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East/West: Genetically Modified Foods Rouse Controversy

  • Tony Wesolowsky

Genetically modified foods -- known as GMs -- are more and more a part of life in North America and in Central and Eastern Europe. They are also increasingly controversial. In this second of a three-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Tuck Wesolowsky explains what the controversy is about and speaks with one scientist who says his critical report on GMs lost him his job.

Prague, 8 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- When he conducted research into genetically modified organs, Arpady Pozstai didn't think his tests with lab rats would cost him his job and ruin his reputation. But they did.

Two years ago, Pozstai received a public grant for research at a Scottish laboratory into the potential health effects of GM foods. As part of his experiments, he fed some 100 young rats potatoes that had been genetically modified, while another group was given normal potatoes. As the two groups of rats grew, Pozstai says he detected differences.

"For example, they developed their organs in a different way, either more slowly or faster. Or some of them grew faster, some of them grew slower, when you compared the genetically modified diets with the non-genetically modified diets."

Once he publicized the results, the soft-spoken, Hungarian-born British researcher became the subject of a media frenzy in Britain and some debate in the country's parliament. Many British legislators called for a complete ban on GM foods. Pozstai's work was considered a major discovery, especially by the anti-GM camp, which seized upon it as further proof of the harm they say GM foods could wreak on human health.

The bio-engineering industry, however, wasn't so quick to congratulate him. That, says Pozstai, led to his troubles.

"Unfortunately, because of the sensitivity of the whole issue, and the -- you know, the millions and billions of dollars and pounds which have been invested in this -- anything that may have sounded as sort of opposition to GM food -- when the realization came that there may be some problems, then after two days there was a media explosion."

Pozstai says he became the victim of a vicious libel campaign. He says he also had problems at Aberdeen's Rowett Institute, where he worked.

"Eventually, I was gagged by the institute where I worked -- using the contract in which they said that I'm not allowed to speak about anything unless my director gives me permission for it."

By the end of the year, Pozstai was out of a job when the institute refused to renew his contract. His research was left incomplete.

To critics of GM foods, Pozstai's fate underscores the power wielded by the bio-engineering industry and its ability to silence its opponents. They say that it's the consumers of food who suffer from not having all the facts.

But Vivian Moses, the chairman of the British-based bio-engineering institute CroGen, says what happened to Pozstai is not a matter of the GM industry conspiring to mute its critics. Rather, he says, it's merely a case of bad science.

"Suffice to say that Pozstai's work has been extensively discredited. All the major academies that have looked at it have discredited it extensively, chapter and verse. I think no one but Pozstai -- and some of the professional and opponents of GM foods -- quote it anymore. It's simply not worth quoting."

To Harald Heinrichs, a sociologist at the Julian Research Center in Cologne, Germany, the Pozstai case is a rarity for Western Europe. He says the debate on GM foods is much more open within the European Union than in the United States. He cites public-opinion polls that show markedly differing degrees of support for GM foods on each side of the Atlantic. In the polls, about 70 percent of Americans were identified as GM food supporters, while similar polls in the EU show consumer approval between 30 and 50 percent.

Part of the EU's wariness about GM food comes from recent food-related scandals. Creutzfeld-Jacobs disease, the illness known as mad-cow disease which began in Britain but has spread to the continent, is perhaps the most important among them because it has infected and killed human beings. Added to that scare are a dioxin scandal in Belgium and reports of sewage being used in animal feed in France -- two more scandals that also fed West European fears.

Heinrichs says that Americans' less critical attitude towards GM foods may be linked to a lack of critical questions being asked by U.S. scientists. He notes that most of the studies and research carried out on GMs are done by the same companies that develop the products. That, Heinrichs says, hardly makes for objective research.

"The university system here [that is, in Western Europe] is mainly a public university system, and the biotech industry is less influential here in our research system than in the U.S. In the U.S., some social scientists think that about 90 percent of the scientists who work in this broad area of biotechnology get at least one part of their money from the biotech industry. So we can observe in the U.S. a shift from public to private research funding, and that of course means there is a danger that there are not enough experts left to ask critical questions."

Even fewer critical questions on GM foods are being asked further east in Europe, in the former communist bloc. Central and Eastern Europe have for years been good breeding grounds for bio-engineering. We'll look at that area in the last part of this series.