The bright future of bioengineered crops may have dimmed, thanks
to Arpad Pusztai, a renowned British biochemist whose research has
raised potentially serious public health questions about genetically
engineered food and whose persistence in speaking out has raised
the ire of the biotech scientific establishment.
The story begins in August 1998, when Pusztai, a scientist at Rowett
Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, appeared on the British
television program The World in Action to report that transgenic
foods (foods that are bioengineered to include a gene from another
species) may be unsafe. His research indicated that rats fed transgenic
potatoes suffered from damaged immune systems and stunted growth.
Pusztai fed the rats potatoes that had been genetically engineered
to contain lectin from a snowdrop bulb to make them pest resistant.
Lectins are sugar-binding proteins that can provide protection from
insects, nematodes and some diseases. According to Pusztai, who
is one of the world's foremost authorities on lectins, the rats
who ate these high-tech potatoes showed evidence of organ damage
and poor brain development. This experiment was the first independent
study--one not sponsored by a biotech corporation--to examine the
effects of bioengineered food on mammals.
"We are assured that this is absolutely safe and that no harm can
come to us from eating [genetically engineered food]. But if you
gave me the choice now, I wouldn't eat it," he said on TV, warning
that the food industry was treating the public like "unwitting guinea
In an attempt to quell the resulting public furor, Rowett Institute
Director Philip James, who had approved Pusztai's TV appearance,
said the research results didn't exist. He fired Pusztai, broke
up his research team, halted the six other similar projects his
team was then working on and seized his data. Pusztai, who under
the terms of his contract was gagged, was unable to respond to his
The biotech PR apparatus went into effect on both sides of the
Atlantic. Val Giddings, of the Biotechnology Industry Organization
(BIO) in Washington, applauded Pusztai's dismissal. Speaking to
Biotechnology Newswatch, an industry journal, he damned the press
for not being more skeptical of Pusztai's statements, pointing out
that his results had never been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
"This is a study that should never have seen the light of day,"
At Monsanto, the only corporation producing transgenic potatoes,
spokesman Alyssa Hollier told Biotechnology Newswatch, "This really
has nothing to do with us," adding that the company's transgenic
potatoes, which are different than those used in the study, are
"not approved in Europe right now." In February, however, it came
out that the Rowett Institute had received a $224,000 grant from
Monsanto prior to Pusztai's interview and subsequent firing.
In March, the Rowett Institute released an internal audit, which
revealed that Pusztai actually had completed the research he referred
to in his TV appearance. Apparently, the dispute over the August
program was due to an inaccurate press release that the Rowett Institute--without
Pusztai's approval --had issued prior to the program that referred
to a completely different experiment.
That same month, the institute, in response to press criticism
and an emerging House of Commons inquiry was in the offing, released
Pusztai from the terms of his contract that had gagged him, and
allowed him access to his research data.
The Royal Society, Britain's premier scientific body, entered the
debate in May. Examining neither the material nor the research data
submitted by Pusztai, a society review panel nonetheless deemed
his work "flawed" and concluded: "We found no convincing evidence
of adverse effects from [genetically engineered] potatoes."
In the wake of that review, the Independent reported that the
Blair government had launched a "cynical public relations exercise"
to "convince the public that it is determined to protect them, and
the environment, against risks from genetically modified crops"
while the government's "real intention is to buy time for industry
to develop the crops." The Independent based its report on a confidential
memo from the office of Jack Cunningham, the minister responsible
for coordinating the nation's genetic engineering policy. The memo
said in part, "The Office of Science and Technology is compiling
a list of eminent scientists to be available for broadcast interviews
and to author articles. These individuals should be alerted and
be prepared to offer comment." The memo goes on to say that the
attacks on Pusztai by the Royal Society provide "a platform for
them to trail the Government's Key Messages."
Pusztai pressed his case in the media. "I am in a situation I cannot
get out of now," he told the Sunday Herald, a Scottish paper. "I
am the only one with data that shows there are problems. I have
a choice: apologize for being incorrect or keep going, and I know
I am correct."
