Charles Clover and Aisling Irwin
THE whistleblower who claimed that public health was being compromised by the use of genetically modified food a victim of the establishment or charlatan? That is the question asked of Dr Arpad Pusztai, the scientist whose advice the Prince of Wales has sought on the safety of GM food. The furore started on Aug 12 last year after Dr Pusztai said in a BBC documentary that the public were being used as "guinea pigs" for the safety of GM food.
Following those remarks, his employers, the Rowett Research Institute, immediately suspended him. His data was confiscated; the potatoes on which he had been carrying out tests were seized and his team of 18, which included his wife, Dr Susan Bardocz, and which he had spent 30 years building up, was disbanded.
There then followed seven months during which Dr Pusztai was "gagged" or prevented from commenting on criticism by the Rowett under threat of forfeiting his pension.
A day spent at his home in a suburb of Aberdeen provides ample evidence for the Prince's view that Dr Pusztai, 68, who has 276 scientific papers to his name and is still regarded as a world expert on lectins (poisonous substances produced by beans and bulbs), has been cruelly treated by the scientific establishment.
Talking to Dr Pusztai is to be left with the impression that many of those who have sought to discredit his findings - from Jack Cunningham, the Cabinet Office Minister, to Sir Robert May, the Prime Minister's scientific adviser - have made mistakes of fact and have played down genuine, unanswered concerns about deficiencies in the testing of GM food.
The door was opened by his wife, who is not allowed to talk to reporters, or be photographed, without the permission of the Rowett. But sitting on his sofa, Dr Pusztai allows himself to be gently drawn on his interview with the Prince, with whom he spent one hour and 35 minutes at the Prince's invitation last week.
"It was a very thorough discussion. I never approached him myself. I don't like to approach people. When he offered - he said, after about an hour, 'how can I help?' - that was really tremendous."
He is careful not to claim too much of the Prince's backing for his views. Referring to the fact that Prince Charles has also talked to Robert Shapiro, head of the GM company Monsanto, Dr Pusztai said: "It is very commendable that he listens to people who are taking up different positions."
The scientist, who came to Britain after the Hungarian revolution failed, sees his treatment by politicians and his peers as a commentary on modern manners. He remains baffled by what he sees at the rudeness with which he has been treated, often by people who have never met him and who are not familiar with his work.
He contrasts his treatment by the scientific world with that of one of his earlier mentors, Dr Fred Sanger, double Nobel prizewinner and a pioneer of the gene revolution, who "would never tell you what to do".
He refers, with some satisfaction, to an editorial in the Lancet that accused a panel of the Royal Society, who acted without Dr Pusztai's permission, of "breathtaking impertinence" in writing off his research when it did not have access to all the data. He hopes to rectify that. What Dr Pusztai revealed last August was that tests on rats given GM and non-GM potatoes showed that some of the former had developed alarming ill-effects, including differences in organ size and damage to the immune system, which he ascribed to the process of genetic modification.
The experiment, funded by the Scottish Office and won by the Rowett against 27 other tenders, was completed by July 23 last year. His findings, said Dr Pusztai, challenged the assertion that GM and non-GM foods were "substantially equivalent" and that therefore GM foods were as safe as conventional foodstuffs.
So what were the most important things he felt he needed to get through to the Prince? "The most important thing to tell him was that these experiments have been conducted. That we have obtained factual information. "We had to tell the Prince that according to our studies we wouldn't have recommended these particular potatoes to be released for human or even animal consumption."
The introduction of a whole new technology, he said, was being justified on the basis of a single scientific paper on the likely nutritional effect of genetic modification - compiled by a Monsanto scientist in 1996. When he started his project in 1995, there was no such evidence. He describes as offensive the celebrated remark delivered by Sir Robert May when criticising his work. Sir Robert memorably told Radio 4's Today programme: "If you mix cyanide with vermouth in a cocktail and find that it is not good for you, I don't draw sweeping conclusions that you should ban all mixed drinks."
