(text originally published by GM Watch on the 10th August 2005)
...on the 10th August 1998 the GM debate changed forever.
The story began three years earlier. That's when the UK government's
Scottish Office commissioned a three-year multi-centre research
programme into the safety of GM food under the coordination of Dr Arpad
Pusztai. At that time there was not a single publication in a
peer-reviewed journal on the safety of GM food.
Dr Pusztai, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, was an eminent
scientist. He was the world's leading expert on the plant proteins known
as lectins. He had published three books and over 270 scientific
He and his team fought off competition from 28 other research
organisations from across Europe to be awarded the GBP1.6 million
contract by the Scottish Office. The project methodology was also
reviewed and passed by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences
Research Council (BBSRC) - the UK government's main funding body for the
The research involved feeding GM potatoes to rats and monitoring
physiological changes. By late 1997 preliminary results from the
rat-feeding experiments were showing totally unexpected and worrying
changes in the size and weight of the rat's body organs. Liver and heart
sizes were getting smaller, and so was the brain. There were also
indications that the rats' immune systems were weakening.
Dr Pusztai was interviewed for a programme about GM food being made by
Granada TV's 'The World in Action'. The filming took place in late June
1998 with the agreement of the director of the Rowett Institute,
Professor James, and in the presence of the Rowett Institute's press
officer. The World in Action interview was broadcast on the evening of
Monday 10th August 1998.
Later that evening Professor James congratulated Dr Pusztai on his TV
appearance, commenting on 'how well Arpad had handled the questions'.
The next day a further press release from the Rowett noted that 'a range
of carefully controlled studies underlie the basis of Dr Pusztai's
concerns'. However, reportedly following two calls to the Rowett from
the Prime Minister's Office, the Government, the Royal Society and the
Rowett launched a vitriolic campaign to sack, silence and ridicule Dr
He was accused of unprofessional conduct because his work had not been
peer-reviewed. However, his research subsequently passed peer-review
after being reviewed by a larger than usual panel of scientists and was
published (see below). Many people also take the view that in
circumstances where research is giving rise to serious concerns that may
need to be addressed sooner rather than later, it is acceptable for
scientists to act as whistle blowers and draw attention to the problems
their research is uncovering even prior to peer-reviewed publication.
The Government criticised the methodology of Pusztai's research despite
the fact that this had been approved in advance by its own Biotechnology
and Biological Sciences Research Council. Neither the Government nor any
other official body has ever repeated or refined Dr Pusztai's
experiments to test the validity of his results.
The Royal Society and its leading Fellows were key players in the
attacks on Dr Pusztai from the time he went public with doubts about the
safety of GM foods. In February 1999, for instance, nineteen Fellows of
the Royal Society condemned Pusztai, in all but name, in a letter
published in the national press. Among the signatories was Peter
Lachmann, who played a key role in the attacks on Pusztai.
Three months later in May 1999 the Royal Society published a partial
'peer review' of Pusztai's then unpublished research. This review was
based not on a properly prepared paper, like that Pusztai and his
collaborator Ewen submitted to The Lancet for peer-review, but on a
far-from-complete internal report intended for use by Pusztai's research
team at the Rowett Institute.
Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, described the Royal Society review
as 'a gesture of breathtaking impertinence to the Rowett Institute
scientists who should be judged only on the full and final publication
of their work.'
The Royal Society's review was organised by members of a working group
appointed by the Society in coordination with the Society's officers.
The Royal Society claimed that anyone who had already commented on the
Pusztai affair had been excluded from this decision making process in
order to avoid bias. However, William Hill, Patrick Bateson, Brian Heap
and Eric Ash, who were all involved, were all among the co-signatories
of the letter condemning Pusztai that had been published in The Daily
Telegraph back in February.
In addition, four key people involved, including the Chair of the
working group, Noreen Murray, as well as Brian Heap, Rebecca Bowden and
Sir Aaron Klug, were all part of the earlier working group that had
issued the Royal Society's 1998 report supporting GM foods.
There were other issues of bias. For instance, William Hill, the chair
of the Pusztai working group, was also the deputy chair of the Roslin
Institute, famous for genetically modifying animals and for cloning
Dolly the sheep. Roslin in turn had links to Geron Biomed for whom
Lachmann consulted. Similarly, Noreen Murray was the wife of the
co-founder of Europe's first biotechnology company, Biogen.
Undaunted by the Royal Society's attack on their unpublished work,
Pusztai and his co-researcher, Prof Stanley Ewen, submitted their final
paper on their experiments to The Lancet. It was sent to six reviewers,
double the normal number, and a clear majority were in favour of its
However, prior to publication the Lancet's editor Richard Horton
received a phone call from Peter Lachmann, the former Vice-President of
the Royal Society. According to Horton, Lachmann called him 'immoral'
for publishing something he knew to be 'untrue'. Towards the end of the
conversation Horton says Lachmann also told him that if he published
Pusztai's paper, this would 'have implications for his personal
position' as editor.
The Guardian broke the news of Horton being threatened in November 1999
in a front-page story. It quoted Horton saying that the Royal Society
had acted like a Star Chamber over the Pusztai affair. 'The Royal
Society has absolutely no remit to conduct that sort of inquiry.'
Lachmann denied threatening Horton although he admitted making the phone
call in order to discuss the pending publication.
The Guardian also talked of a GM 'rebuttal unit' operating from within
the Royal Society. According to the journalist Andy Rowell, who helped
research The Guardian article, Rebecca Bowden, who had coordinated the
Pusztai peer-review and who had worked for the Government's
Biotechnology Unit before joining The Royal Society in 1998, admitted to
the paper, 'We have an organization that filters the news out there.
