GRAIN | 20 March 1999 | Seedling - March 1999
GM FOOD TURNS POLITICAL HOT POTATO
The story began in October 1995 when Scotlands Rowett Research Institute began a project looking into the effect of genetically modified (GM) crops on animal nutrition and the environment. This included, for the first time, feeding GM potatoes to rats to see if there were any harmful effects on their health. Dr Arpad Pusztai beat off 28 other tenders to co-ordinate the project. At the time he conditionally supported the release of GM crops so long as there were rigorous and independent trials to assess their safety.
In December 1996, Dr Pusztai was alerted to the inadequate standards for trials on GM crops when he was asked by the Government's Advisory Committee on Novel Food Production to assess the validity of a licensing application for GM maize. He faxed his assessment to the Ministry of Agriculture warning that tests into nutritional performance, toxicology and allergenicity were insufficient and inadequate. The Ministry ignored his warning and subsequently approved the company's application.
Meanwhile, Dr Pusztai's own research was producing unexpected and worrying results (see box), convincing him of the need for more research. But in June 1998, the UK government's Scottish Office and the Rowett Institute declined his funding request to continue the work. On August 10, Pusztai appeared on a TV documentary describing his work and warning about the inadequate testing of GM foods. This marked the beginning of a fiasco that raises serious questions about the stifling of truly independent research, and the manipulation of governments and scientific institutions by genetech corporations. Rowett director Professor Philip James initially praised Dr Pusztai for his contribution to the TV programme. Two days later he suspended Pusztai, announced that an emergency audit of his work would be undertaken and apologised for Pusztais release of "misleading information." James issued false information about the experiments that were undertaken, discrediting Pusztai's work. The world authority on lectin research was told that his contract with Rowett would not be renewed and his was issued with a "gagging order," preventing him from defending or discussing his work.
James has never attempted to defend this extraordinary behaviour, but it is likely to have had something to do with Rowetts business and political connections. Genetech giant Monsanto, which has big plans for GM potatoes and is known for its strong arm tactics in the face of barriers to its progress, funds the Rowett to the tune of US$ 230,000. Rowett collaborators also have links to the GM business (see box). There are strong indications that his dramatic turnaround was prompted by two telephone calls from the British Prime Minister Tony Blair's office.
The audit report, which was released on October 28, admitted that the Rowett was wrong in its earlier statements about the nature of Pusztai's experiments, but still argued that the differences he observed in the rats were not statistically significant. He was cleared of fraud, but hardly "exonerated" as James described it. His reputation was in ruins and he was still under the gagging order. The furor died down for a couple of months until February 1999, when twenty-one scientists from 14 countries issued a statement supporting the validity of Pusztai's work and accusing the Rowett of bowing to political pressure. One of them, Dr Stanley Ewen, had undertaken his own studies and reported that the rats which were feed the genetically-engineered potatoes had enlarged stomachs in addition to the other abnormalities described by Pusztai. The scientists said that the audit report was hastily put together and mysteriously lacking in data. As Ewen put it, "The missing data on organ weights does raise the possibility of deliberate cover-up by the persons collating the Audit report."
The flood gates open
At this point all hell broke loose in the UK. GM food issues were the leading news items in the media for two weeks. The public was outraged. The British Prime Minister was renamed the "Prime Monster" by the tabloid press, owing to his partiality for genetically-modified "Frankenstein" foods. Greenpeace dumped 4 tonnes of GM soybeans outside his London home, saying, "We are taking these GM soya beans to one of the few homes in the UK where they want to eat it." There were calls for the science minister Lord Sainsbury - who also happens to be a billionaire and former chairman of the Sainsbury food chain - to resign on account of his biotech interests (see box). English Nature, the government's advisory body on transgenic releases, called for a three-year on the commercial growth of herbicide-resistant crops. Another government report on genetically-engineered oilseed rape, which had been sat upon for two years, was also released, concluding that the contamination of neighbouring fields is "inevitable" under current farming practices. In addition, the government's advisory committee on novel foods predicted that antibiotic-resistant genes in the crops could escape to the environment.
