The review panel further concluded that the data contained in the Audit Report and a report prepared independently by Dr. Pusztai would be suitable for publication, i.e., in a peer-reviewed journal. Specifically, the review panel stated that "although some of the results are preliminary, they are sufficient to exonerate Dr. Pusztai by showing that the consumption of GNA-GM-potatoes by rats let to significant differences in organ weight and depression of lymphocyte responsiveness compared to controls."

Recognizing, presumably, a legitimate concern about the safety of genetically modified food, a European directive is now in preparation that will require food suppliers to label genetically modified products. Nick Brown, Britain's Agriculture Secretary, defends the consumer's right not to consume genetically modified food and is working to incorporate the European directive into British law (The Scotsman, Feb 1, 1999). Prime Minister Tony Blair, however, rules out a moratorium on genetically-modified foods, insisting that there is no scientific justification for one (The Independent, Feb 4, 1999).

Meanwhile, in a recent interview with the BBC, Dr. Pusztai said that he could not understand the refusal to allow scientists to speak out about their findings. Scientists, he said "have a fair social conscience and will not (engage in) scaremongering. They just like to get their point over." Speaking this week before a House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Dr. Pusztai said that where it is possible to see some effects (of genetically-modified food) on the growth, the immune system and the organ weights of rats, "you have to say something." Admitting that he had acted naively in speaking out on television, Dr. Pusztai said he would, nevertheless do the same thing again. "What I found," he said "gave me concern and it was very much shared by the institute. What I achieved by speaking out," he said, "is that we are all sitting here and talking about it."


THE REPORTS

Bourne, F.J., A. Chesson, H. Davies and H. Flint. 1998. Rowett Research Institute: Audit Report Overview

Arpad Pusztai. October 22, 1998. Report of Project Coordinator on data produced at the Rowett Research Institute (SOAEFD Flexible Fund Project RO 818

Bourne, F.J., A. Chesson, H. Davies and H. Flint. February 16, 1999. The Audit Committee's Response to Dr Arpad Pusztai's Alternative Report of 22 October 1998


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