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Killer potatoes: Where's the data?

What are we to make of the firestorm surrounding Arpad Pusztai's transgenic potato research? The storm—only one of many biotechnology conflagrations now raging across Europe—is all the more remarkable because the work at the center of the controversy has never been published or peer-reviewed.

Last August, during the British documentary TV program World in Action, Pusztai, a scientist at UK government-sponsored Rowett Research Institute (RRI) in Aberdeen, Scotland described how five rats fed genetically modified (GM) potatoes containing insecticidal lectin concanavilin A (Con A) had slightly stunted growth, while their lymphocytes demonstrated a suppressed response in vitro to mitogenic stimuli. The press response to his remarks was predictably instantaneous and alarmist.

RRI began sending out press releases, initially in support of Pusztai, a well-regarded researcher in the area of GM food safety. But almost as quickly they retracted their support. After performing an audit on the work that had generated all the publicity, RRI came to the conclusion that the feeding trials involving GM Con A had been prepared but not completed and announced Pusztai's suspension from the studies and retirement from the institute. Then, in February, 23 scientists—none of them apparently transgenic food researchers—issued a public statement claiming that Pusztai's original results were valid and that he should be reinstated posthaste.

Based on Pusztai's unpublished research, UK political factions are now calling for moratoriums on GM research and GM foods and for the resignation of one or more government members. There are accusations of conspiracy and coverup, of big companies paying off little institutes to suppress data and allegations of wealthy members of parliament with vested interests in the technology putting profit before safety. Given the pandemonium, the message to the public is confusing and disturbing.

The real food safety issues at the heart of this controversy have become obscured by economic, political, ideological, and aesthetic issues. But whether we want or need or like or value transgenic foods has nothing to do with whether they are safe. One can only hope that the parties involved will declare a moratorium, not on GM crops and foods, but on public discussion that is almost completely devoid of verifiable information. RRI and Dr. Pusztai should present their data for peer review (and we invite them to do so) so that it can be considered in the context of work already undertaken or underway concerning the safety of these products. The promise of agricultural biotechnology as a means of diversifying agriculture and rendering it more efficient deserves as much.

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Killer potatoes: Where's the data?. Nat Biotechnol 17, 207 (1999). https://doi.org/10.1038/6906

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