Then Prince Charles entered the fray. A longtime critic of bioengineering,
in December 1998 he had questioned the safety of bioengineered food
on his royal Web site. According to the Sunday Express, Blair, in
a highly unusual move, phoned Buckingham Palace "to advise the Prince
to withdraw the Web site comments [and] ... to refrain from any
public comments." The prince refused and, following the release
of the Royal Society review of Pusztai's work and the leak of the
confidential memorandum, Charles published an article in the Daily
Mail that asked: "Do existing laws protect us? Why are the rules
for approving genetically modified foods so much less stringent
than new medicines using the same technology? ... What sort of world
do we want to live in? Are we going to allow the industrialization
of life itself--redesigning the natural world for the sake of convenience?"
Soon after that he met privately with Pusztai and observed that
he had been "cruelly" treated.
The controversy died down, only to blow up again this fall when
The Lancet, the prestigious British medical journal, published a
peer-reviewed paper Pusztai had co-authored. He reported that rats
fed transgenic potatoes with the added snowdrop lectin experienced
a thickening in their small intestines, which indicates an adverse
reaction to the transgenic food. This change was not observed in
two control groups, one of which was fed plain potatoes and the
other potatoes mixed with the same lectin. Pusztai's study raised
the possibility that this thickening was caused not by the added
lectin but by the process of genetic-engineering itself.
Indeed, Pusztai suspects, though he has no proof since his research
was halted, that the problems observed in rats fed the transgenic
potatoes were caused not by the added snowdrop lectin, but by the
genes that were used in transferring the snowdrop lectin to the
potato. "All the presently used genetically modified material has
been created by essentially the same technology," he told the Sunday
Herald. "If there really is a problem, it won't just apply to the
potatoes but probably to all other transgenes." The implications
are enormous. In 1999, one-third of the corn and one-half of the
soybeans planted in the United States were genetically engineered.
The condemnation from the pro-genetic engineering scientific establishment
was immediate. The Royal Society accused The Lancet of being "breathtakingly
arrogant" for publishing Pusztai's research. The Guardian reported
that two days before the publication of the Pusztai paper, Lancet
editor Richard Horton had been warned by a senior member of the
Royal Society, British Academy of Medical Sciences President Richard
Lachmann, that his job would be in jeopardy if he published Pusztai's
research. Horton told the Guardian he was called "immoral" and told
that publication of the paper would "have implications for his personal
position as editor." Lachmann, who denies the charges, is on the
scientific advisory board of the pharmaceutical corporation SmithKline
Beecham, which is heavily invested in biotech ventures.
The most benign interpretation of Pusztai's research is that the
problem could be specific to the experimental transgenic potatoes
he studied. More ominously, the adverse effects on the rats could
be caused by the cauliflower mosaic virus promoter, a marker widely
used in genetic engineering. "The study that Pusztai did should
be redone to tease out what exactly is going on with the potatoes,"
says Michael Hansen, a research associate at Consumers Union. "But
for the folks that criticize it, his study is still a much better-designed
study than the industry-sponsored feeding studies I have seen in
peer-reviewed literature that deal with Round-Up Ready soybeans
or BT corn. Pusztai's are the kinds of experiments that need to
be done with engineered foods."
Yet no such independent, government-supported research into the
effects of genetically engineered foods on mammals is now being
carried out in either the United Kingdom or the United States, where
they have been given a clean bill of health by the Food and Drug
Administration. Responding to a letter to the editor from Lachmann
in The Lancet, Pusztai writes, "Lachmann says the experiments need
to be repeated. We would be happy to oblige. If our experiments
are so poor why have they not been repeated in the past 16 months?
It was not we who stopped the work."
Could it be that the biotech industry fears the results of independent
research could erase its enormous investment in this untested technology?
"We don't need genetically modified food in this country," Pusztai
told the Sunday Herald. "But British politicians can only see profits.
They want a share, and to hell with the consequences. It is a short-sighted
policy. It happened with the BSE [Mad Cow] crisis, and make no mistake--it
is happening again."