Can Genetically Engineered (GE) food harm your health? Sean McDonagh, SSC.

The May 22, 2005 issue of  The Independent on Sunday carried a front page story about experiments conducted by the giant agribusiness corporation Monsanto which involved feeding GM corn to rats.  The research showed that; rats fed with a diet rich in genetically engineered corn developed abnormalities to internal organs and changes to their blood. These rats had smaller kidneys and variations in the composition of their blood. According to the leaked 1,130 page confidential report, these health problems were absent from another batch of rodents fed non-GM food as part of the research.

In the same article, Dr. Vyvyan Howard, a senior lecturer on human anatomy at Liverpool University, called for the publication of the full study.  Dr. Michael Antoniu, of Guy’s Hospital Medical School, described the findings as, very worrying from a medical point of view.

Predictably Monsanto dismissed their own research on the abnormalities in rats as meaningless and, possibly, due to chance.  However, opponents of current GM technology felt vindicated. They were adamant that sufficient research has not been carried out on the potential health risks of eating genetically engineered food.  Until the health status of GM food is clear, the precautionary principle advises against commercial planting and consumption of GM foods by humans.

Those findings vindicate the research and integrity of  Dr. Arpad Pusztai. In my book Patenting life? Stop! I described what happened to Dr. Pusztai in 1997. He was born in Hungry and escaped to Britain after the failed revolution in 1956. He received his doctorate in biochemistry and began working at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland. He spent 37 years working there and was recognised as a world expert on lectin research. In the intervening years he published many books and articles.

In 1996 Dr. Pusztai was funded by the Scottish Office to design feeding trials for GE crops.  He fed GE potatoes to rats. Within 10 days he found major adverse effects of the GE potatoes on the rats. There were changes in their kidneys, thymus, spleen and guts.  In the light of these findings, Dr. Pusztai called for more targeted research to see whether it was the GE factor that was causing the problem.

With permission from the Rowett Institute he appeared on a popular BBC  Television show The World in Action. He explained that his research had highlighted the need for a case-by-case testing of all GE food. The interview went so well that the Director of the Institute, Professor Philip James, phoned Dr. Pusztai’s wife, herself a scientist, to congratulate her on the way her husband had explained complex scientific data in language that could be understood by lay people.

What followed was bizarre and frightening for those who value independent science, free speech and public health. Dr. Pusztai was suspended from his job, his phone calls were redirected to the director’s office and his emails were intercepted.  Professor James threatened Pusztai with legal sanctions if he spoke about his work to anyone outside the institute. When the Rowett Institute finally got around to auditing Dr. Pusztai’s work, none of the nutritionists at the Institute were appointed to the audit committee. Most amazing of all, Dr. Pusztai was not allowed to explain his work to the committee and challenge his detractors.

In the interview with Geoffrey Lean  in The Independent on Sunday (May 22nd 2005, page 6 and 7) Dr. Pusztai maintains that; “his trouble had started with a phone call to his employers, the Rowett Research Institute, from Downing Street.  Prime Minister Blair had put his full weight behind genetically modified food, letting it be known that he would happily eat them himself”. In a more sinister move, Jack Cunningham, then in charge of the Government’s GM strategy, announced that Dr. Pusztai had been “comprehensively discredited”. His office drew up plans – revealed in The Independent on Sunday – to enlist “eminent scientists” to attack him (Dr. Pusztai)  and “trail the Government’s key message”. Worse, the Government refused to undertake the normal scientific process of repeating Dr. Pusztai’s experiment in order to confirm or disprove his findings. Top officials at the then Ministry of Agriculture told me (Lean) that it would be “wrong”, “immoral” and “a waste of money” to do so – an extraordinary attitude given the potential threat to public health, should he be right”.

As the controversy raged about the sacking of Dr. Pusztai, Christopher Leake of The Mail (February, 14, 1999) reported that the Rowett Institute had received a £140,000 grant from Monsanto.[1]


[1] Christopher Leake, “Gene Lab Took Food Giant’s Cash Gift”, The Mail, February 14, 1999, pages 1 and 5.

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