They had to invite Aarpad Pusztai to the OECD conference (on the Scientific and Health Aspects of Genetically Modified Foods, 28th February - 2nd March 2000) to give the event any semblance of credibility in terms of its claims to represent a range of views, but the way in which he was treated while there rather exposed the shallow pretence of this very carefully staged event. Here's an account of a week spent observing what was happening around Dr Pusztai in Edinburgh.
Watching Dr Pusztai
Dr Pusztai gave his eight and a half minute talk on Monday afternoon and in a sane world his contribution to the conference should not have been that controversial. Quite deliberately, he said that he was not going to participate in a sterile debate about whether GM-food is good or bad but rather would outline a practical scientific protocol for actually testing the biological health effects of GM-crops. Clearly, Pusztai's intent was to move the argument forward, but the biotech nasty brigade were having none of it!
Although nobody at the conference managed to come up with a single criticism of Pusztai's actual proposals, biotech evangelists like Nigel Halford (of Institute of Arable Crop Research), Mike Wilson (formerly Scottish Crop Research Institute and before that John Innes Centre), and Phil Dale (John Innes Centre), not to mention, of course, Monsanto, took every opportunity they could throughout the Conference to make personal attacks on Dr Pusztai based on their version of his past "contribution" to the GM-debate.
Most of these attacks were openly allowed by the Chair without any requirement to confine their remarks to what Pusztai had actually proposed. Dr Pusztai was also granted almost no opportunity to reply to these personal attacks. On one occasion I even saw a former scientific adviser to Marks & Spencer on the very verge of physically attacking Dr Pusztai while telling him he was a disgrace to science who for personal glory would make millions starve in the Third World!!!
Halford and Wilson presented Pusztai's Lancet article as if it were the worst thing that had ever been published, implying that all the referees had rejected it (which is completely untrue - a majority wanted it published and referee disagreement is hardly unknown). Despite Sir John Krebbs giving Pusztai no chance to reply to these spurious attacks, no matter how long Pusztai had his hand in the air, it was a great pleasure to see Dr Pusztai corner Halford after the meeting and make him eat his words! Unfortunately, Halford's grovelling response was heard by very few while the biotech brigade's attacks were made in front of the entire conference.
By the last day, when most of those such as Steve Druker (of the FDA documents fame), Patrick Holden (of the Soil Association) and so on had long gone, the event had become rather like a pro-GM rally, with just a few token sceptics present. The biotech brigade used the opportunity to try and rubbish Pusztai one last time while proclaiming the various glories that biotech held out for our global future.
The supposed reasons for the hate campaign against Dr Pusztai are pretty well rehearsed. He was the man who spoke out about the rersults of his unpublished GM potato research and the true scientist would, of course, only present sound peer reviewed data open to critical scrutiny etc etc. (The fact that scientists are forever talking to journalists about their work in progress, or that Dr Pusztai had permission from the Rowett Institute to make the comments he did, is of course conveniently ignored.)
How ironic, then, that while Pusztai was repeatedly vilified in Edinburgh, the Conference darling was Professor Zhangliang Chen, Vice President of Beijing University, who reported that in testing the health effects of their GM foods on rats in China no adverse effects had been found. Chen, needless to say, provided absolutely no details of the protocols, design, methodology etc - there were just these glorious results and that apparently was quite sufficient to serve as a glowing "certificate of worth" to GM-crops, while Pusztai continued to be lacerated for research published in such little known journals as The Lancet and The Journal of Nutrition.
People were even coming up to Pusztai to tell him, with no apparent sense of irony, that Prof Chen had shown that when you do the experiments right, you get the right results! The fact that these wonderful results were not open to critical scrutiny or that Prof Chen divulged not a word about how he had done these experiments, was treated as a complete irrelevance. Such is sound science.
Dr Pusztai has, of course, also repeatedly been belaboured for making some of the rats in his experiments eat raw potatoes (in addition to boiled/baked ones), so it was equally apt that another Conference hero was Prof. Charles Arntzen of the Boyce Institute USA, who extolled the virtues of edible vaccines in, wait for it, GM potatoes. Arntzen failed to mention that, as heat destroys the vaccine, in order to get the intended benefit these GM potatoes would have to be eaten raw!
Even if Arntzen had made this clear, however,
one somehow doubts that it would have given rise to very much concern.
