Author Of Blair Food Standards
Professor Philip James On GM Food Safety
'I Don't Think We Fully Understand The Dimensions Of What We Are Getting Into'
Professor Philip James
"The perception that everything is totally straightforward and safe [with GM food] is utterly naive. I don't think we fully understand the dimensions of what we're getting into."
Professor Philip James
Director of the Rowett Research Institute, Aberdeen,
and author of the 'James' Report commissioned by Tony Blair on the structure and functions of the then proposed UK Food Standards Agency
Scottish Daily Record, 3 February 1998
Professor James Raises GM Food Safety
Scottish Daily Record, 3 February 1998
Prof. Philip James warns of "Frankenstein Foods" MONSTER OUTLOOK ON NEW NOSH!
Scottish Daily Record, February 3, 1998
A health expert warned yesterday of the dangers of "Frankenstein Foods". Professor Philip James said he believed genetically - altered grub had not been properly tested. And he feared scientists could be stocking up serious health problems for the future.
Professor James, of the new Food Standards Agency, said the new nosh could lead to an antibiotic-resistant superbug with devastating consequences.
He said genetically -modified soya was found in up to 60 per cent of processed foods. It's already on supermarket shelves in bread, biscuits, pizzas and even baby foods and scientists insist it is safe.
But Professor James, of the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, warned: "The perception that everything is totally straightforward and safe is utterly naive. "I don't think we fully understand the dimensions of what we're getting into."
Genetically -modified food involves combining genes from different plants and animals to create a new super species.
The controversial practice will be examined in tonight's BBC 1 Frontline Scotland report, Forbidden Fruit, at 10 pm.
"The scientific research that was
largely responsible for sparking the intense debate in the UK over the safety of
genetically-modified (GM) foods has finally been published, alongside new work showing
possible effects on human health. ..... Dr Pusztai told the BBC: 'For me the important
thing is that it makes the whole thing respectable again. I hope it will be a push in the
right direction. We are still just talking, but [GM foods] need to be tested.' ...The UK
Government's response to the publication of Dr Pusztai's work and another paper in the
Lancet relating to the safety of GM foods came from the Cabinet Office: 'It acknowledges that further studies need to be carried out in
this area.' "
GM controversy intensifies
BBC Online, 15 October 1999
|Because of his eminent status in
the field of nutrition Professor Philip James, the Director of the internationally
renowned Rowett Research Institute in Scotland, was commissioned by Tony Blair
before the 1997 general election, to provide a report setting out a blueprint for a Food
Standards Agency in the United Kingdom. This followed the BSE food crisis of the 1990s.
However, the following year Professor James became embroiled in a national controversy over the safety of GM foods. This occurred when one of his similarly eminent fellow scientists at the Institute, Dr Arpad Pusztai, gave a short television interview in August 1998 raising potential safety concerns stemming from his own research on GM potatoes.
Dr Pusztai's remarks were immediately perceived as a potential threat to the nascent GM food industry in Britain (and abroad) because of their potentially adverse influence on public acceptance of these 'novel' types of food. Pusztai then came under intense attack partly because he had made his remarks prior to peer review publication of his study's results. Nonetheless, eventually those results were published in the medical journal the Lancet, having passed through peer review scrutiny.
Despite publication in an eminent journal the results continued to be contested by many who feared they would undermine the future of 'biotech food', an innovation considered an exciting new area of technical and economic endeavour. Those who did so included the Royal Society, Britain's most eminent scientific institution.
However, the Royal Society did not dismiss the notion that there may have been a problem with the potatoes entirely. Rather it objected to what it saw as flaws in the methodology of the study, and it called for the study to be repeated.
The original study had been funded by the tax payer, but the British government did not provide further funds to repeat it after it became subject to challenge.
Sceptics believe the original study was funded because it was thought that the work would not identify any problems, and this was in fact the view of Pusztai as he started the work. Had the study confirmed this it would have helped to reassure consumers that GM foods were safe for human consumption, even though the study concerned only one particular type of GM food.
