By making people fearful of the health hazards of GMOs, the interest groups have unnecessarily abused science in order to promote a quite different agenda.

The flight of reason

In the last week the Home Secretary Jack Straw has proposed measures to lock up people who have done no wrong simply on the basis of a couple of doctors defining them as suffering from severe personality disorders. This blatant, radical challenge to liberty and human rights, however, has passed almost without remark. Instead, the country has been in the grip of a media-generated panic about issues surrounding the work, and subsequent treatment, of an obscure biochemist called Arpad Pusztai.

Pusztai, sacked last August from the Rowett Institute for his incompetent conduct of simple experiments on the effects of toxins in potatoes, emerged overnight as the people's champion in a battle against the evils of genetic engineering and the power of the profit-hungry poisoners of our daily diet. The Guardian, acting in the role of Pusztai's champion and publicist, has led a crusade in which any scientist involved in the improvement of staple crops has been likened to Victor Frankenstein - people who play God, and therefore should pay the price.

At the heart of all the ranting and soul searching has been, in reality, a quite insignificant story. Pusztai allegedly showed that a certain strain of genetically engineered potato, when laced with a known toxin, made some rats a bit sick. But these were not potatoes intended for sale in the local supermarket - they were grown specifically for scientific research on the effect of lectins, the type of chemical which is found in red kidney beans and renders them quite poisonous until cooked. Pusztai said in a TV interview, perhaps not unreasonably, that he wouldn't eat the potatoes he had been working on. For this apparent breach of scientific etiquette he was fired. And that should have been the end of the story.

Militant campaigners against 'novel' foods, however, must use whatever means they can to discredit the overwhelming scientific opinion that genetic modification of plants, when conducted according to the strict guidelines surrounding such research, results in food which is not only safe but which has added agricultural and nutritional benefits. The real story of the week has been about how a small number of naïve agrarian idealists have managed to fool everybody and cause the chattering classes to flee even further from rational thinking.

The panic started with a press conference convened to announce that 20 'independent' scientists had backed the 'lab whistleblower'. What was not declared, however, was that the campaign was orchestrated by Greenpeace and that invitations to the press conference were faxed to journalists by their colleagues at Friends of the Earth. There was, however, a clue in the Guardian. Beneath the headline 'Ousted scientist and the damning research into food safety' were the names Laurie Flynn, Michael Gillard and Andy Rowell. Regular readers of the paper will be familiar with the first two names since they are staff journalists, but who is Andy Rowell? He, in fact, is a leading Greenpeace activist and the author of a book, sponsored by Greenpeace, called Green Backlash: The Global Subversion of the Environmental Movement. The Guardian, however, made no mention of this, and left us with the impression that all three were neutral reporters.

The credentials of George Monbiot, whose feature Stop the crops appeared in the Guardian the following day, are also a little suspect. Monbiot, a well known 'green' campaigner, is the author of An Activists' (sic) Guide to Exploiting the Media. In this pamphlet we find interesting comments such as "We might, with good reason, regard the papers and broadcasters with extreme suspicion, we might feel cheapened and compromised by engaging with them." He also notes that while newspaper editors and owners "…may be total bastards, a lot of journalists are not bad people, just weak and cowardly." Despite all of this, the Guardian chose to credit Monbiot simply as "the first British journalist to draw attention to the hazards of genetic engineering in the national press."

Let us be clear. We have no particular quarrel here with Greenpeace, nor with Friends of the Earth or any other 'green' organisations. But when we read major feature articles we would appreciate knowing the particular axes that the authors might have to grind.

The Guardian was also similarly mute on the credentials of the twenty 'prominent' scientists who signed the statement of public support for Pusztai. Casual browsing of the Medline database shows that five of them (Ewen, Pryme, Rubio, Baintner and Koninkx) are co-authors with Pusztai of numerous journal articles. Rhodes has published a book in which Pusztai contributed two chapters. Their 'independence' must be seriously questioned since any challenge to Pusztai's scientific credibility must reflect on their own reputations. Two others (Lough and Fuller) have both worked alongside Pusztai at the Rowett Institute and might also be seen as less than neutral.

Among the rest, we find some interesting names. Joe Cummins, for example is a retired professor of genetics whose work features very centrally in publications by the Natural Law Party and who has shared anti-GM campaign platforms with John Fagan of the Maharishi University of Management in Iowa. Similarly, Brian Goodwin is involved in running courses for green activists at Schumacher College in Devon, which seeks to promote the 'small is beautiful' philosophy. Beatrix Tappeser has campaigned actively against Monsanto for the past two years or more and Vyvyan Howard is a veteran campaigner on pollution and other environmental issues. The mysterious Joseph Hopplicher of the Federal Institute in Austria turns out to be Hoppichler at the Federal Institute for Less-Favoured and Mountainous Areas.

