Prof Burke: And neither do I

Dr Ingham: I know. And I would like to say neither does Professor Burke and I stress that. Nor is this, as we have heard, a tabloid circulation war. Yes, The Express has written about this a lot, yes so has The Mail but so has The Guardian and The Observer, The Independent and even that well known tabloid The Independent on Sunday. That’s got a campaign against GM technology. The Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme, another great tabloid, is also deeply suspicious of GM.

Now, newspapers launch campaigns all the time. Most of them disappear without trace. This campaign was picked up by the public and has run for a year. It has struck a cord with the public. It isn’t that the newspapers are whipping people up. The public was outraged not to be told what was going on.

In terms of not being genetically modified, Norman here is paid by the taxpayer. He doesn’t make anything out of the industry. Arpad Pusztai lost money. He was sacked. He was sacked for talking about his fears for GM technology. He has been vilified by government ministers. His research has been slammed by the Royal Society, even though they only looked at a bit of it. They didn’t see the full results of his research. He has suffered a heart attack as a result of the stress. He suffered a nine-month gagging order, the like of which he never endured when he was under the Nazis or under the communists in his native Hungary. Now some people say he made one mistake. He went public early.

Yet every day I talk to scientists about their research long before it’s published. Often it’s not even published. Frequently I write stories about it. Only one scientist has ever been sacked after talking to me, and that’s Dr Pusztai. He has been treated outrageously because he dared to threaten the profits of a multi-billion pound industry. Now Andy [Kidd], we do know how the world works. Money talks. Most 68 year olds would give up now. They’d say "the hell with it, I’m going to retire". But he fights on, insisting we are guinea pigs in a botched experiment.

To sum up, you have to ask yourself two basic questions. If you think feeding livestock GM crops is in any way unnatural, you have to vote in favour of the motion. Remember BSE. If you think there is any doubt about the long-term safety of these crops to human health or to the environment, you have to vote for the motion. Remember DDT. Remember how scientific advice changes.

To vote for this motion does not mean that you are anti-GM. I most certainly am not. I can see potential benefits, many of which were outlined by Andy [Kidd]. But this technology is in its infancy. Even Food Safety Minister, Jeff Rooker, who’s personally attacked Arpad, here, has admitted we don’t need it. Even Monsanto has admitted in public that its current crops are of no benefit to the consumer.

So if we don’t need it; it doesn’t offer you, the consumer, any benefits; why are we taking risks?

We should delay feeding these crops to our livestock until we have the evidence beyond all reasonable doubt that they are safe. It is not for us to prove that they are unsafe. It is for the biotech industry, vetted by independent regulatory authorities, to prove that they are safe. The biotech industry, remember, will make billions out of this technology—off your back.

And I say to remember, when you thinking about how you vote, remember, when you think about this very new, embryonic technology---only fools rush in!

President: I thank Dr Ingham and call upon Professor Derek Burke, former chairman of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods [and Processes] to oppose the motion.

Prof. Derek Burke: Madam President, ladies and gentlemen, when I entered this hall tonight and found out that I was until recently the Vice-Chancellor of the United Arab Emirates, I thought that Oxford had conferred on me riches untold. I find that it is about as believable and about as solid as much of the stuff we’ve heard from the other bench.

I want to turn away from fantastical imagination. I want to turn away from images of natural and unnatural. I want to turn away from slurs on persons which I thought were a regrettable incident in this particular house. I want to turn away from arguments from BSE; from lack of knowledge. I want to talk about some facts, because public policy should depend upon facts. Public policy, made by the politicians whom we elect is for our good and for the good of society and cannot be taken on the basis of feeling or of the sort of headlines we’ve had from the newspapers – the mad forces of genetic darkness – none from The Express – the terrifying tampering – the Prime Monster. Is this a way for an advanced society at the end of the 20th century to debate an important issue of public safety and public policy? I suggest to you that the debate has been hijacked by those who want to trivialise it and turn it into a media circus.

Lets have some facts. Where do these facts come from? The start of this run of the last year comes from Dr Pusztai’s appearance on the Dispatches Programme in August last year. Now, Dr Pusztai and I are colleges, and I think friends. I have nothing against him as a person. We were colleagues in Aberdeen, and I’ve nothing against Aberdonians, I’ve certainly nothing against Hungarians because I’ve had many friends who have been Hungarians. But I have to say to you that the evidence on which much of this castle of sand has been built has a flawed scientific basis.

Dr Pusztai went public last summer, speaking to camera, and he said that his evidence showed that feeding genetically modified potatoes to rats damaged their immune systems and caused pathological damage. Those are most serious claims. You would have thought, being a serious scientist, and he is a serious scientist – as I am a serious scientist –that that work would have been gone through the normal peer review process, seen by other scientists, discussed with other scientists, presented at meetings, listed to contrary views, then carefully and properly put in for publication.

I’m sorry to tell you that that published work has never appeared and part of our difficulty this last year is that the two sides who have been embroiled in this debate have been embroiled in a debate about controversial evidence, and that’s not a good way to start a public debate. Now, it’s therefore very important to know whether Dr Pusztai is right or not. He passionately believes that what he has done is correct and we’re not denying him that right. He passionately believes that the feeding of GM foods is necessary as part of the testing procedure. He of course has that right.

