Whistle-blowers Suffer when their Research challenges Corporate Vested Interests Fr. Sean McDonagh, SSC

Recently Frank McDonald, the environment editor of The Irish Times attended a conference in Lisbon organised by the European Environment Agency (EEA). The theme of the conference was – “The media and the environment; between complexity and urgency.” In an article in The Irish Times, a paper which has promoted GM crops, he recalled how Dr. Arpad Pusztai had been treated when his research raised serious questions about the safety of GM food.  In the context of the forth-coming Study-Week organised on behalf of the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences on the theme of “Transgenic Plants for Food Security in the Context of Development,” it is worth outlining what happened to Dr. Pusztai.

He was born in Hungary and escaped to Britain after the failed 1956 revolution. He received a doctorate in biochemistry from the Lister Institute and in 1963 he began working at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen in Scotland. During his 35 years at the Institute he did pioneering research on lectin and published numerous books and articles.  On foot of a request from the Scottish Office Dr. Pusztai designed feeding trials for genetically modified potatoes.  He found that ten days after feeding the GM potatoes to  rats there were major adverse changes in kidneys, thymus, spleens and guts of the rats. In the light of these disturbing findings, Dr. Pusztai did what every good scientist should do, he called for more research.  Pusztai did not claim that GM foods were unsafe or that biotechnology per se was dangerous. He simply stated that his research suggested that GM food may pose dangers to human health and that there was need for more focused research.  He was concerned that GM food already in the food chain had not been subjected to the kind of tests which he used in his research.

With the permission of the Rowett Institute Dr. Pusztai appeared on a popular TV programme called, World in Action, in August 1998 to explain why data gleaned from his own pioneering research on novel methods of biological testing highlighted the need for case-by-case testing of all GM food.  The interview went so well that the Director of the Institute, Professor Philip James, phoned Dr. Pusztai’s wife and complimented Dr. Pusztai on how well he had dealt with the various issues involved during the interview.

However, within hours, the director made a U-turn.  Instead of supporting Pusztai’s research and calls for further studies, he criticised his research methods and his competence.  What followed was shocking.  Dr. Pusztai was suspended and all incoming telephone calls were redirected to the Director’s office.  His emails were also intercepted.  Professor James threatened Pusztai with legal action if he spoke about his work to anyone outside the institute. Inexplicably, when the Rowett Institute did an audit on Pusztai’s work, none of the nutritionists at the Institute were appointed to the audit committee.  The final weird twist in the saga came when Pusztai was not given an opportunity to explain his work to the committee nor a chance to challenge his detractors.

Dr. Pusztai believes that he was sacked at the behest of the biotech industry. These corporations have extraordinary political power in the United States and Britain.  If one would like to get a sense of that extraordinary power you can find it in an article by two Pulitzer Prize winning journalists in Vanity Fair (May 2008).  Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele entitled their articles, “MONSANTO’S HARVEST OF FEAR Monsanto already dominates America’s food chain with its genetically modified seeds. Now it has targeted milk production. Just as frightening is the corporation’s tactics – ruthless legal battles against small farmers- long history of toxic contamination.”  On page 122 the authors claim that “Monsanto has been wired into Washington.”  As the controversy raged around Pusztai’s sacking it later emerged that the Rowett Institute had received a grant of £140,000 from Monsanto.

Twenty two well-known scientists wrote a letter of support for Dr. Pusztai and called for his reinstatement. Dr. Roland Find of Liverpool University and a past president of the British Society of Allergy and Environmental Medicine said that “Dr. Pusztai’s result to date at the very least raise the suspicion that genetically modified potatoes may damage the immune system.” [1] Dr. Vyvyan Howard, at the time head of  research and toxicology at Liverpool University, stated that he found Dr. Pusztai’s data sound.

David Hencke and Rob Evans writing in The Guardian believe that President Clinton put pressure on Tony Blair to put pressure to open Britain and Europe to GM crops during a Downing Street summit in 1998.  They claim that documents obtained by the reporters under the US freedom of information act revealed that President Clinton was briefed to warn Tony Blair – who then held the EU presidency – that “The EU’s slow and non-transparent approval process for genetically modified organisms had  cost US exporters hundreds of millions in lost sales.”[2]

Despite the objections of the Royal Society and Sir Robert May, the British government’s chief scientific adviser (at the time) Pusztai’s research was published by The Lancet. In 2005, Dr. Pusztai received a “Whistlebower Award” from the German Federation of Scientists.  What happened to Pusztai illustrates the power corporate paymasters can have over scientific research even when the product could endanger human health or the environment.

[1] Philip Webster and Nigel Hawkes, “Blair resists calls for ban,” The Times, February 13, 1990, page 10.

[2] Bavid Hencke and Rob Evans, “How US put pressure on Blair over GM good,” The Guardian, Frebuary 28, 2000. page 6.


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