GM circus comes to town

March 12, 1999

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee had rarely seen anything like it. On view was Arpad Pusztai, the Aberdeen scientist who caused a media circus when he publicly expressed concerns over the safety of genetically modified foods.

Half an hour before the session began, Westminster was swarming with journalists. Not just lobby correspondents, but science reporters, too, with their constantly ringing mobile phones.

Even for those who managed to squeeze into the committee room, hearing Dr Pusztai was not easy. Cramped in the corner by the television monitor, I took to watching him on the screen.

Accompanied by his solicitor and his wife, who still works as a scientist at the Rowett, Dr Pusztai gave a polished performance. He would do the same again, he said. His figures were statistically significant; he was only expressing widely felt concerns about the need for caution. Based on his experiments, he said, there ought to be concern about GM food.

Dr Pusztai was followed by Philip James, director of the Rowett Institute.He was equally forceful in refuting suggestions that Dr Pusztai had lost his job because of political or industrial interests. There was no Whitehall phone call, he said.

The sides remain divided as to what happened in the days after the World in Action programme last summer. Professor James said the Rowett was bombarded by the media for details of experiments on potatoes genetically modified using a Con A lectin.

The institute responded on this basis, only to learn two days later that such trials had never been done. Dr Pusztai, however, is clear he never mentioned trials with Con A to the media. His assertion that there was "certainly a breakdown in communications" would appear an understatement.

Whatever the disagreements, Dr Pusztai raised some important issues. He told the committee that GM technology was being introduced on the basis of a single peer-reviewed paper and that many scientists on expert committees had so many commitments they spent only limited time on science.

The same committee played host to Monsanto later in the week. A deposition from Monsanto confirmed meetings with ministers, but added that these were all of public record. They were unable to provide information on the amount of research they funded in the UK and in which universities, but promised to supply this information to the committee later.

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