Saturday March 3, 2007
In 1998 Arpad Pusztai claimed on national television and in the media that GM potatoes stunted rats’ growth and damaged their immune system. When the research was finally published, over a year later, it turned out to be significantly flawed.
During the crucial two days after the GM ‘Frankenstein Foods‘ story broke, in February 1999, on the back of an article in this newspaper, not a single one of the news articles, opinion pieces or editorials on the subject â€“ in any British newspaper – was written by a science journalist, and again the work was unpublished, so nobody could comment on the science anyway. It was the turning point in public opinion against GM crops.
And now we have “Suppressed report shows cancer link to GM potatoes” by the Deputy Political Editor of the Independent, all about cancers and tumours, in rats fed a genetically modified potato in Russia. According to the article, the Russian report was released by Welsh anti-GM campaigners, after a battle to obtain it from the biotech industry.
I found the English commentary on the Russian report at the GM Free Cymru website. It’s 2,000 words long, by a Russian neuroscientist and green campaigner, the only english document on the project that seems to be available. Reading it, I’m not entirely convinced this study warrants the headline, or indeed any coverage at all. It doesn’t mention the word “cancer” – or indeed the word “tumour” – once, anywhere, for example, which rather undermines the cancer connection, to my mind.
I chase it up. The Russian activist tells me in an email that they did find “tumours”. I don’t know why she didn’t mention cancer in the 2,000 word commentary. Then I ask for clarification, and it turns out the researchers actually reported “cysts in the kidney and in the liver”. Cysts are not cancer, I suggest? They’re not. She agrees. This is headline news in the Independent about GM food causing cancer, remember.
Look. I’d like to know if GM foods are dangerous. Unless you take a very big bag of packed lunches with you, every time you go to America, you probably want to know too. But in reality, this seems to have been an amateurish piece of old science from which no meaningful results can be drawn in any direction. The first line of the commentary says the studies “were not carried out according to the accepted protocols for the biomedical assessment of GM food and feed”.
It was a three armed trial, where rats were fed Russet Burbank potatoes, or GM Russet Burbank potatoes, or “standard chow”. They measured things like body weight and organ size: there is a huge amount of data missing, but you can see that there were massive differences between the “standard chow” rats, and the rats eating the Russet Burbank potatoes, whether those potatoes were GM or not. We are told that some of the differences between the potato and the GM potato rats were significant.
But one other thing might make you think that the results of this kludged study are less relevant to your life. “Both types of Russet Burbank potatoes” the commentary concludes, “lead to changes in the blood and internal organs of laboratory rats (in the liver, the kidneys, the large gut, a change of the dimensions of heart and prostate gland and others)” They say: “and on the basis of this evidence they CANNOT be used in the nourishment of people.”
This will come as a great surprise to many farmers, since the Russet Burbank is one of the most commonly grown varieties of potato in the world. They’re a bit like Maris Pipers, and you’ve eaten them many times. They’re often used for french fries.
I can readily identify with the antipathy. I’m no friend of big biotech. I think GM has created a dangerous powershift in agriculture in the favour of multinational biotechnology corporations, and “terminator seeds”, which die at the end of the season, are a venal way to increase farmers’ dependency. Monsanto are clearly a nasty company (apart from anything else they made Agent Orange).
So I’m cautious about GM, and each crop needs to be assessed on a case by case basis, but they seem safe overall. If there’s something new and frightening, then I want to see it published, in full, so we can all sit down and get frightened by it together, on the basis of well conducted research that we can see and read. Before that, I’m not sure anyone’s very well served by scare headlines about cancer.