MAY 2004


(followed by Dr. Pusztai's submission to the Scottish Parliament 3.12.2002)

.by Andrew Rowell
The Daily Mail, July 7 2003  

  EARLY one fine summer morning, a taxi pulled up outside a neat suburban terrace house in Aberdeen and took a 68-year-old scientist to a TV studio.   Shortly afterwards Dr Arpad Pustzai found himself propelled from a life of grateful obscurity into the centre of an astonishing political maelstrom that would cost him his job, his reputation and his health.   His crime was to question the safety of genetically modified food.

His interview on ITV's World In Action lasted just 150 seconds, but that was long enough to reveal his ground-breaking research suggesting rats fed genetically modified potatoes suffered stunted growth and damage to their immune systems.

It triggered a controversy that put him on a collision course with the Government, the biotech industry and the scientific establishment. The diminutive Hungarian-born scientist, who had escaped the terrors of Stalinism to enjoy a brilliant 35-year academic career, became a reviled figure: ostracised by colleagues, villified, and gagged.  

Now, five years on, there are disturbing claims that this distinguished scientist was the victim of behind-the-scenes manoeuvring at the highest political level.   Some of the allegations are truly explosive. They raise profound questions about the extraordinary network of relationships between senior Labour figures and the biotech companies. They also throw new light on why the multi-billion-pound GM industry continues to press ahead in the face of huge public opposition.  

The World In Action documentary was broadcast on Monday, August 10, 1998. It was a little over a year since Tony Blair had swept into Downing Street. His government was in thrall to the biotech industry, convinced it could become a driving force of the British economy. What Dr Pusztai was saying threatened to derail those ambitions.   He was based at the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen, which conducts research into animal nutrition. He had published more than 270 scientific studies and three books on lectins, plant proteins that are central to the GM controversy. He was the world's leading expert on the subject.   In the TV interview, he said he believed GM food could be made safe, but added: 'If I had the choice I would certainly not eat it.   He demanded tighter rules over GM foods, and warned: 'I find it's very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs. We have to find guinea pigs in the laboratory.'  

On the evening the programme went out, the Rowett Institute's director Professor Philip James congratulated Dr Pusztai on his appearance, commenting how well he had handled the questions. The following morning a press release from the Institute gave him further support, stressing that a 'range of carefully controlled studies underlie the basis of Dr Pusztai's concerns'.  

Yet within 48 hours, everything had changed. Dr Pusztai had been suspended by the Institute and ordered to hand over all his data.   His research team was dispersed and he was threatened with legal action if he spoke to anyone. His phone calls and e-mails were diverted; his personal assistant was banned from speaking to him. He read in a press release issued by the Institute that his contract would not be renewed.  

What triggered such an extraordinary about-face? How did a respected scientist become a pariah overnight?   The results he claimed to have found were certainly worrying. Dr Pusztai maintained that when rats were fed a certain kind of GM potato - adapted to produce natural insecticide - their livers, hearts and other organs got smaller.   He also found that the size of their brains was affected, but did not dare publicise this fact because he was thought to be alarmist.   Clearly, such findings were deeply threatening for the GM industry.

In Orwellian fashion, the Rowett Institute gave a number of conflicting reasons for suddenly disowning them.
  First, it claimed Dr Pusztai had simply got confused, muddling up the results for two different batches of potatoes. According to this explanation, the worrying results came from a 'control' sample of potatoes containing a substance known to be poisonous.   This was an utterly astonishing claim - a basic error worthy of a bumbling schoolboy. Newspapers rightly described it as one of the most embarrassing blunders ever admitted by a major scientific institution.  

The trouble was, it wasn't true. Whatever the merits of his results, Dr Pusztai hadn't mixed them up, as a subsequent audit of his work confirmed. One of his colleagues, leading pathologist Stanley Ewen said: 'Arpad has always had a clear vision. He is certainly never muddled. He was on top of the whole business.'  

When it became clear the claim was baseless, the Institute shifted its ground. First, it said that Dr Pusztai had not carried out the long-term tests needed to prove his findings. Then it said he had carried out the tests but the results weren't ready.   Again, this simply wasn't so.   Later, when his reputation was in tatters and his research thoroughly discredited, the Institute accepted that Dr Pusztai had acted in good faith and described him as 'an intense investigative scientist with an international reputation'.  

