Scientists defend suppressed evidence on GMO risks

Twenty-one international scientists have expressed support for a scientist who was sacked from his job after publicly discussing research findings showing that rats fed genetically modified (GM) potatoes suffered damage to their immune system and growth.

Scientists defend suppressed evidence on GMO risks

On 12th February 1999, 21 international scientists published a memorandum expressing serious concerns about the sacking of Dr Arpad Pusztai from The Rowett Research Institute in August 1998, and expressed their support for his findings on the effects of GM food on rats.

Dr Pusztai found that rats fed on genetically modified potatoes suffered a weakened immune system and damage to vital organs.

If Dr Pusztai’s concerns about the effects of genetically modified food on the immune system prove to be valid it will have serious consequences for the safety of GM food. GM foods including soya and maize, potentially used in over 60% of processed foods, are already on the market.

Friends of the Earth (FoE) has called for an independent inquiry into the sacking and is also demanding an immediate freeze on the introduction of GM foods. Greenpeace urges that GM foods be banned outright.

FoE food campaigner Adrian Bebb said: “Why was Dr Pusztai sacked? Who from outside the Rowett Institute put the pressure on to force him out? Leading scientists have now backed his work. The possible health risks from GM foods are now clear for all to see. The case for an immediate five year freeze on the licensing and growing of these Frankenfoods is now unanswerable.”

Greenpeace Campaign Director, Dr Douglas Parr, said: “It is ludicrous that that these genetically engineered products are actually being sold in our supermarkets when such fundamental health impacts are still just coming to light. Once GM organisms are released into the environment the effects on our biodiversity are entirely unpredictable and there will be no turning back.”

“Equally appalling is the fact that we are being subjected to such risks when the only people who stand to gain from genetic engineering of our food are the multinational companies, like Monsanto, that are looking to profit from this global experiment,”added Parr.

Dr Arpad Pusztai was forced to resign from his position at the Government-funded Rowett Institute in Aberdeen last August when he said on ITV’s World in Action that rats had suffered a reduction in brain size, liver damage and a weakening of their immune system after being fed GM potatoes for 10 days. The development of the animals’ kidney, thymus, spleen and gut was also affected.

Dr Pusztai added that he would not eat GM potatoes and that he thought it “very, very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs”.

The Rowett Institute described the results of Dr Pusztai’s experiments as “very confused.” Food company Monsanto told The Times that “…these revelations are absolute dynamite”, adding that “We have…food scares and doom-laden utterances without anyone looking at the facts.” (The Scotsman)

The lobby group, Foodfuture, added that the scandal was due to “sloppy science and over-blown reporting…” (The Guardian)

Monsanto further claimed in The Independent that the retraction proved consumers had nothing to worry about and described the episode as “a complete disaster. It is a classic example of how we can so easily over-react to a snippet of information and cause a food scare.” (The Financial Times)

” It’s time Monsanto apologised to Dr Pusztai and to everyone that is campaigning against the genetic engineering of our food for initial over-reaction to this very important research into a new technology that is unpredictable, untried and untested. It’s also time that Blair got out of the pockets of these biotech giants and listened to the UK public that are crying out for wholesome, organic food,” added Parr.

Widespread dissemination and the release of GMOs into the environment is already taking place in the context of experimental field trials, large scale agriculture, marketing of commodities etc. The European Commisssion maintains that International action based on the precautionary principle is necessary, but has warned that next week’s negotiations for an international protocol on GMOs may fail due to the entrenched positions of the industry and certain developing countries – see related story.

In a memorandum published on 12 February 1999, the 21 scientists endorse Dr Pusztai’s findings: “We are of the opinion that…the results [of a Rowett Institute Audit Report on Dr Pusztai ‘s research]… are sufficient to exonerate Dr Pusztai by showing that the consumption of GM potatoes by rats led to significant differences in organ weight and depression of lymphocyte responsiveness compared to controls.”

The scientists also accuse the Rowett Institute and its Director, Professor Philip James, of suppressing the results of the Audit Report: “Although a Report was written on the conclusion made by the Audit Committee, this has only been discussed by selected people… Unfortunately, neither the results of the GM research nor of the Audit have been fully revealed. Instead, …the Rowett Institute published a summary of the conclusions of the Audit Report which stated unequivocally that Dr Pusztai’s conclusions were not justified by his experimental data.

The memorandum continues: “Those of us who have known Dr Pusztai’s work or have collaborated with him, were shocked by the harshness of his treatment by the Rowett and even more by the impenetrable secrecy surrounding these events. It is an unacceptable code of practice by the Rowett and its Director, Professor James, to set themselves up as arbiters or judges of the validity of data which could have such a profound importance not only for scientists, but also for the public and its health.”

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