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But this mailing is undertaken to continue our efforts to promote to our readers 
worthy books celebrated by or written by our commentary writers. This time we have an 
excerpt for you...

Hot Potato

[Excerpt From 'Don't Worry It Is Safe To Eat - The True Story Of GM Food, BSE, And 
Foot And Mouth'  

By Andrew Rowell] 

As the UK government continues to wriggle over weapons of mass destruction, of sexing 
up dossiers and general spin, Tony Blair argues that there is no greater charge 
against a prime minister than for him to have personally falsified claims on which to 
take a country to war. 

That may be so, but another grave charge would be personally ordering the sacking of a 
scientist who was involved in some of the first independent tests on GM, especially if 
those tests showed evidence of harm, and also especially if the orders came from 
Monsanto, via the White House. This is what Dr. Arpad Pusztai, who raised concerns 
about GM food in 1998, claims happened to him. 

Part of the recent argument between the BBC and the government concern the claims by a 
single unnamed intelligence source that the government "sexed" up one of the dossiers 
on Iraq. In contrast five people have said that they were told that Tony Blair ordered 
the sacking of Dr. Pusztai. Here is Dr. Pusztai's story. It raises many unanswered 
questions about new Labour, its link to the biotech industry and the safety of GM 

Dr. Arpad Pusztai 

As we witness the dawn of the biotech revolution, Dr Arpad Pusztai is a scientist who 
is convinced that he has uncovered vital evidence that shows there are potential major 
health risks with GM crops. Pusztai was catapulted from an unknown laboratory 
scientist based at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen to the forefront of a 
raging debate about the safety of GM foods, when he spoke on the World in Action TV 
programme in 1998. 

Overnight the Hungarian-born scientist, with some 35 years lab experience, found 
himself at the centre of an international media spotlight. The controversy would put 
him on a collision course with the UK and US governments, the biotech industry and the 
scientific establishment. His 150-second interview lead to Pusztai being suspended, 
silenced and threatened with losing his pension. His wife, Susan Bardocz, who also 
worked at the Rowett for 13 years, was eventually suspended too. Their research was 
locked up. Scientists and politicians alike vilified Pusztai. 

As we search for answers as to whether GM foods are safe, two questions stand out. 
Given such a huge controversy over Pusztai's experiments, and the preliminary nature 
of their findings, why were the political and scientific establishments so intent on 
rebutting him? More importantly why have the experiments never been repeated? 

The saga has had very personal consequences. Pusztai has suffered two heart attacks 
and the saga has left him and his wife, Susan, needing permanent medication for high 
blood pressure. Pusztai is still angry about the whole affair. His only crime was to 
speak out, in his words, according to his conscience: 'I obviously spoke out at a very 
sensitive time. But things were coming to a head with the GM debate and I just lit the 
fuse', he says. '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.' 

His story begins in post-war communist Hungary. After the Hungarian revolution was 
crushed by the communists, the young Pusztai, a chemistry graduate, escaped to refugee 
camps in Austria and from there to England. By 1963, having finished his doctorate in 
biochemistry and post-doctorate at the Lister Institute, he was invited to join the 
prestigious Protein Chemistry Department at the Rowett Research Institute, which has 
become the pre-eminent nutritional centre in Europe. 

Dr Pusztai was put to work on lectins, plant proteins that were going to be central in 
the GM controversy years later.  Over the intervening years, Pusztai became the 
world's leading expert on plant lectins, publishing over 270 scientific studies, and 
three books on the subject. Two books were co-written with his wife, Susan. Pusztai 
became one of the Rowett's most senior and renowned scientists. 

In 1995, the Scottish Office Agriculture Environment and Fisheries Department 
commissioned a three-year multi-centre research programme under the coordinatorship of 
Dr Pusztai into the safety of GM food. At the time there was not a single publication 
in a peer-reviewed journal on the safety of GM food. 

