“THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”
How Agribusiness Treats Scientists Who Question GE Safety
by Ken Fischman, Ph.D.
Doctor Pusztai’s Potatoes
My Phone was ringing off the hook. When I breathlessly reached it, I found my neighbor, Dr. Charles Benbrook on the other end. “I have a house guest who I think you might want to meet” he said. “It’s Dr. Arpad Pusztai. We are having a get-together tonight at my house. Do you want to come?”
Did I want to come? Is the Pope Catholic? Do cows give milk? I had been reading about Pusztai for months in preparing for a lecture I was about to give on Genetic Engineering. The name Arpad Pusztai (pronounced poos-tee) is not exactly a household word, but in some rarified circles he has rock star status. He lives in Scotland. What on Earth was he doing in the little town of Sandpoint, Idaho? I had better begin at the beginning.
Genetic Engineering(GE) is the science of taking genes from one organism and inserting them in the cells of another, thus making novel combinations of genes that never would have appeared in the normal course of Evolution. e.g. When a gene for producing the pesticide Bt is inserted into corn, every cell in the corn plant becomes a miniature factory.
Right from the beginning, there has been controversy about the nature of these new combinations, dubbed Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and their possible effects. Proponents of GE, which include Agribusiness, many Molecular Biologists (scientists who do GE), and government agencies, argue that it will bring great benefits and is safe because GMOs are essentially the same as naturally-occurring organisms. Its opponents disagree, both as to the so-called “normal” nature of GMOs and as to their possible effects.
The question arises, how can we determine if GMOs, are safe to use as food and to let into our environment? One obvious way is to do scientifically controlled experiments on their safety. But because of the official government attitude that GMOs are a priori “substantially the same” as natural organisms, relatively little research into that question has been done.
In 1998, Arpad Pusztai, who worked in the Rowett Institute in Edinborough, Scotland, received the first grant in the United Kingdom to examine the effects of GMO food on animals. Dr. Pusztai, who fled his native Hungary during the anticommunist uprisings of the 1950s, is a biochemist, who specializes in nutritional studies. He has written almost 300 scientific papers and has an international reputation. He was thrilled to get the grant. He did not know that it was going to destroy his scientific career.
Dr Pusztai studied rats fed GMO potatoes, in which a gene from the Snowdrop plant was inserted. That gene produces a Lectin. That is a chemical that helps protect plants from insect pests. He thought that it was going to be a straightforward study that would support the conventional scientific wisdom that GMO plants were just like ordinary plants. He found instead that the presence of the gene resulted in stunted organ growth and produced immune system problems in the rats.
He sent off a paper to one of the most prestigious scientific publications in the world, an English journal, The Lancet. It was reviewed and accepted. That was his first mistake. The second one was when he was interviewed on BBC national television about his discovery. The Head of the Rowett Institute called Dr Pusztai and congratulated him on his presentation.
Three days later, the roof fell in. He was locked out of his laboratory and subsequently fired. His wife and co-author also lost her job at the institute, and the wrath of the scientific establishment came down on his head. Letters came pouring into The Lancet, criticizing his paper and The Lancet for having accepted it. They ranged from charges that his controls were inadequate, his interpretation of his data incorrect, to insinuations that he had totally botched the experiment by mistakenly putting an entirely different, toxic chemical into the potatoes. The Editor of The Lancet, to his credit, vigorously defended the scientific value of Dr Pusztai’s paper.
After weeks and months of such a bombardment, Dr Pusztai and his wife decided to take a vacation to get away from all the stress. That was mistake number three, and this is when the story really gets scary. While he was away, his home got broken into, and guess what was taken – his research data books! I wonder how much they would bring at a pawn store? At about the same time his former lab at the Rowett Institute was also broken into.
Perhaps the unkindest cut of all came when rumors were spread that, yes, Dr. Pusztai had been an eminent scientist, but that now he is old and suffers from dementia. He had become addled.
Back to that evening at Dr. Benbrook’s house on Upper Pack River Road. Chuck Benbrook runs an internet information service, called Ag BioTech InfoNet. It is devoted to GE impacts and applications to agriculture, especially pesticides. Dr Benbrook is an agricultural economist, who formerly worked in Washington D.C. as Executive Director of the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture . He met Dr Pusztai at a conference in Paris, and invited him to the US where he had arranged a speaking tour for him.
I spent over three hours dinning and talking with Dr. Pusztai. I found him to be charming, highly intelligent, and surprisingly unbitter about what had happened to him. If he is demented, maybe we should all have Alzheimer’s. He was as sharp as a tack.
The Mexican Maze
University of California at Berkeley (U C Berkeley) graduate student David Quist went down to Oaxaca, Mexico, to show farmers how to test seeds for GMOs. Oaxaca is known as the birthplace of Corn, and its ancestor plant, Teosinte, still exists there. It was feared that genes from GM corn (or maize as it is properly known), might, by way of its airborne pollen, get into Teosinte and the form of maize farmed there called Criolla, and turn them into “superweeds” i.e. wild forms of domestic plants, that because they have been genetically transformed, with let’s say built-in pesticide-producing capabilities, can successfully compete with their agricultural relatives and crowd them out. For this reason, and because transgenic (GE) crops are considered a particular threat to biodiversity, the Mexican government had declared Oaxaca a GMO-free zone.