But by then he was a ruined man who had suffered two heart attacks. His wife, who was sacked with him, was on permanent medication for high blood pressure. Dr Pusztai has come to believe there is only one plausible explanation for his downfall - political pressure from a government in fear of his findings.  

Breaking his long silence over the affair, he now claims that he was fired as a direct consequence of Tony Blair's intervention. The day after his World In Action broadcast, he believes that two phone calls were put through to his boss, Philip James, from the Prime Minister's office in Downing Street.   The following day he was fired. He says he was informed of the calls by two different employees at the Rowett. Dr Putsztai and his wife were also told by a senior manager at the institute that Blair's intervention followed a phone call to Downing Street from President Bill Clinton, whose administration was spending billions backing the GM food industry.   To sceptical ears, this sounds scarcely credible. Would the Prime Minister really have had any influence over the position of a respected scientist?   And yet the story is supported by two other eminent researchers. Stanley Ewen, says another senior figure at the institute told him the same story at a dinner on September 24, 1999.   'That conversation is sealed in my mind,' Ewen says. 'My jaw dropped to the floor. I suddenly saw it all - it was the missing link.   'Until then, I couldn't understand how on Monday Arpad had made the most wonderful breakthrough, and on Tuesday it was the most dreadful piece of work and immediately rejected out of hand.'   The second source to confirm the story is Professor Robert Orskov OBE, who worked at the Rowett for 33 years and is one of Britain's leading nutrition experts. He was told that phone calls went from Monsanto, the American firm which produces 90% of the world's GM food, to Clinton and then to Blair.   'Clinton rang Blair and Blair rang James,' says Professor Orskov.   'There is no doubt he was pushed by Blair to do something. It was damaging the relationship between the USA and the UK, because it was going to be a huge blow for Monsanto.'  

It is no secret that Blair was first persuaded to support GM by Clinton, and that the President exerted great pressure on his European allies to promote the new technology.   But would Professor James, who had run the Rowett Institute since 1982 and was one of the world's most respected nutritionists, have sacrificed his own man?   At the time, he undoubtedly enjoyed good relations with Tony Blair. While Labour was in opposition, he had been chosen to set up the blueprint for a new Food Standards Agency.   The storm over Dr Pusztai's findings was to cost him a job as the agency's first head. 'You destroyed me,' he later told Dr Pusztai.   Professor James vehemently denies acting on orders from the Premier, saying: 'There's no way I talked to anybody in any circumstances. It's a pack of lies. I have never talked to Blair since the opening of Parliament in 1997.'   Downing Street is equally dismissive of the claims. "This is total rubbish," said a spokesman. Dr Pusztai, however, remains convinced he was punished for following his conscience. 'I obviously spoke out at a very sensitive time. Things were coming to a head with the GM debate and I just lit the fuse.  

'I grew up under the Nazis and the Communists and I understand that people are frightened and not willing to jeopardise their future, but they just sold me down the river.'   Among the most instructive aspects of the affair is the way ministers leapt on criticism of his work and sought to undermine his reputation.   In May 1999, by what seems an impossibly neat coincidence, reports attacking him were published on the very same day by the Royal Society - the voice of the scientific establishment - and the science and technology select committee of the House of Commons.  

Jack Cunningham(who was previouslyinvolved in downplaying dangers from Sellafield nuclear waste dumps,JBraddell,ed.), the Government's so-called Cabinet Enforcer, then poured scorn on Dr Pusztai's 'wholly misleading results' and to promise that all GM food on sale in Britain was safe to eat.   It smacked of a co-ordinated counter-attack, and that is precisely what it was. A Government memo reveals that Cunningham and other senior ministers had set up a 'Biotechnology Presentation Group'   Then, as now, relationships between senior Labour figures and the GM food companies bordered on the incestuous. In Labour's first two years in office, GM companies met government officials and ministers 81 times.   The Blair government sees the biotech industry as a new scientific frontier, an industry worth GBP75 billion in Europe alone by 2005. Science minister Lord Sainsbury is a dedicated GM supporter, though he does not officially deal with GM food matters. On being appointed to his post, Lord Sainsbury held large share holdings in two biotech companies, Diatech and Innotech; subsequently they were put in a blind trust. He is also New Labour's largest single donor, having given the party more than GBP8 million since it first came into power.   The irony of Sainsbury being in charge of a pro-GM science policy was highlighted when it emerged he had made a GBP20m paper profit in just four years through his investment in Innotech.   There are links too between Labour and the biotech industry's spin-doctors. Monsanto's PR company in the UK is Good Relations, whose director David Hill ran Labour's media operations for the 1997 and 2001 general elections.  