However, Dr Pusztai became concerned when he discovered evidence that he considered indicated the contrary.
In circumstances in which media interest would otherwise have been intense given the controversy generated by the initial work, it is assumed that the British government did not wish to fund a repeat of the study because of the possibility that Dr Pusztai's original discovery might have been confirmed. For if the British government did not think this work was important after all, why had it provided £1.6 million of taxpayers money to conduct it in the first place?
However, what is additionally interesting is that earlier that year Philip James himself had expressed his own serious concerns about potential safety issues with GM foods in an interview with the Scottish Daily Record.
Professor James has since denied that he came under political pressure to sack Dr Pusztai following his controversial television interview. But some of the circumstances may suggest otherwise.
By his own admission James had put in a complimentary phone call to Pusztai on the same evening following the television interview, which itself had been authorised by James in the first place. "I telephoned Pusztai immediately after the broadcast to congratulate him on the modest way in which he had presented the evidence on the programme," James said later.
So it is clear that immediately following the broadcast James did not think Pusztai had done anything wrong. Why then did he sack Pusztai shortly thereafter?
"One blustery day six years ago - at
the start of The Independent on Sunday's successful GM campaign - I travelled to Aberdeen
to meet a man who had been sent to Coventry. Dr Arpad Pusztai was then the bogeyman of the British scientific establishment. No less a
figure than Lord May - then the Government's chief scientific adviser, now president of
the Royal Society - had accused him of violating 'every canon of scientific rectitude',
and ministers and top scientists had queued up to denounce him. His crime had been to find disturbing evidence that the GM
potatoes he was studying damaged the immune systems, brains, livers and kidneys of rats -
and to mention it briefly in a television programme before his research was completed and
published. His punishment was draconian; his research was stopped, his team disbanded and
his data confiscated (see box). He was ostracised by his colleagues, forced into
retirement and gagged for seven months, forbidden to put his case. I was the first journalist to interview him at length, spending six hours
with him..... the Government refused to undertake the
normal scientific process of repeating Dr Pusztai's experiments in order to either confirm
or disprove his findings. Top officials at the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and
Food told me that it would be 'wrong', 'immoral' and 'a waste of money' to do so - an
extraordinary attitude given the potential threat to public health, should he be right..... I have found, time after time, in covering controversial
environmental issues over the past 35 years, that lone scientists, stubbornly raising
concerns in the teeth of entrenched opposition from industry and the scientific
establishment, have often proved to be right. Professor Derek Bryce-Smith of Reading
University was ridiculed and marginalised for decades after warning of the dangers of lead
in petrol in the 1950s - but it is now being phased out all over the world. The now much
honoured Alice Stewart came under similar attack for first warning of the hazards of
radiation to the unborn child. And I well remember one of Britain's top officials solemnly
informing me a quarter of a century ago that Dr Irving Selikoff, who did more than anyone
to sound the alarm on asbestos - now one of the main causes of premature death in Britain
- was 'evil'. I have sat in the august halls of the Royal Society and been told that acid
rain caused by pollution did not exist. I have been lectured by one of Britain's top
meteorologists - now travelling the world to warn about global warming - that the climate
never changes, and that human activities could not possibly cause it to do so. And who can
forget the constant reassurances from the political and scientific establishments that BSE
could not spread to people?"
Severin Carrell - When fed to rats it affected their kidneys and blood counts. So what might it do to humans?