The scientists' primary task was to establish credible methods for the identification 
of possible human/animal health and environmental hazards of GM. The idea was that the 
methodologies that they tested would be used by the regulatory authorities in later 
risk assessments of GM crops. For the first time, independent studies would be 
undertaken to examine whether feeding GM potatoes to rats caused any harmful effects 
on their health, bodies or metabolism. 

The theory behind the modification of the potatoes was simple. For years Dr Pusztai 
had explored the beneficial effects of lectins in foods as well as in nutritional 
supplements and pharmaceutical agents. Lectins can affect the digestive systems of 
insects and can act as natural insecticides. Arpad's work had shown that one such 
lectin called GNA (Galanthus nivalis), isolated from the snowdrop, acted in this way. 
Pusztai had worked on the snowdrop lectin since the late 1980s. 

The thinking was that, if you could genetically modify a potato with the lectin gene 
inside it, the potato could have an inherent built-in defence mechanism that would act 
as a natural insecticide, preventing aphid attack. Because it looked promising, the 
snowdrop gene had already been incorporated into several experimental crops, including 
rice, cabbagesand oil-seed rape. 

But by late 1997, the first storm clouds were brewing at the Rowett. 
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. 

150 Seconds That Changed The GM Debate 

Finally in August 1998, Pusztai expressed his growing concerns on World in Action in a 
150 second interview. So what did he say? 'We're assured that this is absolutely 
safe,' said Pusztai. 'We can eat it all the time. We must eat it all the time. There 
is no conceivable harm, which can come to us. But as a scientist looking at it, 
actively working in the field, I find that it's very, very unfair to use our fellow 
citizens as guinea pigs. We have to find guinea-pigs in the laboratory.' Dr Pusztai 
had been told not to talk about his experiments in detail, but he did say, in a 
sentence that would become the centre of the controversy, that 'the effect was slight 
growth retardation and an effect on the immune system. One of the genetically modified 
potatoes, after 110 days, made the rats less responsive to immune effects'. 

He continued: 'If I had the choice, I would certainly not eat it till I see at least 
comparable experimental evidence which we are producing for our genetically modified 
potatoes. I actually believe that this technology can be made to work for us. And if 
the genetically modified foods will be shown to be safe, then we have really done a 
great service to all our fellow citizens. And I very strongly believe in this, and 
that's one of the main reasons why I demand to tighten up the rules, tighten up the 

On the evening of the broadcast, the head of the Rowett Professor James 
'congratulated,' Pusztai on his TV appearance, commenting on 'how well Arpad had 
handled the questions'. The following morning a further press release from the Rowett 
noticed that a 'range of carefully controlled studies underlie the basis of Dr 
Pusztai's concerns'. 

The Riddle Of The Rowett 

But it is here that the Rowett and Pusztai differ in what happened next. The day after 
the programme, on the Tuesday James maintains he asked Pusztai's staff for the data 
for the 110-day experiment, which he claims they told him did not exist. 'I couldn't 
believe it,  says James, 'I just said that this is the end of the world for us all'. 
James maintains that this is the reason why Pusztai was suspended on the Wednesday. 

On Wednesday morning, Pusztai and Susan were told to hand over their data. All GM work 
was stopped immediately and Pusztai's team was dispersed. His three PhD students were 
moved to other areas. He was threatened with legal action if he spoke to anyone. His 
phone calls and emails were diverted. 

The Rowett press machinery was adopting Orwellian overtones and beginning to change 
the official story. First of all they said that Pusztai had got muddled with the wrong 
potatoes, then they had said that the experiments had not been done, but finally they 
reported that Pusztai had done the right experiments but the results were not ready 

Other disputed events happened on the Tuesday too. Two phone calls, Pusztai says he 
was told, were put through to James from the Prime Minister's office. One was 'around 
noon, the other was slightly earlier'. He learnt this information from two different 
employees at the Rowett, who could be sacked if their identities were known. The 
Pusztais were also later told by someone at the Rowett, currently in a senior 
management position at the Institute, that Bill Clinton had phoned Blair and told him 
to sort out the problem. 'That was the beginning of all the trouble - Arpad was sacked 
as a consequence of what was said in those phone calls,' says a friend. 