After all, the subtext of the OECD conference was that it matters little
what sort of rubbish you feed people... as long, that is, as
you are pro-GM!
It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that most of Dr Pusztai's severest critics at Edinburgh - ie Drs Halford, Wilson, Dale + Monsanto - have all come under fire for the highly misleading statements they have made in the course of their avid promotion of GM crops - see:
False reports and the smears of men
Pro-GM scientists and the radical right
For more on pusztai and biospin see also:
Pro-GM scientist "threatened editor"
and Dr Aarpad Pusztai on his suppressed
research and the dubious science driving GM technology
For more on: industrial
alignment of public science in the UK
Dr Pusztai commented:
"The report of NGIN about the events at the OECD/Edinburgh Conference is essentially correct. Even though there were many personal attacks on me by the GM biotech enthusiasts at the Conference, totally unrelated to the points I raised during my short talk, I was not given adequate opportunity by the Chairmen of the sessions to reply to them, particularly on the second and third day of the Conference. Unfortunately under these conditions I was left with the impression that the Conference was not an impartial, objective and scientific forum for discussions on food safety. To most impartial observers and participants and certainly to me it appeared to be more of a propaganda forum for airing the views and promoting the interest of the GM biotechnology industry."
OECD Agenda: "There is no evidence that GM-food is harmful"
Pusztai on OECD Meeting on GMOs Feb. 29 - March 2, 2000
Dr. Arpad Pusztai was the only scientist sceptical of GM food
be invited to the much publicized OECD’s intergovernmental Conference on
GMOs. Here is his personal account, slightly edited.
After the meeting was opened by a number of politicians, Prof. Charles
Arntzen from the Boyce Institute, USA, kicked off with the virtues of
edible vaccines in potatoes. He made no comment on whether they would be
tested rigorously; nor on the fact that they have to be eaten raw as
heating would destroy the vaccine. Next, Dr Suman Sahai from Gene
Campaign, India, argued convincingly that GMOs offer no benefit for
developing countries. Instead, it was a means of exploitation, of
robbing the poor to enrich the rich in the First World. Then came the
darling of the Conference, Professor Zhangliang Chen (Vice President of
Beijing University, China) who said China is slowly replacing everything
with GM-counterparts and they have also tested their health effects on
rats. However, no details on design or methodology or publications in
peer-reviewed journals were given. This did not stop him from giving a
glowing certificate of health and worth to all the GM-crops he tested.
I was attacked for publishing our results in worthless rags such as The
Lancet and The Journal of Nutrition when we should have done like
Professor Chen and not published anything at all. I have a feeling that
I was expected to ask for the forgiveness of the new God of
After coffee came Professor Gordon Conway (President of Rockefeller
Foundation) who gave his totally ‘unbiased’ views on the benefits, risks
and ownership of GM-crop biotechnology. The ‘balance’ was redressed by
the panellist who had 5 min each: both Benedikt Haerlin (Greenpiece
International) and Mrs Marilena Lazzarini from the Institute for
Consumer Defence, Brazil spoke well but made no great stir in the
GM-biotechnology-dominated audience. In contrast a Novartis employee,
Dr Andreas Seiter, did go through the biotech industry routine and was
acclaimed by the audience.
The afternoon session on GM Food and Human Health should have been very
short, as we have no data on this topic at all but that did not deter
the Organisers. The first speaker, Prof. Ambroise Martin (University
Lyon) had 20 min but did not say much. The next speaker was in
Geriatric Medicine at Cornell University. He talked a lot about medical
aspects of the old and at the end he waxed eloquently about the work of
Arntzen who is a genius and is going to solve all the problems of the
old by making them eat potatoes, bananas, etc with edible vaccines in
The last speaker of the session before coffee was Prof. Hans Gunter
(Darmstadt Technical University) who gave all the possible health risks
of GM-food. There is obviously a subtle change in the air on GM-food in
Germany - he sounded a warning note of caution. He advocated
post-market monitoring of the effects of GM-food although he did not
specify how to do this.
After coffee there was a presentation on Food Allergy and GMOs by Prof.
Carsten Bindslev-Jensen (Denmark) who said that they tested all GM-food
they could lay their hands on for allergy (skin-prick test with human
subjects) and found that none of them was any worse than the non-GM
counterparts. My problem with this is that I do not believe in these
tests for a start so I am not so sure whether his message was a good one
or not or just simply means that he used a technique, which is severely
limited and found no problem.