Independent, 22 May 2008
"It is not
often that you meet a scientific pariah, so my recent interview
with Dr Árpád Pusztai was a fascinating experience. Pusztai
was at the centre of a huge media storm in 1998 over research in which he fed GM potatoes
to rats. He purportedly found that rats fed a GM diet did not grow as well as rats on the
control diet and that they had immune problems. Part of his work was eventually published
in the Lancet, but the affair effectively killed off his research career. I had always been sceptical of claims that the scientific establishment
allied with dark political and commercial forces conspired to destroy him, but after
looking into the history of the events that surrounded his dismissal and from talking to
him I have begun to change my view..... Rumours of political interference have surrounded
the decision by the director of the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen Prof Philip James - who is
now chair of the International Obesity Task Force - to suspend Pusztai after first
congratulating him. One allegation
is that James
received two phone calls from the prime minister's office the day after the screening of a
World in Action documentary in which Pusztai expressed his fears about the safety of GM
food. In the most far-fetched version, those phone calls are supposed to have come at the
behest of President Clinton who had been lent on by the biotech industry. James has always denied
this, including during an appearance before a Science and Technology Select Committee
hearing into the Pusztai saga..... When I talked to James about the Pusztai affair he told me he had been phoned by someone he
described as 'the science officer in the Department of Agriculture in the Scottish Office'
on either the Tuesday or Wednesday - one or two days after the documentary. '[They] told
me how dissatisfied they were with the research that was being undertaken by Árpád
Pusztai,' he wrote in an email to me. At the time, the Scottish Office was still part of
central government because devolution had not yet happened. That department was funding
Pusztai's research. Then things started to get a bit strange. I asked James why he had not told
the Science and Technology Select Committee about this phone call when he appeared before
them in March 1999....In direct contradiction to his previous email, James then wrote to me, 'I
was not contacted - or lobbied - to my knowledge by the Scottish Office of Agriculture -
who so specified? If so I was and am now unaware of it.' When I pointed out that it was
him who had told me about the phone call, he changed tack again, saying the contact had
occurred after his decision to suspend Pusztai had been taken so it had not had any
influence on him..... Make of that what you will. At any rate, James denies any political
influence over his decision-making. He agrees that he phoned Pusztai immediately after the
programme was broadcast to congratulate him on his performance, but he later changed his
mind and decided to suspend the scientist."
James Randerson - Did Downing Street ruin anti-GM scientist's career?
Science Blog, Guardian, 18 January 2008
"The affair finished off Pusztai's
research career (although at the time he was already 69) and affected his health. His
supporters were appalled by his treatment at the hands of the publicly funded Rowett
Research Institute in Aberdeen, which he had served with distinction for most of his
career. He was regarded as a world expert on plant lectins - defensive proteins that kill
insects and other invaders - with over 300 scientific papers, including two in the
prestigious journal Nature. 'I would have characterised [his treatment] as disgraceful. I
don't see how any reputable scientist ... could be treated in this way,' said Dr Stanley
Ewen, a pathologist who was then at the University of Aberdeen and who worked with
Pusztai. Having said of GM food in 1998: 'If I had the choice I would certainly not eat
it', and that 'I find it's very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs', it's
easy to imagine Pusztai was ideologically opposed to GM. But this is far from the truth,
he tells me. 'I'm strictly science-based ... It is not an ideology for me.' Still, he
confesses that his opposition to the technology has hardened over the years, and he still
won't eat it. 'Even now, I am not a campaigner. I have never belonged to any organisation
campaigning for or against it.' He felt he had a duty to speak out, 'just to inject some
caution into this business', he says. 'Make no mistake, this is an irreversible
technology. It is no good 50 years later to say: 'We should have known.' Pusztai clearly
wanted his concerns to be aired publicly, but he does not come across as a man who
relished or courted publicity. He was very happy, for example, that the institute's
director, Philip James, shielded him from interview requests. 'I was quite happy with this ... I
am an academic scientist. I've never been exposed to this,' he says, 'I'm really not a
very media person.' Pusztai says James, on the other hand, was anxious to exploit the media attention. 'The
director kept running around like a blue-arsed fly. This was a tremendous public relations
business for him.' James even
put in a complimentary phone call to Pusztai that August evening. 'I telephoned Pusztai
immediately after the broadcast to congratulate him on the modest way in which he had
presented the evidence on the programme,' says James,
although he denies relishing the publicity. He says he had grave doubts about the
interview going ahead in the first place....The day after the World in Action programme,
Pusztai's boss changed his mood from congratulation to condemnation. 'My change in
attitude was dramatic because I discovered that Pusztai ... had never conducted the
studies which he had claimed,' says James, an accusation that Pusztai strongly denies. He says he never claimed to
have done the jackbean experiments. 'He just simply wanted to put a real cap on it,' says
Pusztai. 'The simplest way to do it was to suspend all research activities into this
business.' Pusztai's supporters claim that James came under pressure from Downing Street to put a lid on the affair. James suspended Pusztai and
used misconduct procedures to seize his data. Pusztai's rolling annual contract was not
renewed and he was banned from speaking publicly. Pusztai says he wanted to publish his
results but was concerned that James would veto any approach to an academic journal. In 1998, if James had hoped that gagging
Pusztai would make the affair go away he was wrong. Continued media speculation was doing
considerable damage to public confidence in GM food and this prompted the Royal Society -
the UK's premier scientific academy - to enter the fray. Although none of Pusztai's
results had yet been published, it set about reviewing the information that did exist - an
internal report written by Pusztai, an audit of the data produced by the Rowett, and an
independent statistical analysis carried out by Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland.
