GM Free Cymru

Fifteen years too late -- when will Pusztai get an apology from those who destroyed his career?

Fifteen years too late -- when will Pusztai get an apology from those who destroyed his career?

Date Added to website 23rd April 2014
Corrected version 25th August 2015

Fifteen years ago Dr Arpad Pusztai was mercilessly attacked by many prominent members of the scientific establishment, forced out of his job at the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen on grounds of "malpractice" and made to look on as his research team was dismantled and his laboratory closed (1). In a major departure from the norms of scientific discourse, he was accused of incompetence and even scientific fraud by people who knew next to nothing about GMOs or animal feeding trial protocols, and placed under a binding gagging order.

And the cause of this extraordinary and shameful string of events? A few words in a TV interview for "World in Action" in August 1998 -- in which Pusztai referred to the results of a feeding trial in which rats were fed on a diet which included specially bred lines of GM potatoes. The study threw up 39 statistically significant differences between various tissues and organs, in rats fed on the GM, the non-GM, or the non-GM potatoes supplemented with the gene product. Only four or five of these differences could be explained by random variation. He said: "The effect (on feeding trial rats) was slight growth retardation and an effect on the immune system. One of the genetically modified potatoes, after 110 days, made the rats less responsive to immune effects." Later he said that he would not personally eat the GM food and expressed the view that it was "very, very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs". That was all. Pusztai made no extravagant claims about cancer or about the long-term safety or otherwise of GM foods to lab animals or human beings. But he upset Prime Minister Tony Blair and -- reputedly -- President Clinton, and he upset a scientific establishment that had already decided that GMOs were perfectly safe, on the basis of virtually no evidence. So he was chosen to be the sacrificial lamb, and he had to go (2). In an attempt to justify its actions, the Rowett Institute published an audit criticizing Pusztai's results, and sent the raw data to six anonymous reviewers who also attacked Pusztai's work. The UK's premier scientific body, the Royal Society, also set up a "rebuttal unit" which was briefed to discredit the Rowett team's research; and this unit became involved in a heavily biased external audit or "peer review process" which was quite unprecedented in the biotechnology field.

When a short note summarising the GM potato research (3) was published by Pusztai and his colleague Stanley Ewen in "The Lancet" on October 1999, there was another campaign of intimidation and vilification, this time directed partly at the journal editor Dr Richard Horton, and involving prominent fellows of the Royal Society including Peter Lachmann. Five of the six referees recommended publication, but nonetheless Horton says that he was actually threatened, maybe partly because of his determination to publish in the public interest and partly because he had had the temerity to accuse the Royal Society for its "breathtakingly arrogant" approach to risk research on GM safety. One of the paper's referees, John Pickett, tried to prevent publication and even published a "spoiler article" in a daily newspaper before it was published. Two other Royal Society fellows, Derek Burke and Mike Gasson, published a riposte to the Ewen / Pusztai paper which was fraudulently portrayed by the Royal Society as an original piece of research. Burke seeks to maintain that pretence to this day (5).

It is indisputable that what has become known as "The Pusztai Affair" did immense damage to the standing of science and the reputation of scientists and scientific establishments in the UK. The attacks on Pusztai were vitriolic, even though his statements on the record were tentative and responsible, and even though they had been approved and supported initially by the head of the Rowett Research Institute, Professor Philip James. Throughout twelve months or more of sustained attacks Dr Pusztai maintained his dignity while lesser scientists -- including many Fellows of the Royal Society -- prowled and snarled around him and lied about his work in briefings to the media. To this day they have never found anything fundamentally wrong with his research, and none of them have ever sought to repeat it -- probably because none of them has the competence. Pusztai -- the small man mercilessly attacked by the scientific establishment -- became the first "GM martyr" -- lauded throughout the world simply because he spoke the truth. The Royal Society became a laughing stock because of its pathetic and frenzied attempts to find fault with Pusztai's project -- which had after all been set up after a competitive tendering process (6) and whose protocols had been subject to intense and ongoing peer review and scrutiny. Senior UK scientists had all too visibly allowed themselves to be swayed by political and commercial pressures into a systematic misrepresentation of a careful and deeply worrying (from a public health point of view) piece of safety research. And the furore caused a mild concern about GM crops and foods in the UK to deepen into a solid antipathy, which continues to this day.

