SIRC – Media Watch 18-05-99
The barrage of conflicting information focusing on GM issues, once again dominating the headlines this week, should further serve to sound the alarm bells. As of today, May 18, the Royal Society of Medicine has released a review of Dr Pusztai's work and the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee has published its report into the handling of the affair. A BMA report has expressed concern about GM food safety and a government minister has subsequently refuted its claims.
The government's Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) has dismissed Dr Pusztai's findings as inconclusive and irrelevant due to serious doubts concerning the design of the study. The particular type of potatoes on which Dr Pusztai conducted his experiments would never have been approved for food use. Indeed, the ACNFP stated that had an application been submitted on the basis of the data collated from this flawed study, it would have undoubtedly been rejected.
Despite obvious inconsistencies the press continues its campign to define GM foods as hazardous both to our health and the environment. Following Dr Pusztai's television interview, last year, in which he suggested that the public were being used as "human guinea pigs" in a mass GM experiment, media flood gates have opened, drowning any semblance of sensible discussion. Janet Bainbridge, who chairs the ACNFP, eloquently addresses this issue: "We have concluded that the results from Dr Pusztai's work have been severely distorted by the recent media campaign in an unwarranted attempt to cast doubt on the safety of GM foods in general."
Strong reservations about Dr Arpad Pusztai's widely publicised research were also expressed in the Royal Society's report. It suggested that his general conclusions, linking GM foods to human health risk, were not justifiable. The Royal Society, in April 1999, established a working group which examined the possible toxicity of genetically modified potatoes and reviewed all the available data relating to work at the Rowett Research Institute. Some of its main conclusions are indeed interesting:
"On the basis of the information available, it appears that the reported work from the Rowett Research Institute is flawed in many aspects of design, execution and analysis and that no conclusions should be drawn from it. We found no convincing evidence of adverse effects from GM potatoes. Where the data seemed to show slight differences between rats fed predominantly on GM and on non-GM potatoes, the differences were uninterpretable because of the technical limitations of the experiments and the incorrect use of statistical tests."
Furthermore, the Royal Society's report also addressed the issues of media manipulation and scare-mongering, suggesting that Dr Pusztai's 'misconduct' in the affair demonstrates "how important it is that research scientists should expose new research results to others able to offer informed criticism before releasing them into the public arena."
Despite the fact that two independent reports have dismissed Dr Pusztai's original study, the highly influential British Medical Association, which represents 115,000 doctors, continues to add its considerable weight in support of the sceptics' misgivings. The BMA report, The Impact of Genetic Modification on Agriculture, Food and Health, marks the first official opinion by a British medical body on GM crops. It recommends that further testing be conducted by independent scientists and that their results be made freely available to the public. The report also advocates a ban on commercially grown GM crops in Britain until more trials are carried out, arguing that the benefits must be clearly shown before biotechnology companies are allowed to proceed. Further testing, however has been frequently impeded by environmental pressure groups. In an edition of the BBC's Panorama, broadcast on May 17, Prof. Mike Roberts, from the Natural Environment Research Council, said that the GM crop trials he runs for the government could fail because of public pressure over this issue:
"If we can't find enough farmers willing to participate that would certainly jeopardise the trials … If they are going to come under the sort of pressure that we are seeing at the moment, clearly many of them will think twice about it … We would not be able to answer the questions which the public and the government are asking of the scientific community on this issue."
The most serious reservations expressed by the BMA report are doctors' concerns over the health implications of GM crops. They suggest that the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes in GM plants could increase human vulnerability to diseases such as meningitis. Sir William Asscher, chairman of the BMA's board of science and education, said: "Once the GM genie is out of the bottle, the impact on the environment is likely to be irreversible."
The Cabinet Office Minister Dr Jack Cunningham, however, told the BBC's Breakfast News that contrary to the BMA's recommendations there was no evidence to justify a ban. Indeed, he claimed the BMA had "expressed satisfaction" with a government report on how GM food use is monitored. In addition to this, he suggested that a study by the government's chief medical officer and chief scientific advisor, to be published shortly, showed no evidence that would validate the withdrawal of any GM food currently on the market.