The data was sent to six anonymous reviewers. The subsequent report savaged Pusztai's
results, but he remains defiant. The Royal Society putdown was predictable. The reviewers
had placed a hotchpotch of lab reports and statistical analyses that were never intended
for publication under intense scrutiny. 'There was practically nothing in it but numbers,'
says Pusztai. He and Ewen point out that peer reviewers had praised the methodological
details of the experiment when their application for a £1.6m
research grant from the Scottish Office was given
the go-ahead. Some of the disputed data did eventually see the light of day in October
1999, when Ewen and Puztai published a paper in the
prestigious medical journal the Lancet. Because of
its controversial nature, the data paper was seen by six reviewers - three times the usual
number. Five gave it the green light. The paper - which used data held by Ewen and so was
not subject to veto by James - showed that rats fed on potatoes genetically modified with
the snowdrop lectin had unusual changes to their gut tissue compared with rats fed on
Arpad Pusztai: Biological divide
Guardian, 15 January 2008
"As we search for
answers as to whether GM foods are safe, two questions stand out. Given such a huge
controversy over Pusztai's experiments, and the preliminary nature of their findings, why were the
political and scientific establishments so intent on rebutting him? More importantly why have the experiments never been repeated?..... having finished his doctorate in biochemistry and post-doctorate at
the Lister Institute, he [Pustai] was invited to join the prestigious Protein Chemistry
Department at the Rowett Research Institute, which has become the
pre-eminent nutritional centre in Europe. Dr
Pusztai was put to work on lectins, plant proteins that were going to be central in the GM
controversy years later. Over the intervening years, Pusztai became the world's leading expert on plant lectins, publishing over 270 scientific studies, and three books on the
subject... In 1995, the Scottish Office Agriculture Environment and Fisheries Department
commissioned a three-year multi-centre research programme under the coordinatorship of Dr
Pusztai into the safety of GM food. At the time there
was not a single publication in a peer-reviewed journal on the safety of GM food [note: incredibly, this was despite GM food already having started to
enter the market with the
Flavr Savr tomato in 1994, and soon Monsanto's GM soya in 1996] .... The idea was that the methodologies that they tested would be used
by the regulatory authorities in later risk assessments of GM crops. For the first time,
independent studies would be undertaken to examine whether feeding GM potatoes to rats
caused any harmful effects on their health, bodies or metabolism....The thinking was that, if you could genetically modify a potato with
the lectin gene inside it, the potato could have an inherent built-in defence mechanism
that would act as a natural insecticide, preventing aphid attack. Because it looked
promising, the snowdrop gene had already been incorporated into several experimental
crops, including rice, cabbages and oil-seed rape. But
by late 1997, the first storm clouds were brewing at the Rowett. Preliminary results from
the rat-feeding experiments were showing totally unexpected and worrying changes in the
size and weight of the rat's body organs. Liver and heart sizes were getting smaller, and
so was the brain. There were also indications that the rats' immune systems were weakening... Finally in August 1998, Pusztai expressed his growing concerns on
World in Action in a 150 second interview. So what did he say? 'We're assured that this is
absolutely safe,' said Pusztai. 'We can eat it all the time. We must eat it all the time.