Dr Pusztai said that this missed the point: the lectin used in his experiments had been found to be safe for consumption on its own; it was when it was the gene was inserted into the potatoes that something appeared to happen that made it damage the rats that ate them.
The technology was already being developed on the basis that the lectin was safe, even though his research appeared to show that the food genetically modified to contain it was not.
Dr Pusztai said: "I think that is crass stupidity on Sir Robert's part. We spent six years, and published our findings, selecting out a lectin which even at a thousandfold concentration in the diet had no harmful effect on the rat. He must know this. He must have been told about this."
It was because of this previous research that Axis Genetics, a biotech company, went ahead with the commercialisation of the GNA gene - taken from snowdrops - which they believed could produce a new strain of insecticidal plants. The company sold the technology last year but GNA rice, GNA celery, GNA cabbage, and GNA strawberries are still under development in laboratories around the world.
"Can you really imagine that a biotechnology company would spend millions of pounds on something which they are not certain is not a toxin," he said. "If we are using a stupid thing then half the world's population will eat a stupid thing in a few years time.
"I wrote to Sir Robert asking him to withdraw his garbage. He never even replied. He has never asked for my opinion or asked me to explain my research." The only misdemeanour Dr Pusztai will admit to, in the eyes of the scientific world, is going public before his research had been published - and therefore peer reviewed.
"I voiced my concern on World in Action. That was my misdemeanour. I broke the code. I knew what the companies were doing and what we were doing and I knew that there was a huge gap between the two. It would have taken the minimum of a year to publish it. Meanwhile, the stuff is on the shelves."
As he recounts in often difficult scientific jargon the story of the past 10 months, something of the frustration and powerlessness that have already led him to suffer one heart attack hangs in the air.
One of many red herrings that Dr Pusztai quietly dismisses are suggestions by Prof Philip James, the then director of the Rowett, that the experiments involved potatoes genetically modified to contain ConA, a jackbean lectin already known to be poisonous.
This, he says, was a mistake that Prof James made without consulting him and was forced to retract a few days later but caused endless confusion in the scientific world. He said that for two days last August the Rowett was pleased with all the publicity. It discussed a press release at 3.00 one afternoon and all seemed well. Then he was called in by Prof James the following morning and suspended; the research he was contracted to finish by this April was stopped. What had happened? "That was the $64,000 question." Select committees have investigated but no one has really explained what went on in the mind of Prof James. He himself has denied he was subjected to influential phone calls from Downing Street.
The effect on Dr Pusztai, though, had been profound. "I grew up under the Nazis in Hungary and we had the Soviet system inflicted on us. People born in this country are here as a accident of biology. I made an active choice. I had a Ford Foundation scholarship, you see. I thought this was a very civilised society which tolerated minorities. That was in the 1950s.
"Yet for first time in my life I was deprived of my right of self-defence. My restrictive contract prevented me saying the things necessary to defend myself."
What effect did his story have on the Prince? "He said I had been treated cruelly and deserved an apology.
"He said he is not a scientist but he said he has no reason to suspect we are telling him something we do not believe in." Dr Pusztai's agenda now is to step up research into the health effects of GM food. For this he wants pounds 1 million in research money, space in an institute, and the release of his potatoes. He hopes the prominence the visit to the Prince has given him might open doors.
At the heart of the theoretical arguments about whether it is foolish to have health concerns over the eating of GM foods lies a key issue: Does the DNA that permeates every cell of the food we eat get broken down into ordinary bits of innocuous fundamental protein in the gut? Or can gut cells take it up and incorporate it into their own DNA where it can send out dangerous instructions?
If they can do the latter - something regarded as a ridiculous idea by many scientists - then it can be argued that some of the pieces of foreign DNA, the ones that act as switches to turn genes on and off - could cause trouble in cells. They could switch inappropriate genes on, causing unwanted growth and perhaps tumours.
If so the Pusztais, and their team, would have to be numbered among the great whistleblowers of the 20th century.
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Last Updated on 6/12/99
By Karen Lutz