Quist needed controls to show the farmers what both positive and negative results looked like. For the positives, he brought along store-bought corn from the US, where at least 40 % of the crop is now GMO. He used native Mexican Criolla for the negatives. But, something was wrong. He kept getting positive signals from the Criolla.
Quist took samples of the Criolla back to Berkeley where he and his major professor, Dr Ignacio Chapela of the Department of Environmental Science, decided to do more detailed studies. They came up with two major findings: (1) Much of the Criolla had a Cauliflower Mosaic Virus(CMV) gene in it. CMV is used by Molecular Geneticists as a Promoter, typically used to “turn on” or activate inserted foreign genes; and (2) There was other foreign genetic material in these plants, and (3) most importantly, it had moved around in the Criolla DNA. Genes are not supposed to do this. They are supposed to sit tight where they are put. If they move around, they could have different, unexpected effects.
Chapela and Quist submitted their findings to Nature, perhaps the most respected and tough-to-get-into journal in the world. Their paper underwent four rigorous peer-reviews in eight months, was accepted and published.
The Death Star
The proponents of GMO’s insist that GE is a safe, predictable, and exact science. They give the impression that they know and can control where each inserted gene goes in the genome, and how it is expressed. They do not talk much about the possibility that these genes could be passed to other plants.
This paper challenged all of those assumptions, and the reaction was not slow in coming. Several Letters to the Editor were sent to Nature by both present and former graduate students and others who had connections with the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, across the campus at U C Berkeley.
Plant and Microbial Biology had recently signed a contract with bioengineering giant, Syngenta, for which they received twenty five million dollars. In turn, they agreed to do research for Syngenta and to put Syngenta employees on their Board of Directors. Even in these days of megabucks, this is a lot of money for one department. Quist and Chapela had been among a lot of people at the University who had opposed the deal, concerned that it would encourage research that favored genetic engineering and curtail studies that did not. We shall see how this plays out.
The letters were unusual for a scientific publication. There were the usual challenges about possible errors in: techniques, controls, statistics, and interpretations. However, there were in addition, ad hominem arguments, accusing Quist and Chapela of allowing their political convictions to sway their research conclusions. There were also allegations that they did not have appropriate scientific backgrounds to understand the intricacies of GE. Nature ran an editorial that for the first time in 133 years of publication, rescinded support for a paper which however they did not ask to be withdrawn. In addition, in an unusual move, Nature asked Quist and Chapela to retest their samples using a different technique, and gave them a scant four weeks in which to do it. They actually accomplished this, and confirmed their original results.
AgBioWorld Foundation, a pro-biotech web site run by Tuskegee scientist C.S. Prakash, was a center for criticism of Quist and Chapela. It posted many emails critical of them, and curiously enough, 60 of the emails seemed to come from two persons, Mary Murphy and Andura Smetacek. This caught the eye of an enterprising columnist, Jonathan Matthews, from the British publication, The Ecologist, who succeeded in tracing the emails to the Bivings Group, a Washington PR firm. One of Bivings’ largest customers is another bioengineering giant, Monsanto. Bivings specializes in ‘Internet Advocacy’ campaigns and ‘Viral Marketing’. In other words, Bivings floods internet postings and chat groups with anonymous or bogus correspondents, in an attempt to influence opinions favorable to their clients.
Matthews discovered that neither Murphy nor Smetacek are real people. He also revealed that AgBioTech was linked to Bivings on the internet.
GMOs have become a multibillion dollar business, very important to the AgBioTech industry and to the governments of the United Kingdom and the U.S., which support these businesses. This industry has many allies in the molecular biology field, whose prestige, research money, and very jobs depend on the public’s perception that GE is a good thing. These institutions will go to great lengths to protect their investment, and they will oppose anyone who tends to cast doubt on the worth and safety of their discoveries. And, they do not always play fair.
An analysis of these circumstances shows a clear pattern of strategy. Attack the dissenters’ science and methodology through letters to the editor in scientific journals, internet web sites, and press releases from scientific organizations, controlled or influenced by the judicious use of industry money. In this way, divert the argument away from biological conclusions and toward experimental techniques. Make personal attacks, either upon the investigators integrity or competence, or better yet, both. Finally, attempt to destroy their careers, thus preventing them from doing further research along these lines, and as a warning to other scientists that research into the safety of GMO’s will not be helpful to their careers.
I will bring you up to date about Drs. Chapela and Pusztai. Quist and Chapela’s results have been confirmed by several other investigators. Dr. Chapela recently came up for tenure at Berkeley. He was supported both by his own department and by the unanimous vote of the university tenure committee. In an unprecedented move, he was denied tenure by the Chancellor. He will have to leave the University. Protests have been organized and letters circulated by students and faculty.
As for Arpad Pusztai, veterans of the Hungarian uprising are not creampuffs. They are survivors. Dr. Pusztai has started an organization with a web site, devoted to telling about the other, darker side of GE.
For more information on GEs and GMOs, we refer you to Dr. Fischman’s first article, “The Dark Side of Genetic Engineering,” which appeared in The Reader, vol. 2, No. 1, Jan. 6. 2005.