Were the Pusztai findings anomalous or unexpected?

The answer to that question is "No." During the 1990's there were many research findings which suggested physiological damage to organisms which consumed GMOs. Some of these findings came from SCRI scientists who were working within the large team coordinated by Arpad Pusztai (7). Concurrently Hilbeck and others discovered that the toxins intended for incorporation into Bt crops damaged "non-target" insects including lacewing larvae and lady beetles (8). And in 1999 John Losey and colleagues showed that transgenic pollen harmed the larvae of the monarch butterfly. Some of these findings were published BEFORE the Ewen / Pusztai paper appeared in The Lancet in October 1999. Pusztai has explained subsequently that the testing of the GMO potatoes on rats was agreed on by the whole research team, on the basis that they had seen toxic effects already on both aphids and lady beetles.

With respect to the feeding of GMOs to mammals, the Rowett Institute research team must have been aware of earlier work which had indicated possible toxic effects. In 1993 research on the Calgene Flavr Savr GM tomato had shown (10) that when it was fed to rats some of them developed "gross lesions" or "gastric erosions" in their stomachs. These have been described as "pinprick bleedings" and linked to cellular changes which clearly needed to be explained. In one trial, seven of the forty rats fed on the GM tomatoes died, and the deaths were simply ignored by the Calgene researchers. In another feeding experiment, this time involving Bt tomatoes, similar lesions were observed but not reported in 1995 (11) by a team including Harry Kuiper, who went on the play a key role in EFSA. These findings must have been known to the Rowett Institute team, and were hypothesised -- perfectly reasonably -- as possible immune responses from animals whose digestive systems were having to cope with foreign or unrecognisable proteins. It was also perfectly reasonable that that hypothesis should be tested in the GMO potato feeding experiments with rats. Running concurrently with the Rowett Institute research, an Egyptian study showed that Bt toxin expressed in potatoes caused major changes in the small intestine of mice (12). With the work of Vazquez-Padron and others, it was demonstrated that Bt toxins bind not only to the insect gut but also to the mammalian gut, leading to various immunity problems (13).

When Pusztai described the cell changes / immune system responses in the feeding study rats, he was not describing an aberration or anything outrageous. He was simply confirming something already described by other scientists and perfectly easy to explain biologically. Indeed, Professor Philip James, in an interview for the Scottish Daily Record in February 1998, warned about GM foods which were inadequately tested, stating that "scientists could be stocking up serious health problems for the future." (14) He also warned, on the record, "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." On the evening of the TV broadcast of the Pusztai interview, which had been given prior authorisation by James, he put in a complimentary phone call to Pusztai, to congratulate him on the modest way in which he had presented the evidence on the programme. Next day James took charge of a media campaign designed to flag up the importance of the research results for a worldwide audience. And on the day after that, in an extraordinary act of betrayal of a respected scientific colleague, James sacked Pusztai on grounds that were, and still are, entirely spurious.

Have the Pusztai findings been confirmed by later research?

The answer to that question is "Yes." We should remind ourselves that the research done by the Rowett / SCRI / Durham University team was of an extremely high standard, conducted by a 20-strong team that had won through in a very stiff competitive tendering process and in which all of the study objectives and experimental protocols had been worked out in the minutest of detail. Pusztai was himself a senior academic with an impeccable research pedigree, a reputation for cautious and fastidious work in the field of nutrition, and an impressive list of peer-reviewed publications to his name. Those who accused him of bias, fraud or incompetence were in general far less qualified than he in animal feeding experiments (15). It is also generally forgotten that he and his colleagues pleaded for repeat or improved experiments which could test, verify or disprove their findings on insects and rats. These experiments have NEVER been conducted, either by his critics or anybody else. It has been clear to all impartial observers that neither the Royal Society, the FSA, DEFRA nor any other body actually wanted these studies, for fear of what they might throw up. To make matters worse, in something substantially equivalent to a medieval burning of the books, all of the raw data from the Pusztai team's experiments were destroyed, by those who like to call themselves scientists.

