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Interview with Dr. Arpad Pusztai: The Scientist Whose Research
Has All But Brought GE Foods to a Halt in Britain

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In the following interview with GM-FREE magazine Dr Aarpad Pusztai is
asked about:

* why GM is not safe, predictable or precise
* substantial equivalence
* the allergy threat
* the "sound science" behind the GM push
* the British Medical Association's call for a GM moratorium
* the scientific and political establishment's tactics
* the Royal Society review of his research
* his decision to go public with his findings before peer review and
publication
............................................................................................................

GM-FREE Vol. 1 no. 3 August/September 1999

WHY I CANNOT REMAIN SILENT

Dr Pusztai talks to GM-FREE

Dr Pusztai kindly agreed to interrupt his summer vacation to give us an
exclusive interview. Here are his views on his suppressed research and
the dubious science driving the introduction of GM technology.

On why GM is not safe, predictable or precise

GM-FREE: The rats in your experiment who ate potatoes genetically
engineered to produce GNA lectin suffered reduced organ weights and
immune damage. Why do you think this was'?

Dr Pusztai: I think the reason is not the GNA lectin itself, but the
technique. Probably the CaMV (Cauliflower Mosaic Virus, a promoter used
to switch on the introduced gene) had a part in it. It's a problematic
thing.

The other problem is the positioning of the inserted gene. Our
experiment showed up how imprecise the technique is, because we had two
GM potatoes, both contained GNA lectin, and both came from the same pot.
They were both grown in greenhouses or in fields in tunnels under
identical conditions and at the same time. Yet they came out different.
The only explanation is that the incorporation of the transgene
[inserted gene] into the host genome happened at two different places.
And the effect on the genome was different.

These positioning effects are not simple to predict. Think of William
Tell shooting an arrow at a target. Now put a blindfold on the man doing
the shooting and that's the reality of the genetic engineer when he's
doing a gene insertion. He has no idea where the transgene will land in
the recipient genome.

Meanwhile, while we are all arguing in Britain, scientists in other
countries are getting on with the job. There are two new papers by
Japanese scientists, on GM rice and GM soya. They say that the
positioning effect has to be taken into consideration because we don't
know which genes in the host organism the inserted genes will make
silent or reactivate. It is clear from their evidence that some of the
changes cannot be predicted on the basis of the gene insertion.


On substantial equivalence

Dr Pusztai: The idea of "substantial equivalence" is that there is no
need for biological safety tests because the plants must be of similar
composition as the parent line. This is the basis on which GM crops are
being released. However, they cannot be substantially equivalent to the
parent because you've introduced new genes. That's why I don't give
tuppence for substantial equivalence.

We had two transgenic lines of potato produced from the same gene
insertion and the same growing conditions; we grew them together along
with the parent plant. With our two lines of potato, which should have
been substantially equivalent to each other, we found that one of the
lines contained 20% less protein than the other. So the two lines were
not substantially equivalent to each other. But we also found that these
two lines were not substantially equivalent to their parent. This could
not be predicted. It demonstrates that the unpredictability is inherent
in the GM process on a case by case basis ó and also at the level of
every single GM plant created.

Our project should have ended right there, in my opinion, but we had to
develop new testing techniques useful for all GM plants.

In genetic engineering, a lot of GM plants never see the daylight,
because for one reason or another they don't grow or they have an
unpleasant colour like the GM salmon which turned green. Where
unpredictable effects show up, you throw them out. But from the point of
view of science, these are important. Because 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.

Regarding our potatoes, even after many lines were thrown out, the ones
which we retained were still all different from each other. Even though
they all came from the same pot, using the same genetic construct, and
were grown in identical conditions. So this is my challenge: if it is so
predictable, so precise, they should not be any different. They must not
be different. Causative logic says that they ought to be the same. That
is for me the most worrying aspect.


On the allergy threat

GM-FREE: This lack of predictability is worrying for people with food
allergies. These people can only live their lives on the basis that they
know which foods to
avoid. Biotech companies claim they test for "known allergens" like
peanuts. But
there are thousands of other foods that can cause serious allergies but
which are not classed as known allergens. On top of this, there may be
new toxins or allergens in GM foods that are not spotted because they
are not looked for.

But what you are saying means that even if you test three potatoes and
find that they do not cause an allergic reaction, a fourth potato of the
same kind, produced by the same technique, could cause a toxic or
allergic reaction.

Dr Pusztai: You are quite right. The only thing you could do is find a
stable GM organism, which has been put through tens of generations and
still comes out the same, and which is not crossed with any other
potato. You keep the purity of the line.

GM-FREE: In the real world, this is impossible.

Dr Pusztai: I totally agree. We are storing up problems for the future.


On the "sound science" behind the GM push

Dr Pusztai: GM foods have been introduced on the back of just one
published paper. Just one, in fifteen years of GM. It was written by a
Monsanto scientist and published in 1996. The study was a feeding trial
of Roundup Ready soya on rats,
catfish, chicken and cows. I don't want to say anything about it because
it's a published paper, but I could take it apart in 10 seconds.

GM-FREE: Ah, go on.

