In 1998, Arpad Pusztai,
a researcher at Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland,
preformed the first independent non-industry
sponsored study analyzing genetically engineered food and its effects
The study had been undertaken to determine whether or not the spliced
genes themselves could be damaging to the mammal ingesting them.
However, preliminary data from the study suggests something even
The actual process of genetic alteration
itself may cause damage to the mammalian digestive and immune systems.
Pusztai's study found that rats fed transgenic potatoes (artificially
bioengineered to include a gene from another species) showed evidence
- organ damage
- thickening of the small intestine
- poor brain development
The transgenic potatoes used in the study had been genetically
engineered to contain lectin, a sugar binding protein, to make the
plants pest-resistant. The adverse reactions only occurred in the
group that was fed the transgenic potatoes. The control group, fed
plain potatoes mixed with lectin from the same source, were normal.
These results indicated that the adverse reactions were not caused
by the added lectin, but by the process of genetic engineering itself.
"All the presently used genetically modified material has been
created using essentially the same technology, If there really is
a problem, it won't just apply to the potatoes, but probably to
all other transgenics.
In August 1998 Pusztai appeared on the British television program
The World in Action to report the findings of his study. In an attempt
to quell the resulting public furor, Rowett Institute director Philip
James (who had approved Pusztai's TV appearance) said the research
didn't exist. He fired Pusztai, broke up his research team, seized
the data, and halted six other similar projects.
It came out later that Monsanto, a leading U.S. biotech firm, had
given the Rowett Institute a $224,000 grant prior to Pusztai's interview
and subsequent firing.
Evidence emerged to support the legitimacy of Pusztai's research.
The research that James claimed did not exist showed up during an
internal audit. Later, Lancet, the prestigious British medical journal,
published a peer-reviewed paper Pusztai had co-authored supporting
Prince Charles began to question the safety of genetically engineered
foods on his website and became allies with Pusztai. Charles wrote
an article in the Daily Mail expressing concerns over the lack of
prerelease safety research on genetically engineered foods.
Back in 1992 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had determined
that genetically engineered foods were in most cases "the same
as or substantially similar to substances commonly found in food"
and thus are not required to undergo specific safety tests prior
to entering the market.
The FDA's policy was a dramatic shift away from the long- standing
requirement that companies prove their products are safe. Says Rebecca
Goldburg of the Environmental Defense Fund. "FDA's
policy strongly favors food manufacturers at the expense of consumer
According to author Ben Lilliston,
no independent or government-sponsored research into the effects
of genetically engineered foods on mammals is now being carried
out in either the United Kingdom or the United States.
Update by Ben
Genetically engineered crops have been introduced in the U.S. in
a quiet, almost stealthy manner. Most Americans know little about
this radically new way of producing food, and even less about what
type of risks these foods pose. Traditionally, U.S. regulatory agencies
are some of the toughest in the world in protecting human health
and the environment.
But, as the article points out, genetically
engineered foods have entered the marketplace almost entirely unregulated.
The story was published at the beginning of a turbulent year for
the biotech industry. For the first time since engineered crops
have been introduced, we saw a decline in the overall planting of
GE crops in the U.S. In response to growing domestic and international
criticism, the Food and Drug Administration announced it was drafting
new rules for regulating these crops.
Perhaps the most important event in the last year was the contamination
of the food supply with the unapproved genetically engineered StarLink
corn. The corn had been approved by the Environmental Protection
Agency for consumption by animals but not humans, because of concerns
that it may cause allergic reactions.
The StarLink discovery by a coalition of advocacy groups has resulted
in approximately 300 food products recalled, mass litigation within
the agriculture community, and drops in exports to key markets including
Japan. StarLink has also raised questions about the U.S. regulatory
system, and, at the end of 2000, several bills in Congress were
proposing major changes in the way U.S. agencies regulate these
The last year has seen dramatic changes within the agriculture
community regarding GE crops. Farmers are now having to worry about
liability, markets, and cross pollination. Grain elevators are facing
increased expenses associated with testing and segregating genetically
engineered and non-GE crops.
And even giant grain processors like Archer Daniels Midland are
warning farmers about growing genetically engineered crops.
The entire food sector is wary of the
impacts these crops are having on our ability to export.