Within the last fifteen years there has been a flood of published research which backs up Pusztai's contention that in the crude process of genetic modification something happens within the plant (via a process called mutagenesis) which makes the plant potentially dangerous to the creatures (including humans) that might consume it. In the publication "GMO Myths and Truths", the authors Michael Antoniou, Claire Robinson and John Fagan carefully document scores of papers which demonstrate either direct measurable harm to animals, or the potential for harm (16). For example, when GM peas were fed to mice the insecticidal protein was changed by the GM process so that it behaved differently in the GM peas compared with its natural form in the non-GM beans – and the altered protein from the GM peas stimulated a potent immune response in the mice. When rabbits were fed on GM soy they showed enzyme function disturbances in kidney and heart. A review of 19 studies (including industry's own studies submitted to regulators in support of applications to commercialise GM crops) on mammals fed with commercialised GM soy and maize found consistent toxic effects on the liver and kidneys. Rats fed GM Bt maize over three generations suffered damage to liver and kidneys and alterations in blood biochemistry. Rats fed GM oilseed rape developed enlarged livers, a probable sign of toxicity. Female sheep fed Bt GM maize over three generations showed disturbances in the functioning of the digestive system, while their lambs showed cellular changes in the liver and pancreas. Old and young mice fed GM Bt maize showed a marked disturbance in immune system cells and in biochemical activity. Rats fed insecticide-producing MON863 Bt maize grew more slowly and showed higher levels of certain fats (triglycerides) in their blood than rats fed the control diet. They also suffered problems with liver and kidney function. Mice fed GM soy over their lifetime (24 months) showed more acute signs of ageing in the liver than the control group fed non-GM soy. We could go on.......

The studies cited above have received little attention from the media. Indeed, most of them are modest studies reporting on quite subtle chronic effects which do not, by any means, show that all GMOs are dangerous to human health. But they do show that what Pusztai and his colleagues discovered in 1997-98 was unexceptional, and entirely in tune with subsequent studies showing a wide range of chronic toxic effects on animals which can only be related to the genetic transformation process in plants intended for consumption by animals. This has been established through careful experimentation involving the use of control groups and isolines, as used by Pusztai and his colleagues in the Rowett Institute.

Who were the key players in the destruction of Pusztai's career?

Many senior scientists played active roles in the vilification of Arpad Pusztai and the destruction of his career and reputation. At the Royal Society: Professor Noreen Murray, Professor Brian Heap, Professor William Hill, Dr Jim Smith, Professor Michael Waterfield and Dr Rebecca Bowden. We can also cite Derek Burke, Mike Gasson, John Pickett, Sir Aaron Klug, Peter Lachmann, Patrick Bateson, and Eric Ash, some of whom were among the co-signatories of a letter condemning Pusztai in The Daily Telegraph. Others were involved in an earlier working group that had issued the Royal Society's 1998 report supporting GM foods. At the Rowett Institute we can cite the members of the Audit Committee established by the Director Philip James in August 1998: Professor F J Bourne, Dr A Chesson (Chair), Professor H Davies, and Dr H Flint. Some of Pusztai's own colleagues failed to support him when the scandal broke, or else joined in the campaign to discredit him. One was John Gatehouse. There were others too, whose names were not prominent either in the press or in the scientific literature, but who nonetheless participated in the process of suppressing the truth. Professor Anthony Trewavas was one, and Professor Tom Sanders, Ian Gibson MP and Jack Cunningham MP were others. The most serious role in the scandal was played by Philip James himself, who is on the record as having articulated very similar concerns to those expressed by Arpad Pusztai, who supported him and congratulated him following his "World in Action" interview, and who then caved in to political and commercial pressure and metaphorically stabbed his respected colleague in the back.

