Scientists voice modified food risk fears

International group supports researcher who suggested modified foods could harm health

An international group of scientists has today given strong support to a British researcher who was suspended after apparently demonstrating that genetically modified (GM) potatoes could be harmful to health. The move heightens an already vociferous European debate over modified crops and foods, leading already today to calls for a complete ban on GM food and a reaction by UK prime minister Tony Blair, who ruled out a moratorium.

Last summer, Arpad Pusztai of the Aberdeen-based Rowett Research Institute revealed in a British television programme that rats he had fed on potatoes genetically modified to improve their insect resistance showed suppressed growth and immune responsiveness. Dr Pusztai voiced concerns over present testing procedures to establish the safety of GM foods. Two days later he was suspended by his institute, which set up a committee to decide whether or not he had committed fraud.

Today, a group of 21 scientists from Britain, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Italy, Hungary, Slovenia, Canada and the USA came to Dr Pusztai's defence. They argued that his results had been scientifically valid and accused his employers of treating him in an unacceptable fashion. "Dr Pusztai has been effectively gagged," group member Brian Goodwin of Britain's Schumacher College told a press conference in London. "MPs should be asking questions about whether political pressure was put on."

Another of the group, Stanley Ewen of Aberdeen Royal Hospitals said that an "audit" report of Dr Pusztai's work carried out by the Rowett institute had "seriously underplayed the hazards revealed by his experiments." "The experiments, far from being aborted, should be repeated and amplified. Great potential risk has been highlighted, and mammalian experiments must, at present, be part of the regulatory procedure. Simple toxicity experiments would not have revealed these dangers."

Pressure groups campaigning against the use of genetic modification in agriculture and foods pounced on the scientists' statement today. In the UK, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Consumers' Association all called for an immediate ban on the introduction of GM foods. "There is no justification for using millions of people as guinea pigs for a genetic experiment," said Greenpeace.

Follow Up:
Dr Vyvian Howard, University of Liverpool, tel: +44 151 794 5514; Rowett Research Institute, tel: +44 1224 712 751.

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