Finally, the Government was forced to drag its ostrich-like head out of the sand. The Environment Minister gave an open-ended assurance that commercial growing would not be allowed in the UK until the Government is convinced that there are no threats to the environment and wildlife. The Agriculture Ministry, meanwhile, retorted that the government is powerless to do so. "There is no legal basis for such a move under European Union (EU) single market legislation," it said. However, it is likely that the EU would allow a temporary ban while safety tests are undertaken.
Who pays the ferryman?
In his pleas to the UK public to listen to the voice of reason (ie his), Blair assured them that There is nothing in it for us, other than a desire to get it right. Why then did he sound more like an industry spokesperson than an impartial judge? While accusing NGOs of scaremongering, he never attempted to address any of the evidence they offered pointing for caution with respect to GM crops. An important clue to his positioning came in his letter to one of the national newspapers. Britain has been at the leading edge of this new science . If we were to ban (GM) products, we would stop British expertise in farming and science leading the way. Blairs support for the biotech industry has been generous, to say the least. Just before the recent furore erupted, the Government announced that it was giving US$ 21 million to the biotechnology industry, to help it improve its profile and win public confidence. His pro-business stance allows the Government's Invest in Britain Bureau to boast that "the UK leads the way in Europe in ensuring that regulations and other measures affecting the development of biotechnology take full account of the concerns of business."
Prior to the recent eruption of public outrage, Monsanto and the rest of the biotech industry were probably feeling quite pleased with the way things were going in the UK, particularly given the already significant level of public opposition there. The biotech industry has done a good job of cultivating friends in high places. Dave Hill, one of the Labour partys most influential advisors, resigned to work for Monsantos PR firm, Bell Pottinger, where he now lobbies ministers on the companys behalf. There he was joined by Cathy McGlyn, who advised Jack Cunningham when he was Agriculture Secretary. Cunningham, by strange coincidence, is now in charge of the government committee monitoring genetic foods. Stranger still is that Monsanto is also a client of the consultancy run by Philip Gould, the Prime Ministers confidant. Zeneca and Novartis have similar stories to tell. Zenecas chief executive sits on the Biotechnology Research Council and Novartis sponsored the Labour partys annual conference and paid for a training session to teach new parliamentarians how to behave. Courting the government is paying off. According to Friends of the Earth, Monsanto executives secured 17 audiences with ministers in their first year.
This cozy situation is remarkably reminiscent of the US scene. As The Observer newspaper points out, Monsanto has become a retirement home for members of the Bill Clintons biddable administration. It is practically a division of the government, with a revolving door in constant spin between the company and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Whitehouse. Monsanto board member Mickey Kantor is a former US trade representative and chairman of Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. Linda Fisher, Monsanto's Vice-President for Government and Public Affairs, mapped pesticide policy at the EPA. The list goes on and on ... and on. When youve got friends like this, says Michael Colby of the US NGO Food and Water, you dont have to concern yourself with your enemies.
When the Irish Prime Minister visited Washington last year, the burning issue for discussion with the director of the US National Security Council wasn't the Irish peace talks. Instead, the issue was Ireland's pivotal vote on a pending European decision on Monsanto's Bt corn. In December 1998, when US Commerce Secretary William Daley trumpeted biotech on his four-nation trade mission to Africa, a Monsanto executive was also on the plane. It is no wonder that, as St Louis Post and Despatch writer Bill Lambrecht observed, "Wherever Monsanto seeks to sow, the US government clears the ground." Having successfully smoothed the entry of GM crops into the US, Europe is the next big challenge for the genetech giant. Little wonder, then, that when Blair visited the US last year, one of Clintons requests was that Blair clear the way for the entry of GM crops into the UK. This gentle word in Blair's ear may well be one of the reasons that Blair, who usually seems to understand the issues that really matter to the public, has messed up so badly over the scandal.
