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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 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 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."


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