In spite of the activities of the baying pack of hounds from the UK scientific establishment, and in spite of an absurd "gagging order" from his erstwhile employers, Pusztai was not silenced, and he went on to become a hero to many who believe that truth and honesty are more important than the commercial interests of biotechnology corporations or GM research teams who live off streams of government grants -- paid for by the taxpayer. Over the years he has given more than 200 lectures on GMOs and has made many expert submissions to GMO regulatory bodies across the globe. In 2009 he and his wife Susan Bardocz (who was also a colleague in the Rowett research project) were jointly awarded the Stuttgart Peace Prize. (17)

Fifteen years have now passed. Pusztai's observations were accurate and were carefully reported to the media, as a consequence of his own personal concerns about GM technology which flowed directly from his own experiments. His observations were unsurprising in 1998 and they appear even less surprising today in the light of scores of more recent publications. So will those who destroyed the career of a good man through their audit reports, letters and "peer reviews" (and through a wide range of despicable activities behind the scenes) now have the good grace to recognize that they were wrong and that Pusztai was right? More to the point, have any of them got the common decency to issue a straightforward apology for what they did fifteen years ago?

We look forward to seeing such an apology in print, in the near future.

GM-Free Cymru


(1) Les Levidow (2002) IGNORANCE-BASED RISK ASSESSMENT? ScientiŽc Controversy over GM Food Safety, Science as Culture, Volume 11, Number 1, 2002
Anniversary of a Whistleblowing Hero
Jeffrey Smith: Biotech Propaganda Cooks Dangers out of GM Potatoes Seeds of Deception Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods

Andrew Rowell (2003) "Don't worry, it's safe to eat: The true story of GM food, BSE and foot and mouth." Earthscan. ISBN 1-85383-932-9.
Bourne, F.J., et al (1998) Audit Report Overview (Rowett Institute) Bowden, Rebecca Six referees comments on Pusztai potato data -- Royal Society to Pusztai, 10 May 1999

(3) Ewen, S.W.B. and Pusztai, A. (1999) 'Effect of diets containing genetically modiŽfied potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat small intestine', The Lancet, 354: 1353–1354

(4) Laurie Flynn and Michael Sean Gillard for The Guardian, October 31, 1999. Pro-GM scientist "threatened editor". Horton, R. (1999a) 'GM foods: "absurd" concern or welcome dialogue?', The Lancet, 354: 1314–1315. Horton, R. (1999b) 'Editor's reply', The Lancet, 354: 1729. Martin Enserink (1999). The Lancet Scolded Over Pusztai Paper. Science 22 October 1999: Vol. 286. no. 5440, p. 656 DOI 10.1126/science.286.5440.656a


Prior to 1995, no peer-reviewed studies had been published investigating the safety of GM food using human or animal feeding trials. In 1995 the Scottish Agriculture Environment and Fisheries Department commissioned a £1.6 million three-year research study to assess the safety of GM potatoes and to set up experimental protocols for future GM risk assessments. Twenty-eight study proposals were presented with eight being selected for peer review by the BBSRC. From these eight the Rowett Research Institute's proposal was chosen and a combined team of academics from the Scottish Crop Research Institute, the Durham University Department of Biology and the Rowett Institute was set up with Arpad Pusztai coordinating the study. SOAEFD (Scottish Office Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Department) flexible fund project RO818.)

The Scottish Crop Research Institute has published research that found adverse effects in ladybirds when they were fed on aphids which had fed on GM potatoes. It found the female insects' lifespans were halved and their reproduction reduced. The experiments used potatoes similar to some of those used by Dr Pusztai, modified to include snowdrop lectin.
Archived press release: GM crops harmful to wildlife says new research 04 March 1999

(8) Hilbeck A, Moar W, Pusztai-Carey M, Filipini A, Bigler F: Toxicity of Bacillus thuringiensis Cry1Ab toxin to the predator Chrysoperla carnea (Neuroptera: Chrysopidae). Environ Entomol 1998, 27:1255-1263. Hilbeck A, Moar W, Pusztai-Carey M, Filipini A, Bigler F: Prey-mediated effects of Cry1Ab toxin and protoxin and Cry2A protoxin on the predator Chrysoperla carnea (Neuroptera: Chrysopidae). Entomol Exp Appl 1999, 91:305-316. Publisher Full Text Hilbeck A, Baumgartner M, Fried PM, Bigler F: Effects of transgenic Bt corn-fed prey on immature development of Chrysoperla carnea (Neuroptera: Chrysopidae). Environ Entomol 1998, 27:480-487.

