ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
Date:  14 March 2001


ngin comment:  This is an edited version of a mail from Dr Arpad Pusztai to Dr Doug Powell of the University of Guelph.  It covers a lot of interesting ground, including reference to two studies frequently referred to by GM proponents as showing the safety of GM foods, as well as taking in some of the incorrect and false claims so frequently made by agbiotech supporters.

Doug Powell is a keen agbiotech supporter and a vociferous critic of Dr Pusztai's work. It is unfortunate therefore that Dr Powell was unable to attend even one of the three seminars Dr Pusztai gave while at Guelph. Nor has Dr Pusztai had any reply to the following e-mail which he has consequently decided to make public.
*  *  *
Dear Dr Powell,

As you have made a number of comments on my work in your Lancet letter to the Editor, as well as publicising a critical article relating to our recent visit to Guelph, I would also like to make a few comments but, unfortunately, via e-mail, because you did not give us an opportunity to debate them directly with you while we were there.

The comments you made in the Lancet letter about the press and their focusing on pieces of news which you obviously regard as fanciful, or bordering on hysterics, I may have some sympathy with.  However, it is the prerogative of the free press to pick and choose which news items
they will concentrate on.  You see they are in the business of selling newspapers and magazines and not spreading scientific truth.  If these two coincide, it is all the better for us, but there is no guarantee of that.

I can tell you that, in addition to some praise, some of the press comments made about me and my work were truly hurtful.  However, one has to take it because the alternative to a free press is truly
horrendous.  Now you can be thankful for growing up and living in a democracy, in contrast to many other people who did not or do not have the benefit of democratic institutions and a free press.  I think it is a small price to pay for the obvious benefits you and I enjoy.  One of your small benefits is, for example, that your letter was in fact published by the much-maligned Lancet editor while, I am reasonably sure that this reply of mine would not be.

However, my concerns about press hype are dwarfed in comparison with the concerns I feel about the scientific establishment's attempts to brief the press with so-called sound scientific information which is at best unfounded and at worst untrue.  What is even worse, that most of the
time these high-ranking scientists know perfectly well what they say is untrue but, using their high standing, they get away with it.

I give you an example (and there are many).  Sir Aaron Klug, the President of the Royal Society of London, said about our paper in the Lancet that it is fatally flawed in design because the protein content of the diets which our control groups were fed on did not have the same (low) protein content.  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 above, so the only conclusion I can come to is that he deliberately briefed the reporters with something that was untrue.

Or again, one of your collegues who was at one of the seminars I gave in Guelph.  Despite the fact that I (and Dr Bardocz in the discussion following the seminar) must have stated at least half a dozen times that in the experiments in which we took the histology samples we used the GM
line 71 whose protein content was exactly the same as that of the parent line, he still persisted in sending e-mails to Ann Clark (and possibly others) that our results were invalid because differences in the protein content of our test and control diets invalidated our results.

You see, I am far more concerned with scientists persevering with incorrect and false comments, particularly when they know very well that with this the carpet is pulled from under the feet of a proper scientific debate.  How can we have a debate when one needs to spend one's time concentrating on setting the record straight?

In addition to this general point, I would like to agree with your sentiments towards the end of your Lancet letter: "...the end product needs to underto (sic) scientifically valid safety assessment". However, what you are not stating here is that no independent safety assessment of GM food exists and those few papers published by non-GM scientists which experimentally approached this vexed problem of safety, have been vehemently attacked by proponents of the technology.

Coming to the article [ngin:  an article about Pusztai published in a Canadian newspaper (see below), which was written by an associate of Powell's and which Powell forwarded to the Prakash list], I have very good grounds to say that none of the GM foods on the market have been properly tested.  I gave a clear account of what is wrong with the testing done by the
companies and how we should go about it at the OECD Meeting in Edinburgh in February 2000.  Rather interestingly my talk has disappeared from their website, indeed if it had ever got on to it.  Our work must have a jinx on it because it has a tendency to disappear from various websites.