In such an environment, it is scarcely surprising if dissidents like Dr Pusztai find themselves pushed to the fringes and turned into scapegoats.   The oddest twist of all came in May 1999, when Dr Pusztai and his wife went abroad for a few days to escape the controversy surrounding them.   On their return they discovered there had been a break-in at their house in Aberdeen. The only things taken were some bottles of malt whisky, a bit of foreign currency - and the bags containing all their research data.   This was followed by another break-in at the Rowett Institute at the end of the year. Only Dr Pusztai's old lab that was broken into.   He remains baffled about who was behind the raids, and why he was targeted.   But he continues to defend his controversial findings.   'They picked the wrong guy,' he says simply. 'I will kick the bucket before I give up.'

*Don't Worry (It's Safe to Eat) by Andrew Rowell is published by Earthscan on July 10 2003 (16.99) see Andy's web site Andy Rowell

Submission of Health Impacts of GM Crops.

Evidence to the Clerk to the Health and Community Care Committee of The Scottish Parliament

Dr Arpad Pusztai, FRSE

Health Impact of GM Crops

1. For reasons based on the precautionary principle as reinforced by the results of our research on GM potatoes carried out between 1995 and 1998 and funded by the then SOAEFD and other evidence as detailed below under point 2 of the original questionnaire the Scottish Executive should prevent the continuation and the starting up of further new GM crop trials so as not to jeopardize the health of the peoples of Scotland and also to prevent the Scottish countryside from irreversible genetic contamination that may threaten the health of future generations of the land.

2. Regulatory framework

The risk assessment procedure for GM crops currently in place is not sufficiently robust to ensure public health and safety because the regulatory process is fundamentally flawed. GM-foodstuffs are presently accepted on the basis of their "substantial equivalence" to their non-GM counterparts. This concept is not only unscientific but also potentially dangerous because the present analytical methods used for establishing equivalence do not allow for the discovery of new antinutrients, toxins and allergens formed as the unintended consequence of the genetic transformation of the crops. This fault is compounded by the practice of the regulatory authorities' almost exclusive reliance on unpublished results of "in house" work of the biotech companies contained in their submission. Even if these are scientifically valid, they fall down on the public's (and other scientists') demand of transparency because it is not required by the regulatory authorities that the results of biological risk assessment or nutritional/physiological studies carried out with GM-crops should be made available for scrutiny to other scientists and interested persons and published in peer-reviewed journals. Moreover, if the regulators wish to confirm or reject any of the results in the submissions, their hands are tied because they cannot commission new independent work. As the forte of most of their members is scientific administration, the Committees should not only be strengthened by the presence of consumer and environmental pressure groups but also by the appointment of active scientists of different disciplines.

The lack of proper science basis of crop genetic modification

The present method of gene transfer which enables scientists to transform any plant using virus and antibiotic resistance genes and which is now the dominant technique for the creation of GM crops is based on the fundamentally flawed principle of genetic determinism, requiring that one gene expresses only one protein but without influencing the expression of other genes or without other genes and gene networks influencing the expression of the gene newly transferred into the crop plant genome. However, as a result of the human genome project we now have incontestable evidence that this is not true and therefore all present GM crops are the products of the same imprecise and unpredictable technology that may harm both human health and the environment. Additionally, the use of naked viral DNA promoters which are known to be hotspots of recombination with host DNA and may induce horizontal gene transfer, the inclusion of antibiotic resistance genes in the gene-transfer construct and the unpredictability of both the site of insertion and its consequences for the plant genome makes this method unacceptable. In addition, present day GM-crops designed for increased pest resistance, such as those expressing Bacillus thuringiensis lectin endotoxins (Bt toxin crops), are not sufficiently selective and specific for their major pests and, by inflicting damage to beneficial insects, they destroy the natural balance between pests and useful organisms. Neither have these crops be shown to be harmless for human/animal consumers. Indeed, there is good peer-reviewed published evidence to show that Bt toxins are both immunogens and immunoadjuvants for mammals and as such they have profound influence on the functioning of both the humoral and mucosal immune systems1. Moreover, it has also been shown that Bt toxins bind to the mammalian small intestine and have major effects on its proper functioning2.