The battles aftermath
All this explains the government's extreme resistance to calling for a moratorium, and Blair's inability to do anything more than mechanically spout off the biotech industry's rhetoric about proceeding on the basis of scientific evidence and encouraging public "debate" rather than taking action. By so obviously siding with industry when the public were up in arms, he has seriously damaged his credibility and his standing.
Monsanto also took a heavy beating as the controversy raged and public doubts about the adequacy of safety testing grew stronger. It didn't help that right in the middle of the furore, the company was found guilty of failing to properly contain a trial of GM oilseed rape in England's heartland. Monsanto's assurances that it undertakes rigorous and exhaustive research before releasing any of its products fell totally flat when it was revealed that the company's marketing application for RoundUp Ready maize to the UK government's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment had to be sent back because the information submitted was inaccurate. The committee described Monsanto's scientists as "incompetent" and accused them of submitting sloppy research, "poor interpretation" and work far below the required standards. Monsanto had to do its homework again to redefine part of the gene sequence in the product.
One of the most positive aspects of the UK scandal is that increased credibility of NGOs, scientists and politicians who have been opposing the introduction of GM crops into Europe. The issue was discussed in every pub, workplace and supermarket around the country, and the overwhelming response was for caution. In one countrywide poll, 68% of respondents expressed fears about eating GM foods, 96% felt that they should be clearly labelled and 77% called for a temporary ban on commercialising GM foods until more research is done. But even if Blair stops sweeping aside the increasingly compelling evidence that GM can and do have serious impacts on the environment and health and moves towards a more precautionary principle with respect to GM foods, he will rapidly find that he has tied his own hands. His government, like all Western governments, has been progressively giving away its power to the dark shadow of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
If governments seek to prevent corporations from forcing farmers to grow their GM crops, the corporations will appeal, first to the European Union, and then to the WTO. And they may well win, because the WTO rules are quite simple: nothing can stand in the way of free trade. In cases like this, private profit outweighs public protection. The first test of this will come all too soon. In 1993, the EU banned milk and beef from cattle treated with Monsanto's genetically-engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH). The WTO has given Europe until May 13 to start importing rBGH products, and Monsanto is rubbing its hands in eager anticipation. Maybe the reality of governmental impotence in the face of the global "enforcer" will be the catalyst needed to wake up the public and politicians to the absurdity of the WTO and the need to dismantle its power and reinstate democratic control.
* SOAEFD flexible fund project RO 818. Audit of data produced at the Rowett Research Institute. Audit date: August 21, 1998. http://www.rri.sari.ac.uk/press/summary.html
* Pusztai's response to the audit committee report: SOAEFD flexible Fund Project RO 818, Report of Project Coordinator on data produced at the Rowett Research Institute, October 22, 1998. http://www.rri.sari.ac.uk/gmo/aj.htm
* The Audit Committee's response to Dr Arpad Pusztai's Alternative Report of 22 October 1998. http://rri.sari.ac.uk/gmo/gmoaudit7.htm
* Memorandum related to SOAEFD flexible fund project RO 818 signed by Professor E van Driessche and Prof TC BÃ¸g-Hansen.
* Various articles from the Guardian Newspaper's GM food documentary topic: http://www.newsunlimited.co.uk/food/0,2759,20256,00.html
* Website devoted to the Pusztai case: http://plab.ku.dk/tcbh/Pusztaitcbh.htm#Recent Links
* B Lambrecht (1998), World recoils at Monsanto's brave new crops, St Louis Post-Dispatch, Sunday December 27, 1998.
* Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions Advisory Committee to the Environment (1999), The commercial use of genetically-modified crops in the UK: the potential wider impact on farmland wildlife. http://www.environment.detr.gov.uk/acre/wildlife/index.htm#summ
* Friends of the Earth press releases: http://www.foe.co.uk/cgi-bin/pressrel/