Then came the panel discussion. As a special favour granted by
Krebs, I was given 10 min to give my slides on my protocol (now on my
homepage) which was cut to 8 min by the Chairman. It would not have
made much difference if I had been given 1 hour, the effect would have
been the same. Nobody made the slightest reference to it then or later.
As Prof. Chen from China had such a "poor" opportunity previously to
give his views he was allowed another bite of the same cherry. The
message was still the same and the audience loved it. Prof. Alan
McHughen (University of Saskatchewan), another GM enthusiast, said that
we must introduce all his GM-crops but must also be vigilant. He could
not say how, in 5 mins. Finally, Dr James Maryanski of FDA told us of
all the great safety tests the FDA had done and also how generously they
were with public hearings, and made 44,000 pages of their files
available to the public. Of course, this is not really needed because
GM-food is the best and most rigorously tested food in the history of
He was refuted by US Lawyer Steven Druker from the Alliance of
Biointegrity. The FDA had not revealed those 44,000 pages out of the
goodness of their hearts -they were made to do so by a Court Action. The
files revealed how the FDA had completely ignored the advise of their
own scientists about safety, especially, that there was no substantial
equivalence between GM and nonGM crops. You can find Steven's
contribution on the biointegrity website <www.biointegrity.org>.
I would like to say something about the personal attacks on me from
floor. I had some exchanges with Phil Dale from the John Innes Centre
in Norwich. He said (remember that we ought to have discussed my
slides!) that I am a particularly unfair person because I never
discussed the results of our nutritional work with the SCRI and Durham
scientists, although they were involved in the research. Actually, as I
have coordinated the whole programme, I made sure that we had 3-6
monthly workshops with written minutes of the events. The next bits of
exchange was with Monsanto and other biotech people who got upset about
my remark that when we started in 1995 there was not a single paper
published in peer-reviewed journals on the nutritional/physiological
testing of any GM-food. They kept jumping up, one after another. to say
that there were lots of papers; the Monsanto guy, Fox, said that he
himself must have produced them by the dozen. I kept challenging them
as to where these were published but they were not forthcoming in their
replies. Eventually a number of people like Joan Ruddock tried to
defend me from the floor. In fact,
she later confronted the Monsanto guy in private when, as always, he
admits that they must have misunderstood me.
The truth is that they count anything, even their memos, as
publications. It is no wonder that the Chinese scientists’ talk went
down so well with them.
On Tuesday the GM- propaganda machine got into a higher gear.
chaired the sessions throughout the whole day. Needless to say, he
never allowed me to take part in the discussions. The first speaker was
Prof. Bernard Chevassu-au-Louis (President of the French Health and Food
safety Agency). He gave his lecture in French which
even with the translation was a little difficult to follow. Generally,
he did seem to be good. His most memorable contribution was that, on
the basis of substantial equivalence one could not differentiate a mad
cow with BSE from a healthy one, that has put the substantial
equivalence principle in the proper context, no matter how much Dr Peter
Kearns (OECD) tried to salvage it. He said we must use it as our
guiding principle. This just showed up that these people do not
understand (or do not want to) that science is quantitative. It is not
much use to say that you are a little mad; one needs to know how little?
Dr Calestous Juma (Director, Science Technology, Development Programme,
Harvard University) could not come, so we had a real treat, a Professor
of Microbiology, who doubles up as the S. African regulatory authority
stepped into his shoes. She was enthusing all the time and according to
her, the greatest triumph of the GM technology is that one S. African
woman farmer, by planting GM-cotton took 30,000 rands (£3,000) to the
bank at the end of the season. We were all duly impressed and many
biotechnologists during the rest of the meeting referred to her example.
Unfortunately, even this was not documented but the believer of the
faith swallowed it nevertheless. Next was Dr Alan Randell (Codex
Alimentarius, FAO) who gave a very good factual account of the work of
the Codex people.
Obviously, he was in favour of GM but he also recognised that we need
do our homework and carry out proper testing according to strictly
agreed protocols. We shall see!
After coffee unquestionably the best talk of the session was given by
Prof. John Durant (Head of Science Communication, Science Museum UK).
