No Small (Genetic) Potatoes
A British researcher raises doubts about genetically
by Joel Bleifuss
In These Times magazine, January 2000
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 hightech 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 pigs."
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 critics.
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," he said.
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
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
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
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."
Arpad Pusztai, the British scientist whose research has shaken
the foundations of bioengineering, carves a potato.