Dr Pusztai: Well, the main problem is that the researchers appear to
have done their utmost to find no problem. They were using mature
animals which are not forming body tissues and organs. Adults only need
a small amount of protein because their bodies are in equilibrium, in
homeostasis. But a young growing animal needs a great deal more protein
because it's laying down muscle and tissues, and forming its organs.

With a nutritional study on mature animals, you would never see any
difference in organ weights even if the food turned out to be
anti-nutritional. The animals would have to be emaciated or poisoned to
show anything. In this study, they gave the rats a commercial feed that
contained 20% protein, of which only one-tenth was replaced by GM soya
protein. Most of this high overall dietary protein was used by the rats
for energy, thus masking any possible effect of the GM soya protein. You
need to stress the animals if you want to see the effects of a feeding
trial in a short enough time. This is my field, so you can take it for
granted that if I had had the chance of refereeing that paper, it would
never have passed.

Another problem was the way they did the post-mortem. They never weighed
the organs; they just looked at them ó what they call "eyeballing". I
must have done thousands of post-mortems so I know that even if there is
a difference in organ weights of as much as 25%, you wouldn't see it. In
my lectures I used to put up two identical computer-drawn rats side by
side and put two different sized organs in them, and I asked the
audience which rat was bigger, and they always got it wrong. You have to
weigh them.


On the British Medical Association's call for a GM moratorium

Dr Pusztai: It stands to reason that they would take a strong line. If
there is any problem, the doctors will have to deal with it. It's easy
for a gene-basher to say, "I've got some fantastic product," because he
doesn't have to see the consequences. He can only see that this or that
insect is killed and as far as he is concerned that's the end of the
story.

But this is a very unfair and unscientific attitude. It is close to
being irresponsible, because we are playing God. You can call it God,
evolution, natural selection, natural law, whatever ó but this is what
it is.


On the scientific and political establishment's tactics

GM-FREE: In May this year, four major reports, all trumpeting the safety
of GM foods and all condemning your work, were released within two days
of each other. They were the Donaldson/May report; the House of Commons
Science and Technology Committee report; the Royal Society review; and
the Nuffield Council on Bioethics' report. What's your view on the
timing of these reports?

Dr Pusztai: Can you believe that four major reports could come out, all
condemning me, within two days? That is stretching belief.

It's clear that there was a concerted effort to discredit me. The only
body that.invited me for discussions, the Environmental Toxicology
Committee, gave me just eleven days' notice. I explained that on that
day I would be on a plane, so could they please suggest an alternative
day. They obviously were not interested, because they did not come back
to me. The Royal Society, despite the fact that I offered my full
cooperation, refused it; they just wanted to have pieces of paper which
they could shred to bits to condemn me.

In 1956, when I was living in Hungary, I got a Ford Foundation
Scholarship and they said I could go wherever I wanted. I chose England
because I thought the British were fair, and that they would tolerate
even an oddball like me. But then I found out about these machinations
and duplicity.


On the Royal Society review of his research

Dr Pusztai: The Royal Society report was totally negative and unhelpful,
and obviously made to cut me down, to give the political masters the
backing they required from an august body.

You see, if you submit a paper to a journal, in 7 out of 10 instances,
the reviewers are helpful. For example, they say, "I don't think you
have done this well; could it not
have been done this way instead?" Then there is a dialogue. The point is
not to steam-hammer some poor soul, but, as I said in a letter to the
Royal Society, to arrive together at the truth. But in this case, there
has been no attempt whatever to discover the truth.

The Royal Society, instead of going back to last August and all that
history, should be concentrating on how to make the experiments better.
There is not a single word in their review that addresses this, apart
from saying it should be better designed. My PhD students would have
laughed at me if I said anything like that. Sanctimonious phrases are
not enoughóif you criticise an experiment, you have to say how you would
go about doing it better.

I have published everything in my life. I make a solemn promise that I
shall try my best to publish my research. If I fail, I shall put it on
the internet. I owe it to the people who have been supporting me that
they should know all the facts. No matter how the Royal Society or
whoever else machinates against me, I will do it.


On his decision to go public with his findings before peer review and
publication

Dr Pusztai: The British tax payer has spent [pounds]1.6m for this
Rowett-based research. You have paid for it. Yet if I had not spoken
out, the information would have stopped at the Rowett.

Other scientists often ask me why I went against the code of practice
and spoke out before publication in a peer reviewed journal. I made my
150-second testimony on TV's World in Action because I had facts that
indicated to me there were serious problems with transgenic food. It can
take two to three years to get science papers published and these foods
were already on the shelves without rigorous biological testing similar
to that of our GM potato work. I did indicate my concern and it cost me
my job but I would do it again. If I had not done it, we would now be
eating these potatoes and not discussing the safety of GM food.
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Technology or cookery!

A study done for the Norwegian government "questions whether the
development of GM deserves the label 'technology'. Technology is
associated with predictability, control and reproducibility, yet the GM
of cells and organisms means there is no possibility of targetting
specific genomic sites, no control over the changes in gene expression
patterns for the inserted gene and the naturally existing genes of the
GMO, and no control over the fate of the transgene (inserted gene) once
in place and once released into an ecosystem."

óAngela Ryan of the Open University summarising a report, "Too Early,
Maybe Too Late: Ecological risks associated with the use of naked DNA as
a biological tool for research, production and therapy", commissioned by
the Norwegian Government's Directorate for Nature Management.
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