He explained to all the blockheads of the GM-biotech industry
representatives that it was no use to blame the GM fiasco on the press,
on maverick scientists (I expect the likes of me), the gullibility of
consumers, sinister green pressure groups, etc. The fault lies with the
proponents. So from there on, the motto of the Conference was borrowed
from him: "openness, transparency and inclusiveness". In the best
example of hypocrisy,
the Conference went on and referred constantly back to him. The Consumer
Perspective was then given very lucidly and forcibly by Mr Julian
Edwards, which was good and to be expected.
The following panel and plenary discussion was quite something.
never heard such extreme and sometimes disgraceful views expounded in
public as was done by Dr Val Giddings (Vice-President for Food,
Agriculture, Biotechnology Industry Organisation (BIO) US). To give you
some of the flavour of what he said - the only way to solve
allergenicity, once for all, was via GM-technology. It was pointed out
that we only escaped by the skin of our teeth the brazil nut allergen
transfer into soya. But he then used this as an example of how well the
regulation worked. He went
on - when he was in Brazil he was told by some of the politicians there
that even if there were some deaths due to anaphylaxis it is a price
well worth paying if they could at the same time feed the population
with this GM-soya. To show up how impartial the Chair was, nobody had a
chance to reply to this once the people regained their breath after Dr
Giddings great intervention. Mr Martin van Zwannenberg (ex-Divisional
Director of Food Technology, Marks & Spencer, UK) had the distinction to
almost physically attack me for my views, which disgraced science,
Just imagine what sort of crowd they assembled here in Edinburgh?
Clearly the creme of the society and ‘science’.. Dr Michael Hansen
(Consumers Union, USA) pointed out that (what I said above) science is
quantitative and the present woolly definition of substantial
equivalence is only a cop-out for the biotech regulators because how
small is small. In fact the best would be to totally abandon this
stupid thing. Needless to say, 90% of the people at the Conference
would not agree with him. There was one very gung-ho GM person, who was
absolutely impervious to any argument that was to her dislike. She was
flatly opposed even to the idea of labelling. So much so that her views
got into the final draft rapporteurs’ report as something we "all agreed
about". In fact, she was probably the only one who totally opposed the
idea of labelling and nobody else made a great deal of it, even those
from the GM-biotech industry kept reasonably quiet.
Sir John Krebs chaired the Wednesday session and this was somewhat of
eye-opener for me. The only speaker of the morning was Dr Ismail
Serageldin (Vice-President, World Bank). He referred a lot to the South
woman with her GM-cotton. Professor Chen from Zimbabve also extolled the
virtues of GM for the developing world and so on. Unfortunately, the
Organisers forgot to invite people such as Tewolde Egziabher and others
to counterbalance this open enthusing on the great value of the
GM-technology. Obviously, the World Bank will be giving big loans to
the poor Third World Countries to buy the technology or even more the
seeds in order to increase their dependency on the First World
multinational companies and increase their financial debt. After this Dr
Peter Tindemans (The Netherlands) and Dr Ian Gillespie (UK) - the
rapporteurs, introduced their draft report which was then discussed by
the participants under the Chairmanship of Sir John Krebs. Half of this
was taken up by personal attacks on myself and other sceptics. I must
say that this was too much even for people like Kuiper, Tom Sanders and
some other scientists and the remainder of the Consumer, green groups
(most of them left by this time).
Needless to say, I was not given any chance to defend myself.
is in the great British tradition. After all, I was gagged for seven
months before so what’s the difference now? I am not going to say
anything about the draft report because it is supposed to be
confidential. However, I have already made my protest about some of the
points in the report. The most blatant of which stated that there was
general agreement on the point that there is no evidence at all to show
that GM-food has a harmful effect on health. I believe this was the
main purpose of the Conference: to state this clearly so that the
Government's hands will be untied, and they can go ahead to legalise the
whole GM-business. I gave them a very strongly worded protest on this
point because even if they disregard all of my work, how can they make
such a sweeping statement when there has never been any experiments with
humans to show whether GM-food is good, bad or indifferent. When the
final report of Sir John is published, it will give me the opportunity
to put my comments on my homepage. I know that it is regularly visited
by people from all over the world and if there are
many like me, then they will not be able to get away with this.
FOR MUCH MORE ON THE PUSZTAI CASE SEE: http://wkweb4.cableinet.co.uk/pbrown/avoidgm/pusztai.html
PROFESSOR B: INDEX