Comparison of the potential health risks of GM vs. conventional foods

The often-heard statement that GM crops are just another cultivar is simply untrue. No viral, bacterial or mammalian DNA found in present day GM crops resulting from the process of genetic transformation could have been introduced into the plant genome by natural means or traditional cross-breeding. GM-food therefore contains foreign genes and their products that may not have ever been eaten before and whose effects on health and metabolism of mammals are unknown, unpredictable and untested. Although most nutritional journals are full of papers of animal feeding studies in which the nutritional value and potential harmful effects of plant based conventional feedstuffs are evaluated, only a handful of such studies with GM-crops have been published in peer-reviewed science journals3. Moreover, except our two published studies4,5 most of these published articles have resulted from the work of biotech imdustry scientists. With the exception of a present FSA (Food Standard Agency) sponsored but unpublished study with human volunteers with externally fitted intestinal pouches who were given a single dose of GM soya-based food, the possible health effects on the human digestive tract and its bacterial population have never been tested. This is the more serious because this study showed evidence that bacteria in the pouch contained pieces of DNA used in the genetic conversion, clearly demonstrating that horizontal gene transfer is not only a theoretical possibility but also a reality. It is also expected that with the likely prospect of the inclusion of more GM-crops into the human diet in future, such as unprocessed/uncooked greens, vegetables, fruits, etc, the potentially harmful effects of foreign DNA and gene products on human/animal health will be substantially increased, particularly because of "tradition" these crops are accepted as a matter of course and without proper testing.

The results of our GM potato studies and their possible consequences for human health

In 1995 we started a publicly-funded (by the then Scottish Office Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Department, SOAEFD) major scientific investigation into the possible environmental and health hazards of GM-potatoes that had been transformed by British scientists using a gene taken from snowdrop bulbs. This is still to date the only truly independent investigation of the potential health effects of a GM crop. The gene of this sugar-recognizing protein (GNA) has been known to give natural protection against insect pests. We have also shown in extensive and appropriate nutritional studies carried out by our research group at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen before the genetic modification of our potatoes with the GNA gene that animals ingesting this protein as part of their diet even at an 800-fold excess of that present in GM-potatoes, suffered no significant harmful consequences. We have, therefore, expected it to be safe for animal and, later after appropriate testing, possibly for human consumers. Unfortunately, our expectations were dashed as our studies revealed that the two lines of field-grown GM-potatoes which originated from the same transformation and were both resistant to aphid pests were not substantially equivalent in composition to parent line potatoes, nor to each other. Even more importantly, we showed from the results of four rat feeding studies of different designs and durations (10 to 110 days) that diets containing GM potatoes in comparison with iso-proteinic and iso-energetic non-GM parent potato diets had in some instances interfered with the growth of young rapidly growing rats, the normal development of some of their vital organs, induced changes gut structure and function and reduced their immune responsiveness to injurious antigens. In contrast, the animals fed on diets containing the parent, non-GM-potatoes or these potatoes supplemented with the gene product had no such effects. Some of these results has been published4-7 and are also given on my own website:

Our findings have been attacked by many but never materially disproved by repeating our work, coming to different conclusions and publishing these. Thus, these people have only voiced their personal opinions which have no scientific standing and should be ignored. Our work has in fact clearly demonstrated that, in addition to possible toxicological studies, the safety of GM-foodstuffs must be established in short- and long-term feeding, metabolic and immune-response studies with young animals as these should be the most appropriate to respond to and show up any nutritional and metabolic stresses affecting the normal development of young animals into healthy adults a view that is shared by other scientists. Multivariate statistical analysis of our results carried out independently by SASS (Scottish Agricultural Statistics Service) has suggested that the major potentially harmful effects of our GM-potatoes were only in part caused by the presence of the GNA transgene but that the method of genetic transformation and/or the disturbances in the potato genome also made major contributions to the changes observed.

