GM hot potato is a burning issue

October 15, 1999

The Lancet's publication of Arpad Pusztai's genetically modified potato research today has drawn heavy criticism from leading scientists, including two of the experts called in to peer-review the paper.

The article by Dr Pusztai and Stanley Ewen, a pathologist at Aberdeen University, claims to reveal evidence that the process of genetically modifying potatoes had affected cells in the stomach and intestine of rats.

News of the research, leaked to the media last year, sparked a national crisis over the safety of GM foods and has been held up by environmental groups, such as the Friends of the Earth, as vindication of anti-GM campaigns.

Critics claim the research is fundamentally flawed and attacked The Lancet for its decision to publish, despite its carrying a hostile commentary by a team of Dutch crop scientists who state: "The experiments were incomplete, included too few animals per diet group and lacked controls ... the results are difficult to interpret and do not allow the conclusion that the genetic modification of potatoes accounts for adverse effects in animals."

Two of the six referees called in by The Lancet to review the paper opposed its publication. The other four approved on the grounds that they did not want to be accused of a cover-up.

John Pickett, head of biological and ecological chemistry at the Institute of Arable Crops Research at Rothamsted, one of the dissenting referees, said those other referees he had spoken to had been critical of the paper.

"This work just does not stand up as a piece of scientific research so why is it being published? It is very sad," he said.

Steven Cox, chief executive of the Royal Society, said there was pressure on scientific journals to become more "populist", though he was surprised at The Lancet taking this tack.

Peter Lachmann, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said: "I'm not unsympathetic to The Lancet's decision but I do think it is wrong - the paper should have been sent back to the authors with a request for more data to support their conclusion."

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