The events of August 1998 have always puzzled Stanley Ewen, then a top pathologist 
from the University of Aberdeen who had worked with Pusztai for over a decade.  Ewen 
too had often wondered what caused the sudden turn-around at the Rowett. 

Speaking about the incident for the first time now he is retired from the University 
of Aberdeen, he confirms the Pusztais' stories, but crucially he was told by yet 
another senior member of the Rowett. This makes four separate Rowett personnel who 
have spoken in private about the phone calls. 'On Tuesday, Blair phoned the Rowett 
twice, although everybody denies it', Ewen says. 

Another ex-employee who was prepared to talk is Professor Robert ěrskov OBE. Professor 
ěrskov worked at the Rowett for 33 years, and is one of the UK's leading experts in 
ruminant nutrition. He too was told about the phone calls. Professor ěrskov says he 
was told that the phone calls went from Monsanto to Clinton to Blair. 'Clinton rang 
Blair and Blair rang James - you better keep that man [Pusztai] shut up. James didn't 
know what to do. Instead of telling him to keep his mouth shut, they should have told 
him to say it needs more work. But there is no doubt that he was pushed by Blair to do 

But Professor James is adamant the phone call never happened. 'There is no way I 
talked to anybody in any circumstances' he says. 'It's a complete pack of lies. I have 
never talked to Blair since the day of the opening of Parliament in 1997.' This week 
Downing Street also called the claims "total rubbish". 

Although there is no proof that phone calls ever took place, Pusztai points to other 
evidence about Blair and GM. It is a well-known fact that Blair had been persuaded to 
back GM by Clinton, leading even the BBC to remark that in the GM debate 'a question 
mark remains over the government's independence of pressure from Washington'. In the 
mid-1990s the Clinton administration was backing the biotech industry 'second to 
none'. One White House staff member said the 1990s were going to be the decade of 
'successful commercialization of agricultural biotechnology products'. 

When Pusztai spoke out in August 1998, the new Labour administration was already 
beginning to shape government policy for its second term. It was looking for drivers 
of the economy that could be trusted to deliver the growth and hence results that 
Labour needed. Hightech industries, such as biotechnology, were to be the central cogs 
of the engine that would drive the Blairite revolution, and deliver the coveted second 
term. What Pusztai was saying could literally derail an entire industry and with it 
many of the hopes and aspirations of New Labour. 

Pusztai Backed By Colleagues 

By the end of 1998, the Pusztai saga could have slowly subsided, with the scientist 
forbidden to talk to inquiring journalists. But wherever he went, scientific 
colleagues were curious to find out what had really happened to their colleague. 
Although banned from talking to the press, he was not banned from talking to other 
scientists outside the Rowett. In February 1999 30 international scientists from 13 
countries published a memo supporting Pusztai that was published in the Guardian which 
sparked a media frenzy over GM. 

A week after the international scientists backed Pusztai, a secret committee met to 
counter the growing alarm over GM. Contrary to reassurances by the government that GM 
food was safe, the minutes show the cross departmental committee formed to deal with 
the crisis, called MISC6, knew the reassurances were premature. It 'requested' a paper 
by the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) and the Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) on the 
'human health implications of GM foods'. 

What would happen, the minutes asked, if the CMO/CSA's paper 'shows up any doubts? We 
will be pressurised to ban them immediately. What if it says that we need evidence of 
long-term effects? This will look like we are not sure about their safety'. 

The "Star Chamber" 

That very same day - 19 February - The Royal Society publicly waded into the Pusztai 
controversy saying it was going to review the evidence on GM, but Pusztai argues it 
was nothing more than an attack on him. 