The mainstream media has been consistently behind the ball on the
story of genetically engineered crops-particularly the regulatory
angle. While they have been quick to cover the latest scientific
breakthroughs by the industry, and report extensively on the promise
of the technology, they have ignored the inability of U.S. regulatory
agencies to keep up with the advances and unique risks of biotech
While the StarLink debacle has received considerable coverage,
few reporters have identified the underlying cause, which is the
overwhelmed, antiquated system that allowed it to happen.
There are numerous resources on the web for more information on
genetically engineered foods:
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy - www.sustain.org/biotech/
Greenpeace USA - www.greenpeaceusa.org/ge/
Union of Concerned Scientists - www.ucsusa.org
Ag Biotech Info-Net - www.biotech-info.org
Update by Karen
Genetic technologies, like chemical and nuclear technologies before
them, have the potential to alter in unforeseen and unwelcome ways
all that we depend upon for our survival-our environment, our food,
and our health. Like the products of chemical and nuclear technologies,
biotechnology products are being ushered
out into the environment and onto the market for people to consume
without fully considering, let alone understanding, either their
long- or short-term impacts.
Through intellectual property patents, biotechnology grants private
corporations ownership to previously unowned living things. The
economics behind biotechnology are the technology's driving force,
but discussion of life patents and their implications are absent
from most media accounts and, consequently, public debate.
Scientific understanding of how genes work in organisms is in its
infancy. The same is true for scientific understanding of ecology.
Yet, without a thorough understanding of the web of life and how
its different components interact with each other, it's impossible
to know what the true impact of releasing these novel organisms
will be or to assess whether we should be taking this genetic gamble.
Much less risky solutions exist to the
problems biotech purports to solve.
But they are not being presented in the mainstream media. Instead,
most coverage continues to uncritically spread industry-promoted
myths about biotechnology while failing to comprehensively and accurately
report the technology's impacts, risks associated with biotechnology,
and why it is being pushed so hard.
Biotech food has become a flash point with consumers overseas and
now that opposition is growing here on the home turf, biotech promoters
are attempting to manage the public debate with sophisticated PR.
Unfortunately, much of the PR continues to appear in the mainstream
A number of citizen groups are now doing excellent work on genetic
The Organic Consumers Association
www.purefood.org has a website
with a tremendous amount of information and links to other sites
covering genetic engineering.
The Institute for Agriculture and Trade
has in- depth information on economics and trade issues related
to agricultural biotechnology. The Ag BioTech InfoNet compiles scientific
reports and technical analysis on biotechnology and genetic engineering
in food production, processing and marketing.
Update by Joel
The U.S. media has not covered the disturbing public health questions
raised by Arpad Pusztai's research into genetically engineered potatoes.
Genetic engineering continues to receive a clean bill of health
by U.S. regulatory agencies despite the fact that no independent,
government-supported research into the effects of genetically engineered
foods on mammals has been or is being conducted.
This is in large part because the biotech
industry has a sophisticated PR apparatus in place that
has so far successfully been able to spin the industry's line that
genetically altered food is absolutely safe.
Concerns raised by scientists like Pusztai or Michael Hansen at
Consumers Union are all but ignored. As Hansen told me, "But
for the folks that criticize it, Pusztai's study is still a much
better-designed study than the industry-sponsored feeding studies
I have seen in peer-reviewed literature.
Pusztai's are the kinds of experiments
that need to be done with engineered foods.
- #7 of the Top 25 Censored
Stories of 2000
In These Times
January 10, 2000
Title: No Small (Genetic) Potatoes
Author: Joel Bleifuss
Title: Genetic Gambling
Author: Karen Charman
Title: Don’t Ask, Don’t know
Author: Ben Lilliston
Corporate news coverage: Wide coverage in England including The
Independent, The Herald, Irish Times, The Guardian, The Times London
Washington Post, 10/15/99 p. A-3 (negative review)
The Wall Street Journal attempted to debunk the story with the
headline "Attack of the Killer Potato," 2/16/99
Faculty evaluators: Lynn Cominsky, Myrna Goodman, Richard Senghas
Student Researchers: Katie Anderson, Kate Sims, Stephanie Garber,