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When food and nutrition researcher Arpad Pusztai spoke to a British television program about his work on genetically modified foods, he did not think he was doing anything controversial.
However, the broadcast unleashed a storm of public and scientific debate in Britain, and ended Pusztai's research career at Scotland's Rowett Institute.
"I came in on Wednesday morning [after the interview], and I was told I was suspended, my research group was broken up, and my data was confiscated," he said at a talk in McGill's Arts Building recently.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are those which have had a gene from an unrelated organism inserted into their genetic code. Pusztai had been investigating the health effects on rats of GM potatoes. He told the television interviewer that his research indicated that there were potential dangers in GM foods.
"They have not been sufficiently tested," said Pusztai.
Pusztai was at McGill to participate in a panel discussion entitled "Biotechnology and Objective Science in the Age of Corporate Power." Organized by "Food Not Lawns," a working group of QPIRG, the discussion on February 15 aimed to shed some light on a few of the issues surrounding GMOs. Speakers were Pusztai, his wife and research partner Susan Bardocz, as well as Elizabeth Abergel, a doctoral student at York University specializing in science policy.
After his television interview was broadcast, Pusztai was condemned by scientists across Britain as being biased and unscientific. His supervisor accused him of fabricating results, and his analysis was questioned. However, he stands by his research, and feels that he is being silenced by those with an interest in promoting GM foods.
"They said that I only published in low-quality journals," he said, but he pointed out that his work was published in The Lancet, one of the most respected medical journals in the world.
That claim is somewhat disingenuous, according to pharmacology and therapeutics professor Paul Clarke.
"The Lancet decided to publish because it was a matter of public importance, not because of the quality of the paper per se," he says. "They put in a cautionary note from the editor of The Lancet saying that this is why they decided to publish it."
Clarke, who teaches a graduate level course in statistics, said that Pusztai's work in this study was flawed in many ways.
"The first weakness is that the rats were fed only potatoes, and that the protein content in the potatoes was low," which Clarke pointed out is a diet that will have adverse health risks no matter what the origin of the potato.
The second weakness, according to Clarke, was that Pusztai ran too many statistical tests.
"The more statistical tests you do, the more likely that some of your results will be due to chance. He hasn't been sufficiently conservative in his statistical tests."
Though Clarke believes that Pusztai's research was seriously flawed, he does not believe that GM foods are risk-free.
"I do think that one has to be extra cautious because it is hard to show that genetically modified foods are safe," he said. "Nature is much more complicated than we really understand."
Despite his dismissal and vilification in Great Britain, Pusztai has become something of a celebrity among anti-genetic engineering groups, and travels extensively to talk on his experiences along with Susan Bardocz.
For her part, Bardocz explained that the arguments used to defend GM foods are weak at best.
"They say that no one has ever died from eating GM foods, but there is no way to trace this because people don't even know what they're eating," she pointed out.
"It's like tobacco; you can smoke one cigarette or a pack and be okay, but if you smoke for 30 or 40 years there will be effects."
Elizabeth Abergel pointed out that Canada has approved some 47 GM foods for consumption in this country. However, she claims the process that led to those approvals is seriously flawed.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) does not perform its own tests, relying instead on the reports of biotechnology companies.
Abergel recited a litany of problems with genetically modified crops that have been approved here and abroad, ranging from deformed cotton plants in Texas to inadvertent "genetic contamination" in Canada.
According to Abergel, there is little evidence that these failures have led to increased vigilance on the part of the CFIA.
"[They] have never questioned the conclusions of the developers... [And] they don't tell you on what basis a product is accepted," she said.
"It's a system of organized irresponsibility."