There is no conceivable harm, which can come to us. But as a scientist looking at it,
actively working in the field, I find that it's very, very unfair to use our fellow
citizens as guinea pigs. We have to find guinea-pigs in the laboratory.' He continued: 'If
I had the choice, I would certainly not eat it till I see at least comparable experimental
evidence which we are producing for our genetically modified potatoes. I actually believe
that this technology can be made to work for us. And if the genetically modified foods
will be shown to be safe, then we have really done a great service to all our fellow
citizens. And I very strongly believe in this, and that's one of the main reasons why I
demand to tighten up the rules, tighten up the standards.' On the evening of the
broadcast, the head of the Rowett Professor James 'congratulated,' Pusztai on his TV appearance, commenting on 'how well
Arpad had handled the questions'. The following morning a further press release from the
Rowett noticed that a 'range of carefully controlled studies underlie the basis of Dr
Pusztai's concerns'..... When Pusztai spoke out in August 1998, the new Labour administration
was already beginning to shape government policy for its second term. It was looking for drivers of the economy that could be trusted to deliver
the growth and hence results that Labour needed. Hightech industries, such as biotechnology, were to be the
central cogs of the engine that would drive the Blairite revolution, and deliver the coveted second term. What Pusztai was saying could
literally derail an entire industry and with it many of the hopes and aspirations of New Labour..... Although
banned from talking to the press, he was not banned from talking to other scientists
outside the Rowett. In February 1999 30 international scientists from 13 countries
published a memo supporting Pusztai that was published in the Guardian which sparked a
media frenzy over GM. A week after the international scientists backed Pusztai, a secret
committee met to counter the growing alarm over GM. Contrary to reassurances by the
government that GM food was safe, the minutes show the cross departmental committee formed
to deal with the crisis, called MISC6, knew the reassurances were premature. It
'requested' a paper by the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) and the Chief Scientific Advisor
(CSA) on the 'human health implications of GM foods'. What
would happen, the minutes asked, if the CMO/CSA's paper 'shows up any doubts? We will be
pressurised to ban them immediately. What if it says that we need evidence of long-term
effects? This will look like we are not sure about their safety'....However Pusztai and Ewen had submitted a paper to the Lancet, which
was finally published in October 1999..... four out of the six reviewers were for
publication. 'A clear majority of The Lancet's reviewers were in favour,' says Richard
Horton, the editor of the Lancet. Then came the 'threats'. Three days after The
Independent article, Richard Horton received a phone call from Professor Lachmann, the
former Vice-President and Biological Secretary of The Royal Society and President of the
Academy of Medical Sciences. According to Horton, Professor Lachmann threatened that his
job would be at risk if he published Pusztai's paper....the
fundamental flaw in the scientific establishment's response is that in 1999 everyone
agreed that more work was needed. Three years later,
that work remains to be undertaken. A scientific body, like The Royal Society, that
allocates millions in research funds every year, could have funded a repeat of Pusztai's
experiments. Is it that it is easier to say there is
no evidence to support his claim, because no evidence exists, than it is to say that no
one has looked?"
Media Lens, 15 July 2003
"The initial response [to the TV
broadcast regarding the work at the Rowett Institute by Dr Pusztai on GM potatoes] was
moderate praise for those concerned but plaudits were soon to be replaced by a complete 'U
turn'........The results seemed to be treated as fraudulent enabling the Audit mechanism
to be commenced under Biotechnology and Biology Science Research Council rules. Four
eminent persons were selected without recourse to Dr Pusztai and he was left defenceless.
He was immediately gagged and his great reputation nullified at a stroke.... His friends
and colleagues felt a real sense of outrage that Dr Pusztai, a Hungarian refugee from KGB dominated Hungary in 1956, had been treated
in this heavy handed manner."
Memorandum submitted by Dr Stanley William Barclay Ewen, Department of Pathology, University of Aberdeen
Select Committee on Science and Technology, House of Commons, 26 February 1999
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