22 June 2002
WHITEHALL ADMITS GM FOE WAS 'MARTYRED'
There are some genuine admissions in the official memos quoted below amidst the spin and the continuation of the smears. In terms of the latter, particularly good is the line where it says they should have said of Pusztai's results that, "they had been found without enough resources". Over a million pounds of taxpayers money had gone into this very carefully prepared research which was overseen at every stage in its development.
Whitehall admits GM foe was 'martyred'
Saturday June 22, 2002
The campaign to discredit an "ageing and frail" scientist who raised doubts about the safety of genetically modified foods turned him into a martyr, according to Whitehall papers.
In frank memorandums, Whitehall officials admit that the government mishandled the row about the findings of Arpad Pusztai and that the furore damaged the public's confidence in GM technology.
Dr Pusztai, 72, became entangled in a long running controversy after he publicised the results of his experiments at the Rowett research institute in Aberdeen, which indicated that genetically modified potatoes had harmed rats.
The memos were obtained by the Guardian and the BBC during an investigation into the development of GM foods for a programme, Bitter Harvest, to be shown tomorrow.
In July 1999, a few months into the controversy, an official in the then ministry of agriculture, food and fisheries wrote that the "handling of the Pusztai issue is one which concerns me and I am not sure that we have learned the lessons."
Dr Pusztai was told to retire from his research institute after he described on a television programme how rats had become stunted, and their immune systems had been depressed, when they were fed genetically altered potatoes.
Ministers sought to undermine his results, and scientists from opposing camps fought over the validity of the work. A group from the Royal Society, Britain's most distinguished scientific body, investigated his experiments and claimed that the tests were "flawed in many aspects of design, execution and analysis".
The Maff official noted: "The sight of this heavy handed scientific community bringing its full academic prejudice to bear on this frail, ageing scientist lost much of the case on sympathy and fairness grounds."
The official added that, "with the benefit of a significant amount of hindsight", the government should have taken a different approach. Ministers should have said that they were interested in his results, but noted that they had been found without enough resources.
Ministers should have told Dr Pusztai: "Your results do not have any immediate relevance for food safety but we want to repeat what you have done on a larger scale to see whether there really is anything to be concerned about.
"This might have avoided making a martyr of Dr Pusztai and no doubt would have given the anti-GM lobby some reason for joy."
In another memo, a Maff official wrote that the row among the experts "further eroded public confidence in the opinions of scientists".
Another official said Dr Pusztai's findings were "fuelled by a sustained campaign against GM foods generally. This in turn helped to create an atmosphere of alarm and suspicion amongst UK customers resulting in widespread avoidance of the use of GM ingredients in foods by the major supermarkets and manufacturers."
But one official argued that the damage was inflicted not by the dispute, but by the research itself. "The now discredited research and announcements based on the work by Pusztai caused immense damage to GM technology. Had the findings been well founded, there may have been some cause for some concern and perhaps a setback to GM technology, but the damage was done on the basis of poor experimentation and uninterpretable results."
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