Steven Drucker, who is a public interest lawyer in the USA, has written a thorough, fascinating and disturbing account of the recent history of the development of GM foods entitled “Altered Genes, Twisted Truth” (1). In this he presents a compelling case which explains not just the failure of the regulatory systems but also the ways in which apparently reputable scientists have manipulated and distorted the evidence to ensure that genuine concerns about the safety of these products are brushed aside.

To quote from the introduction, this is:

“fundamentally a story about the corruption of science and its concomitant corruption of government, not through the machinations of a scientific fringe group in league with a pack of powerful political ideologues, but through the workings of the mainstream scientific establishment in concert with large multi-national corporations – and their co-optation of government officials across the globe. Further, by the time the story ends, it will be clear that the degradation of science it depicts has not only been unsavoury but unprecedented: that in no other instance have so many scientists seriously subverted the standards, they were trained to uphold, misled so many people, and imposed such magnitude of risk on both human health and the health of the environment.”

I can understand why this may come across as somewhat outlandish to many people. To this I would reply that you should read the book yourself in a dispassionate frame of mind. There is no question that Drucker has presented an extremely well-argued case, which is totally supported with credible evidence. Furthermore those in favour of GM foods have totally failed to provide effective answers to a wide range of genuine concerns which have been raised. They have also had to employ tactics which are flimsy, illogical and unethical in desperate measures to maintain support for the technology.

An issue of special interest to those in Europe is the affair in 1998 involving Arpad Pusztai, a scientist working at the Rowett Institute, located just outside Aberdeen. The details in the book provide insight which is somewhat at odds with that presented in the media at the time and subsequently.

Pusztai was leading a team of scientists which was working on a major project to check the safety of potatoes which had been engineered to incorporate a gene from the snowdrop plant which would increase the concentration of the protein lectin which is toxic to aphids and various insects which feed on potatoes. The GM potatoes and the controls were grown under identical conditions and then fed to rats. It should be emphasised that they did not anticipate that there would be any adverse effects from the GM per se and there was already evidence to indicate that the rats would be able to tolerate the higher levels of lectin, so the expectation was that problems were unlikely to occur.

However when the results started to come through there was cause for concern. Chemical analysis revealed that there were substantial differences in the nutritional composition the GW potatoes compared with the parent stock. However the feeding trials showed that there were major physiological changes relating to general metabolism and organ development in those rats fed the GM potatoes. The fact that their immune system had been weakened was obviously a matter for serious concern. These differences were apparent within 10 days. Because these changes were not found in controls which had lectin added to their diet it followed that the adverse effects must have been due to other changes in the potatoes caused by the GM process.

In the usual course of events this information would have been written up as a scientific paper, submitted to a suitable scientific journal, where it would be reviewed by referees and perhaps returned to the authors for revision before eventual acceptance and publication. This process may take years. So Pusztai decided that it would be sensible to make this information available more quickly because of the doubts it raised about the safety of GM foods generally. With the support of the Director of the Institute, Professor Philip James, he gave a short interview to a television programme “World in Action”.

Two days later he was fired, the research was terminated and all the data confiscated. Pusztai was given a gagging order and threatened with legal action if he spoke out on the subject. So what was going on the background to trigger such a drastic turn of events?

Some years later an article in the Daily Mail claimed that James received phone calls from the Prime Minister, Tony Blair who got involved because of direct pressure from President Bill Clinton. At that time the USA was heavily promoting GM technology and actively pressurising other nations to follow suit.

CONCLUSION

There can be little doubt that the indication of safety concerns related to a staple foodstuff certainly struck a nerve. Even if it was eventually proved that the potential dangers raised by the Pustzai research were groundless there can be absolutely no possible justification for the way in which he was treated, which was scandalous. It is important to appreciate that the scientist had an excellent track record and that the research contract had been awarded in the face of stiff competition. Had the authorities behaved in a reasonable and logical way, then it was imperative that another study should have been initiated. As it is, we are left with the very strong impression that there was already so much momentum behind the drive to create a new industry with powerful government support that any impediment would not be tolerated.

The reality is that there has been a failure to ensure that the GM products are safe to eat and do not harm the environment. The position adopted in the USA is that the any products are substantially the same as the original organisms, hence the GM products do not need to be evaluated independently. In my opinion this is stretching credibility to the limit. Essentially we are now in uncharted territory and if it turns that these assumptions are false, the damage to public health and the environment could be enormous.

REFERENCES

  1. S M Drucker (2014) “Altered Genes, Twisted Truth” Clear River Press, Salt Lake City ISBN 978-0-9856169-0-8