This was the same meeting where Professor Zhang-Liang Chen also gave an account of his work with GM peppers and tomatoes, apparently, as he assured me, using my methodology for the testing.  It is also rather interesting because although his work was by then completed it still has
not been published in a reputable, peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Incidentally, biological testing of GM tomatoes is a nightmare as the FDA/Calgene found out in 1992/93 (and you would have also found this out at one of my seminars in Guelph, had you attended it) and peppers should be much worse.  It is also of some interest to me how he could use my nutritional testing methodology when in fact it has not been properly published.  So I was looking forward with great interest to receive the details of his work but, unfortunately, he still has not sent me (in confidence) a copy of his work despite his promises to do so.

Incidentally, you also mentioned a Japanese work which, interestingly, showed no adverse effects either.  However, when I looked at the paper which Chris Leaver (a pro-GM plant mol. biologist) gleefully sent me some time ago, I found this paper so bad that in my review I dealt with it in two sentences. If this work had been done in the UK our Home Office inspectors, would have stopped it after 10 days.

From the little I know of the Office of Biotechnology and Science at Health Canada I am
not sure if I should be worried about their lack of apprehension about safety testing of GM food, particularly as they are doing nothing themselves, so their safety worries have been swept under the carpet for a long time.

There are a number of inaccuracies in your associate's piece [Kristi Thomas] which, I am sure, you will be happy to be told about. I must take issue with your comment that "...a small part of the research was published in the British medical journal, The Lancet".  I am sure you do understand that any food, including GM food, will first impact on the alimentary tract.  If there is any effect, surely this is where you will first find it.  As the gut is central and pivotal to everything in this
respect I find this attitude rather curious, ie that the work in our Lancet paper is regarded as a "small part" of our study.

Incidentally, the reason why we could publish this part of the work was simply because the Rowett could not maliciously put these results on their website as the work had been done at Aberdeen University.  The Rowett and the whole establishment had gone crazy over this and tried to
obtain the results prior to publication but we steadfastly refused them by saying that when the results are published everybody would be able to see them.

Moreover, the publication of these gut data has destroyed one of the most effective arguments the pro-GM brigade had previously used against us, i.e. that our results have not been peer-reviewed and therefore they are invalid.  I am sure, you know exactly the reason why I am not using
my internet website to publish the nutritional part of our story because it then would be regarded as a non-peer-reviewed piece of research which therefore is not scientifically valid.

I am afraid, the Royal Society in their "breathtaking impertinence" [a quote from the editor of the Lancet] in publishing their report condemning our results without publishing the data which they
criticised, missed a great opportunity to serve science. If they thought it was so badly flawed in design, execution and conclusions why could not they publish the results with a caveat.  I am afraid, their attitude was not much better than that of the Spanish Inquisitors, by condemning
me and our results which they kept to themselves so as not to imperil the salvation of the souls of the scientifically illiterate public and to save them from damnation.  So, please, address any concern and blame to the Royal Society in this matter.

Meanwhile I shall take my time with publishing our data. When the right opportunity comes, I can
promise you, to publish the results. The internet should be the last resort.

Finally, I am truly sorry that you could not find the time to come to any of my three seminars or the public talk in Guelph because I really believe that a direct debate is better than this impersonal exchange of e-mails.  It would have given you a wonderful opportunity to come up with factual counter arguments to our results and show us the results of all the work that has established the safety of GM foods.  I am sure, you would have been able to corroborate with facts, and not just
opinions or worn out cliches, that GM food is the most and best tested food in our history.  However, it is still not too late, please, send me the papers in which this safety has been established.

Incidentally, potatoes containing the construct DNA - minus the lectin gene - have been created at the beginning of 1998 in Durham because of my insistence to rectify our plant molecular biologists' (John Gatehouse, etc) very obvious negligent omission of doing this at the same time when they were creating the GM potatoes.  But of course with this product-driven "technology" science comes second best.  However, the construct-potatoes (freeze-dried and ready to be incorporated in experimental rat diets) are still sitting in the fridges in Durham waiting for it to be tested, unless they have since been destroyed.  But of course there is now no one to test them or are they afraid of hiring someone to test them?