The method of genetic engineering we used for the transformation of the potatoes was almost identical to most if not all the GM-crops released to date and it is now clear that none of these have been subjected to rigorous nutritional, metabolic and immunological testing similar to ours. As our GM-potatoes have not been released because their possible hazards for human/animal consumers, our results suggest that all GM-foodstuffs produced by the same/similar genetic engineering methodology ought to be withdrawn from human food products and animal feeds until and unless appropriate, rigorous safety tests could be carried out on them to show that they had no harmful effects. Moreover, no further field trials of GM crops or releases of GM foods must be allowed until they are shown to present no or minimal risks for consumers and/or the environment by commonly agreed, independently carried out and transparently reported nutritional, metabolic, toxicological and immune safety tests. This should equally apply to so-called second generation GM-crops with apparent nutritional advantages because presently the methodology used for their development is similar to that of other present GM-crops. In addition, to the relatively short-term safety assessment, the possible long-term adverse effects of GM-crops on animal reproduction must be established, with particular attention to the use of parasitoid DNA components, such as viral and bacterial promoters, plasmids, antibiotic resistance genes, etc. The long-term effects of these on horizontal gene transfer, DNA recombination and incorporation into the genome of bacteria, viruses, plants and animals must also be addressed by fundamental and independent academic studies. Indeed, we need to re-think the whole strategy of genetic engineering and because of its potential importance for and effect on mankind it should not be left to the decision of a few multinational companies. We have to find appropriate and transparent ways for independent and publicly-funded scientists together with the industry, religious, political leaders, NGO-s and other legitimate and interested stake-holders and members of the public to debate and finally agree as how to solve this problem for the common good while all the time keeping the precautionary principle as our guiding light to avoid any reckless adventures.

3. Even though I have my opinion on possible cross-contamination of conventional crops by GM crops, I am no expert and therefore make no comments on this point.

4. The answer is a most definite yes to the question whether the Scottish Executive ought to monitor the health of people living around the GM farm scale evaluation sites for reasons as detailed under point 2 of my submission. As some of the methods used in our rat studies and other non-invasive techniques such as blood sampling, immune responsiveness and gut/faecal bacterial DNA tests and possibly even histopathology of gut biopsy samples are even more conveniently applicable to humans than to small laboratory animals, no legitimate objections could be raised against such health monitoring. Quite the contrary, the results of monitoring could make a long-overdue scientific contribution to a rather sterile and non-factual but opinion-based debate on the possible health consequences for people of exposure to GM-crops and GM-food.


1. RI Vazquez Padron et al (1999) Intragastric and intraperitoneal administration of Cry1Ac protoxin from Bacillus thuringiensis induces systemic and mucosal antibody responses in mice. Life Sciences, 64, 1897-1912.

2. NH Fares and AK El-Sayed (1998) Fine structural changes in the ileum of mice fed on delta-endotoxin-treated potatoes and transgenic potatoes. Natural Toxins, 6, 219-233.

3. A Pusztai (2001) Genetically modified foods: are they a risk to human/animal health?  (and in press).

4. A Pusztai et al. (1999) Expression of the insecticidal bean alpha-amylase inhibitor transgene has minimal detrimental effect on the nutritional value of peas fed to rats at 30% of the diet. The Journal of Nutrition, 129, 1597-1603.

5. SWB Ewen an A Pusztai (1999) Effects of diets containing genetically modified potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat small intestine. The Lancet, 354, 1353-1354.

6. A Pusztai (2002) Can science give us the tools for recognizing possible health risks of GM food? Nutrition and Health (2002) 16, 73-84

7. A Pusztai (2002) GM food safety: Scientific and institutional issues. Science as Culture, 11, 70-92.

Arpad Pusztai 15th November 2002