(9) Scientific Correspondence. Nature 399, 214 (20 May 1999) | doi:10.1038/20338 Transgenic pollen harms monarch larvae, by John E. Losey, Linda S. Rayor & Maureen E. Carter

(10) Hines FA. Memorandum to Linda Kahl on the Flavr Savr tomato (Pathology Review PR–152; FDA Number FMF–000526): Pathology Branch’s evaluation of rats with stomach lesions from three four-week oral (gavage) toxicity studies (IRDC Study Nos. 677–002, 677–004, and 677–005) and an Expert Panel’s report. US Department of Health & Human Services. 16 June 1993. Pusztai A. Witness Brief – Flavr Savr tomato study in Final Report (IIT Research Institute, Chicago, IL 60616 USA) cited by Dr Arpad Pusztai before the New Zealand Royal Commission on Genetic Modification: New Zealand Royal Commission on Genetic Modification; 2000.

(11) Noteborn, H.P.J.M., Bienenmann-Ploum, M.E., van den Berg, J.H.J., Alink, G.M., Zolla, L., A.Reynerts, Pensa, M. and Kuiper, H.A. (1995). Safety assessment of the Bacillus thuringiensis insecticidal Crystal Protein CRY1A(b) expressed in transgenic tomatoes. In: Genetically modified foods. Safety issues. Eds.: K.-H. Engel, G.R. Takeola & R. Teranishi. ACS Symposium Series 605, Washington DC, pp. 134–147.

(12) Fares NH1, El-Sayed AK. (1998) Nat Toxins. 1998;6(6):219-33. Fine structural changes in the ileum of mice fed on delta-endotoxin-treated potatoes and transgenic potatoes.

(13) Vázquez-Padrón R, Moreno-Fierros L, Neri-Bazán L, de la Riva GA, López-Revilla R. (1999) Life Sci. 1999;64(21):1897-912. Intragastric and intraperitoneal administration of Cry1Ac protoxin from Bacillus thuringiensis induces systemic and mucosal antibody responses in mice.

(14) Prof. Philip James warns of "Frankenstein Foods" ---- Scottish Daily Record, February 3, 1998 by Ken Oxley

(15) Ten Years On -- The Pusztai Research Is Still Valid And Still Unchallenged Arpad Pusztai’s Feeding experiments of GM potatoes with lectins to rats: Anatomy of a controversy 1998-2009 Klaus Ammann (open source version, 20090811) (This document from Ammann is typical of the vicious ad hominem attacks mounted on Pusztai by certain parts of the GMO science community.)

(16) GMO Myths and Truths Prescott VE, Campbell PM, Moore A, et al. Transgenic expression of bean alpha-amylase inhibitor in peas results in altered structure and immunogenicity. J Agric Food Chem. 16 Nov 2005; 53(23): 9023–9030. Tudisco R, Lombardi P, Bovera F, et al. Genetically modified soya bean in rabbit feeding: Detection of DNA fragments and evaluation of metabolic effects by enzymatic analysis. Animal Science. 2006; 82: 193–199. Séralini GE, Mesnage R, Clair E, Gress S, de Vendômois JS, Cellier D. Genetically modified crops safety assessments: Present limits and possible improvements. Environmental Sciences Europe. 2011; 23(10). Kilic A, Akay MT. A three generation study with genetically modified Bt corn in rats: Biochemical and histopathological investigation. Food Chem Toxicol. Mar 2008; 46(3): 1164–1170. US Food and Drug Administration. Biotechnology consultation note to the file BNF No 00077. Office of Food Additive Safety, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. 4 September 2002. Trabalza-Marinucci M, Brandi G, Rondini C, et al. A three-year longitudinal study on the effects of a diet containing genetically modified Bt176 maize on the health status and performance of sheep. Livestock Science. 2008; 113(2): 178–190. Finamore A, Roselli M, Britti S, et al. Intestinal and peripheral immune response to MON810 maize ingestion in weaning and old mice. J Agric Food Chem. Dec 10 2008; 56: 11533–11539. Malatesta M, et al. A long-term study on female mice fed on a genetically modified soybean: effects on liver ageing. Histochem Cell Biol. 2008; 130: 967–977.