So, for the time being, you and everybody else will have to do with our circumstantial evidence obtained with the GNA-spiked control-diet fed rats, which clearly pointed the finger at the "construct" (which incidentally only we, and no one in the GM business, isolated from the actual GM plants, potatoes and peas).  I do not think that any of my, or anybody else's collegues, found anything "laughable" about this.  In fact, most of my condemnation by the biotech brigade was precisely because of this finding.  Indeed, I have not heard from anyone any other more constructive way to explain our findings in the Lancet. Do you have any?  To remark [as the article did] that it is "laughable" is rather beyond contempt and does not befit a serious scientist.

So, to recap, we have lost a valuable opportunity to discuss these results.  Valuable as it was to send your graduate students to our talks, this did not make up for your absence and I do not think that we will have any new opportunity in the near future.

Arpad Pusztai
The article referreed to;

February 20, 2001 National Post

Arpad Pusztai's 150-second interview on British television two years ago left the biotechnology industry reeling. The research scientist, now visting Canada, likened consumers to guinea pigs and said genetically modified (GM) food on supermarket shelves was not properly tested. A media
frenzy followed. Pusztai's work was widely condemned, and he was fired from the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Last week, Pusztai, with his wife and colleague, Susan Bardocz, spoke about their research in Toronto, Guelph and Ottawa. They were hosted by Canada's anti-biotech triangle of power: Greenpeace, the Council of Canadians and Ann Clark, a Guelph professor and GM opponent.

"We would like to give an account of our actual research," said Pusztai, "not all that has been said about it." But details of his experiments are hidden in a Catch-22. Pusztai won't use the Internet to show his work. "If something goes on a Web site, it will be difficult to publish [in a scientific journal]," he said. When asked if he will ever publish his complete work, he said "that would be a very uphill job," partly because the Rowett institute's Web site briefly displayed it, "against our
wishes." "It is in the public domain," added Bardocz, "but no one has access to it."

Meanwhile, Pusztai and Bardocz are on a speaking tour, accusing biotech companies of keeping safety test results under lock and key. "Where is the transparency?" he asked. "We are feeling very concerned about GM foods on the market today," said Bardocz. Their concern grew out of research with GM potatoes that contain a lectin gene. Lectins are proteins naturally produced in plants that have insecticidal properties.

The effects of feeding these potatoes to rats were being studied, and a small part of the research was published in the British medical journal The Lancet. Pusztai is most criticized for blaming the "construct" -- the extra bits of DNA put into the plant along with the lectin gene -- for causing cell proliferation in the rat intestine. That is not damage or disease in itself, but such proliferation is bad in toxicological terms.

The construct includes a "promoter": a switch to make the lectin gene work and a marker gene for antibiotic resistance. The idea that this construct DNA could be toxic has been seized upon by anti-GM activists, because most GM crops now eaten were made with a similar construct. Many of Pusztai's colleagues found the idea laughable. He admits his experiment lacked an important control. Potatoes containing only the construct DNA -- minus the lectin gene -- should have been fed to the rats. He said he planned such a test, but was fired before he could do it.

Where is the science to clarify Pusztai's findings? The co-author of the Lancet article, Stanley Ewen, said last week there is no continuing research on the potatoes in question. "That would have been the logical way to silence us," said Bardocz. Other studies have emerged that mimic Pusztai's.
A vice-president of Peking University, Zhang-Liang Chen, fed GM peppers and tomatoes to rats. Researchers at the Japanese Institute of Health Sciences fed GM soybeans to rats and mice. No adverse effects were found in either study. Bardocz said two groups in Norway have funding to
repeat Pusztai's experiments with GM corn and GM soya, but have been delayed. "The problem is getting the parent lines [for the potatoes into which the lectin gene had been put] from the biotech companies," she said. "The Norwegian government had to request the material."

Karen Dodds, director general of the Office of Biotechnology and Science at Health Canada, does not seem worried. On Feb. 4, the Royal Society of Canada issued a 263-page report after almost a year of work. It provides advice for making sure new food products being developed through biotechnology are safe.

The report offers many suggestions to improve Canada's regulatory system, but importantly, "they were clear they had no concerns about the GM foods that have been approved to date," said Dodds. Interpretation of the Royal Society's report will continue as new research comes to light. Pusztai is doubtless right on one count. "In the end this question should be decided by scientific methods," he said. "People can come up with other explanations than ours, but there has to be a debate."

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