So, over half of these 'prominent scientists', like Andy Rowell himself, have clear, but totally undeclared, personal reasons for supporting Pusztai's cause. The remainder appear to be more objective, and at least some have proven track-records in relevant fields. In truth, however, none are exactly heavyweights or potential winners of Nobel prizes. And of Mikaly Sajgo, I am afraid, we can find no trace. Ironically, Professor Maarten Chrispeels of the University of California at San Diego, perhaps the most eminent of the bunch, was later to withdraw his support, saying that he found Pusztai's claims 'incredible'. No doubt we will see others doing likewise.

None of this, of course, deterred the Guardian and other newspapers from milking the story to death in the following week. Philip James, who was Director of the Rowett Institute and responsible for asking Pusztai to resign, was portrayed as a Blairite lackey seeking to support the interests of 'big business' and the giants of the food industry. The irony of this was breath-taking. James, who was instrumental in drawing up plans for a new Food Standards Agency, has long been seen as a thorn in the flesh of the food manufacturers - so much so that when the Pusztai incident first flared up last year there was a spirit of Schadenfreude all round the boardrooms of the multinationals.

By now, of course, it was too late for any rational discussion. People were frightened of genetic engineering, and fear sells newspapers. The few genuinely neutral and qualified scientists who stuck their heads above the parapet were immediately savaged as uncaring and irresponsible. Science and clear thinking were replaced with unfounded hysteria and a search to attribute blame.

Not content with the havoc that it had wreaked, the Guardian continued with feature articles from writers whose provenance was never declared. A lengthy piece, for example, accused the manufacturers of genetically modified seeds as being responsible for thousands of Indian farmers committing suicide in 1998. The by-line was that of Vandana Shiva, about whom we were told nothing. She is, in fact, another of those who teach courses for activists at Schumacher College.

The worst insult, however, was a piece by Luke Anderson, billed as a person who 'separates fact from fiction in the case of Dr Pusztai and his experiments.' All we were told about him, in small print at the bottom of the column, was that his book on genetic engineering will be published in April. Anderson, in fact, is a leading member of the Totnes Genetics Group - an organisation dedicated to opposing GMOs and one which advocates direct action against farmers who grow GM crops. On the group's web site is an interesting quote from George Orwell: "If a writer on a political subject manages to preserve a detached attitude, it is nearly always because he doesn't know what he is talking about. To understand a political movement, one has to get involved in it. And as soon as one is involved in it one becomes a propagandist." Despite this, we were led to believe that Mr Anderson would sort fact from fiction in a sensible, detached way so that we could understand the issues more clearly.

Finally, the Guardian had to go one stage further, just in case we had become inured to the current health scare. It reminded us that there are all sorts of other things to be frightened of, such as rubber ducks, medium density fibreboard, breast implants, Absinthe and Kinder chocolates. Their abuse of science in the quest for alarming stories is still running.

In one sense this has all been an interesting case study of how the media can be manipulated by interest groups and, in turn, generate significant shifts in public opinion in the absence of anything which might look like fact or reasoned argument. Few people are going to worry about how this might affect the commercial interests of the agricultural or food industries - our environment and our health, most would claim, are of over-riding concern. And that is true. But scare stories like this have many other, very dangerous consequences.

When faced with contradictory advice and allegedly scientific wisdom on food and diet, people react in a number of ways. Some subscribe fully to every whimsical claim and are reduced to hesitant neurotics. Others suffer from propaganda overload and switch off altogether, dismissing even the most sensible of advice. A third group seizes the opportunity for rebellion and wears disobedience to lifestyle correctness as a badge of distinction. All of these reactions are 'unhealthy' in both the literal and metaphorical senses - more damaging than genetically modified foods could ever be.

By making people fearful of the health hazards of GMOs, the interest groups have unnecessarily abused science in order to promote a quite different agenda. The real issue surrounding genetically modified crops is not about whether they are safe to eat, but about the impact their introduction will have on farming practices, especially in the Third World. Some types of GM seeds are treated in such a way that the seeds of the plants which they produce are sterile. This means that subsistence farmers in developing countries can no longer retain a proportion of their crop for reseeding the next season - they have to buy more from the suppliers, who are usually large multinational companies. This 'Terminator Technology' is already beginning to have an impact in South America, Africa and Asia, and it is clearly something about which we should be concerned. Ironically, perhaps, the producers of 'Terminator' seeds claim that they are responding to the environmentalists who fear that such crops might 'escape' and wipe out indigenous species through natural reseeding.

Genetic modification holds out the promise of sustainable agriculture in developing countries and the end to famine through crops which are resistant to drought and require fewer expensive pesticides. Such profound potential benefits should not be denied because of the inappropriate implementation of some GM programs. Developing the appropriate pressures to prevent such abuses, however, is unlikely to be achieved by campaigns which focus on the possible ill-effects on people in Western countries from consuming genetically modified products known to be perfectly safe. It is a dishonest and unnecessary ploy which will ultimately destroy the credibility of those interest groups which have a valuable, but quite different, role to play.