It's really an information exchange to keep an eye on what's happening
and to know what the government is having problems about ... its just so
that I know who to put up.'
The attacks on The Lancet editor and his decision to publish Pusztai's
paper continued. Sir Aaron Klug, vigorously opposed the publication of
Pusztai's research, saying it was fatally flawed in design because the
protein content of the diets which control groups of rats were fed on
was not the same as that of the other diets. Pusztai commented: 'In
fact, the paper clearly states that ALL diets had the same protein
content and were iso-energetic. I cannot assume that Sir Aaron is not
sufficiently intelligent to read a simple statement as that, so the only
conclusion I can come to is that he deliberately briefed the reporters
with something that was untrue.'
Richard Horton remained unbowed. 'Stanley Ewen and Arpad Pusztai's
research letter,' he wrote, 'was published on grounds of scientific
merit, as well as public interest'. What Sir Aaron Klug from the Royal
Society cannot 'defend is the reckless decision of the Royal Society to
abandon the principles of due process in passing judgement on their
work. To review and then publish criticism of these researchers'
findings without publishing either their original data or their response
was, at best, unfair and ill-judged'.
The attacks continue unabated. Peter Lachmann's successor as Biological
Secretary of the Royal Society, Patrick Bateson, told readers of the
British Association's journal Science and Public Affairs that The Lancet
had only published Pusztai's research 'in the face of objections by its
statistically-competent referees' (June 2002, Mavericks are not always
right). Bateson, presumably deliberately, inverts the fact that
Pusztai's Lancet paper successfully came through a peer review process
that was far more stringent than that applying to most published papers.
In an article in The Independent, giving the Royal Society's views on
why the public no longer trusts experts like themselves - 'Scientists
blame media and fraud for fall in public trust' - Pusztai's work is
categorised as 'fraud'. Pusztai's peer reviewers, we are told in the
article, 'refused it for publication, citing numerous flaws in its
methods - notably that the rats in the experiment had not been fed GM
potatoes, but normal ones spiked with a toxin that GM potatoes might
have made.' Almost every word of this is straight fabrication. There was
no fraud. Rats were fed GM potatoes. The publication of Pusztai's Lancet
paper was supported by a clear majority of its peer reviewers, etc. etc.
It is particularly ironic that such a travesty should have been
published in an article reporting the Royal Society's concerns about the
reporting of science in the media.
In February 2002 a new Royal Society report on GM crops was published as
an update to the Society's September 1998 report on GM. The expert group
which produced it was much more broadly based than in '98 and the report
took a noticeably more cautious line. 'British Scientists Turn on GM
Foods', ran The Guardian's headline on a report which included an
admission 'that GM technology could lead to... unpredicted harmful
changes in the nutritional status of foods'.
The expert group was chaired by Jim Smith, who had sat on the Society's
Pusztai working group, and tucked away inside the report was a paragraph
on Pusztai. Once again, it was designed to mislead.
The first part of the paragraph read: 'In June 1999, the Royal Society
published a report, review of data on possible toxicity of GM potatoes,
in response to claims made by Dr Pusztai (Ewen and Pusztai, 1999). The
report found that Dr Pusztai had produced no convincing evidence of
adverse effects from GM potatoes on the growth of rats or their immune
The Royal Society report references the phrase 'claims made by Dr
Pusztai' - claims it said it had reviewed - to the article published by
Pusztai and Ewen in The Lancet in 1999. In fact, however, the Royal
Society's partial review of Pusztai's research was published months
before The Lancet article appeared. The Royal Society thus conceals the
fact that it had only ever reviewed part of Pusztai's data, condemning
him ahead of publication of his actual paper.
The 2002 report continued: 'It concluded that the only way to clarify Dr
Pusztai's claims would be to refine his experimental design and carry
out further studies to test clearly defined hypotheses focused on the
specific effects reported by him. Such studies, on the results of
feeding GM sweet peppers and GM tomatoes to rats, and GM soya to mice
and rats, have now been completed and no adverse effects have been found
(Gasson and Burke, 2001).'
But the Gasson and Burke paper, to which these further feeding studies
are referenced by the Society, was not a piece of primary research but
an 'opinion' piece written by two pro-GM scientists, Mike Gasson and
Derek Burke. Worse, one of t he two further studies mentioned had not
even been published, except by way of summary, ie it had never been
fully peer-reviewed. In other words, the Royal Society uses an
unpublished and un-peer-reviewed study to attack Pusztai, two years
after it had condemned him for speaking to the media without first
publishing peer-reviewed work.
In response to criticism, the Royal Society admitted that the work in
question remained unpublished but said this was not a problem because,
'it had been discussed at international scientific conferences'. By this
definition, however, Pusztai's research would have been equally
validated before the Society ever launched its partial review as it had
been presented at an international conference prior to the Society's
review. Curiously, the Royal Society has also described the opinion
piece by Gasson and Burke as 'primary research,' even though it is a
literature review involving no lab work.
Andy Rowell, author of a book that deals extensively with the Royal
Society's role in the Pusztai affair, writes, 'the fundamental flaw in
the scientific establishment's response is not that they try and damn
Pusztai with unpublished data, nor is it that they have overlooked
published studies [supporting Pusztai's concerns], but that in 1999,
everyone agreed that more work was needed. Three years later, that work
remains to be undertaken... [A] scientific body, like The Royal Society,
that allocates millions in research funds every year, could have funded
a repeat of Pusztai's experiments.'
Nobody ever has.
[Much of the information above comes from Andy Rowell's book, 'Don't
Worry: Its Safe To Eat'. (Earthscan, 2003, ISBN 1853839329). See also: http://www.lobbywatch.org/profile1.asp?PrId=113