'Their remit was to screw me and they screwed me,' he argues. 'They have never done it 
before and I had never submitted anything to them. They took on a role in which they 
were self-appointed, they were the prosecutors, the judges and they tried to be the 
executioners as well. I see no reason why I should have cooperated with them in my own 

But hung Pusztai was. On 18 May 1999, the Royal Society issued its damning verdict 
against Pusztai, at a press conference. The report said that Pusztai's work was 
'flawed in many aspects of design, execution and analysis and that no conclusions 
should be drawn from it'. The same day, 18 May, the House of Commons Science and 
Technology Select Committee attacked Pusztai too. 

It is beyond coincidence that The Royal Society and the Science and Select Committee 
published on the same day. Political insiders say that pressure was put on the Science 
and Technology Committee and The Royal Society to discredit Pusztai, thereby enabling 
the government to take control again. 

This behind-the-scene coordination was partly revealed by a memo showing that the 
government had set up a 'Biotechnology Presentation Group', which included senior 
Ministers. A decision was taken to 'present the government's stance as a single 
package by way of an oral statement in the House. This would allow the government to 
get on the front foot'. 

This is exactly what happened. On 21 May, just three days after The Royal Society and 
Select Committee published - Jack Cunningham stood up in the House of Commons: 
'Biotechnology is an important and exciting area of scientific advance that offers 
enormous opportunities for improving our quality of life.' 

Cunningham then laid his killer punch: 'The Royal Society this week convincingly 
dismissed as wholly misleading the results of some recent research into potatoes, and 
the misinterpretation of it - There is no evidence to suggest that any GM foods on 
sale in this country are harmful'. 

The Lancet 

However Pusztai and Ewen had submitted a paper to the Lancet, which was finally 
published in October 1999. Ewen faxed a copy of the article to the Rowett before 
publication, as Pusztai was still required to show them any papers based on his work 
there. However publication was delayed by two weeks for technical reasons. 'The 
rubbishing brigade had been given two weeks to do the dirty on the article. I was 
almost sure they would stop it,' says Pusztai. 

First of all came the misinformation. 'Scientists Revolt at Publication of "Flawed" GM 
Study', ran The Independent, 'the study that sparked the furore over genetically 
modified food has failed the ultimate test of scientific credibility'. Connor said 
that the referees were against publication. 

However four out of the six reviewers were for publication. 'A clear majority of The 
Lancet's reviewers were in favour,' says Richard Horton, the editor of the Lancet. 
Then came the 'threats'. Three days after The Independent article, Richard Horton 
received a phone call from Professor Lachmann, the former Vice-President and 
Biological Secretary of The Royal Society and President of the Academy of Medical 

According to Horton, Professor Lachmann threatened that his job would be at risk if he 
published Pusztai's paper, and called Horton 'immoral' for publishing something he 
knew to be 'untrue'. Towards the end of the conversation Horton maintains that 
Lachmann said that if he published this would 'have implications for his personal 
position' as editor. Lachmann confirms that he rang Horton but vehemently denies that 
he threatened him. 

After the article was published, Horton and The Lancet were once again attacked for 
publishing the work by the biotechnology industry and The Royal Society. Horton 
likened the actions of the Royal Society to a "Star Chamber". The publication of The 
Lancet paper also had a detrimental effect on Stanley Ewen's long-term employment with 
the University of Aberdeen, and rather than get recognition for his work, all he 
seemed to get was anguish. 

'I felt that I had done so much work that had been unacknowledged', says the 
pathologist. 'I felt that I deserved some recognition, but this was being blocked at a 
very high level by other spokespersons. It wasn't helpful to my career. When you do 
these sorts of things it is very difficult for your pension. Because that is what it 
comes down to in the final analysis: money'. Eventually he felt that he had no option 
left and Ewen retired on the 26 March, 2001. He now works as a consultant to the NHS. 

Why Have The Experiments Never Been Repeated? 

But the fundamental flaw in the scientific establishment's response is 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. Is it 
that it is easier to say there is no evidence to support his claim, because no 
evidence exists, than it is to say that no one has looked? 

Don't Worry It is Safe to Eat - The True Story of GM Food, BSE, and Foot and Mouth,  
by Andrew Rowell was published by Earthscan on 10th July 

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