What is the evidence for his supposition?

The evidence is unpublished. It’s been on the Web. It’s been investigated by two senior committees. The first of these was a review committee which was appointed very soon after the claims were made last summer whose report I have seen and who rejected Dr Pusztai’s claims. Dr Pusztai didn’t accept that.

The second was much more recent and was done by the most prestigious scientific body in the country. Now, I’m not a fellow of the Royal Society. I don’t have a particular axe to grind here but the Royal Society is the elite of the scientific community. They appointed a group of six who then sent out Dr Putszai’s work, all he cared to offer them, to referees, and the referees used their normal, scientific, rigorous assessment procedure just the same as I have done with the hundred papers or so that I’ve published in my life. Some of mine bounced and didn’t make the grade and this particular paper of Dr Pusztais didn’t make the grade, and the Royal Society was really quite scathing about it- - they’re a rather a gentle bunch normally - but listen to what they said:

‘We found no convincing evidence of adverse effects from GM potatoes’ and that the evidence, the differences that were seen were I quote, ‘uninterpretable because of the technical limitations of the experiments and the incorrect use of statistical tests’.

And that’s scientific language but it’s pretty damning scientific language. I suggest to you that we do not have yet the evidence for the hullaballoo that’s gone on over the last twelve years, the last twelve months. In fact there is a little bit of evidence that GM soya is safe [interruption] ...No, I’m not taking any points...that GM soya is safe and that there are feeding trials being done and Dr Pusztai knows very well that there’s a paper in the Journal of Nutrition which has as its title ‘The Feeding Value of Soya Beans to Rats, Chickens, Catfish and Dairy Cattle’ and is not altered by the genetic incorporation of gleiphosate.

But there’s another much important feeding trial going on, as you know. I was in the United States last week and everyone there is eating GM soya like billy-oh. There are 300 million people in the United States conducting a splendid chemical trial and I spent a lot of time asking last week, ‘how many problems have there been?’ There have been zero. Zero. There is no evidence that this material is unsafe.

So, just how different is GM soya, this principle villain in this melodrama that we’ve been watching? Well, I’ll tell you. A single gene taken from a common soil bacterium, one we would encounter every day, has been added to the 70,000 genes of soya bean, and so there are 70,000 soya genes and there is one bacterial gene. This bacterial gene has the ability to make the plant resistant to the roundup ready herbicide and is able, therefore, to protect the plant when it’s sprayed. So, we’re looking at a very small difference. But it’s of course important to ask how much difference would this small difference make? And when we came to the committee we asked a lot of detailed questions about the breakdown of the new gene, about the breakdown of the new gene product, and what would happen in the gut, whether there was any possibility of transfer of this gene into other organisms.

Now you know actually we’re rather immune to eating foreign DNA. Ever since we’ve eaten, we’ve eaten foreign DNA. We’ve eaten slices of tomato, slices of lettuce and slices of meat. And all that contains lots of DNA. Tomato seeds are remarkably resistant and go straight down into the gut, but I don’t actually have tomatoes growing out of my ears. So the body is used to dealing with DNA and can dispose of it, but even so we ask the hard questions. Is there any chance that the DNA might enter the body circulation and cause a problem? And the evidence, though it’s too detailed to summarise, is that there is no evidence at all for lack of safety. It’s a bit like saying that if you spit in the river above the Niagara Falls it will make a difference [interruption[ I’m going to continue. It will make a difference to the amount of water going over the falls. That is the amount of change that soya beans have been through in order to make them herbicide resistant.

Of course we can scrutinise, of course we should label, of course we should have segregated and I am as critical as you are of Monsanto. But that’s the measure of the difference. This is not a ‘Day of the Triffids’ scenario which we’re dealing with and there are other genetically modified food stuffs as well. There is a corn which came from Novartis which actually our committee turned down because we were not happy about anti-biotic resistance genes, and despite a lot of controversy and argument in Europe that material is still not being sewn or used. It was only going to be used for cattle feed anyway.

So the committees which are regulating the food industry products in the United Kingdom are independent and rigorous and not given to any political pressure at all. In the nine years as chairman I never had any political pressure put on me to make my difference, any difference of decision. So I want you to get this situation into perspective.

One small change to soya, carefully evaluated, a few other products coming through and one or two we’ve been using for years. Mathyaline and Lycine the essential ameno acids are added to animal feed. They are made either by chemical means, and therefore there must be awful chemicals, or they are made by fermentation with genetically modified micro organisms. Do you want to get rid of all those? Because if I tell you, and you will hear in a few minutes about this, I tell you if you do that prices will rocket.

Dr Pusztai listens to the opposition

I must stop. I want to say three things in closing.

First, that there is no scientific evidence of harm in feeding GM materials to animals. There is no scientifically rigorous evidence.

Second, that despite the press hoo-ha there, we have no more evidence of harm than we had a year ago.

And that, thirdly, for some of the reason’s you’ve heard, this issue has run and run. BSE and the concern about natural food is drifting into a theological, philosophical argument. And I have no objection to that, I personally am a believing Anglican Christian, there are still some Anglican Christians left in this country, and I therefore respect and acknowledge ethical and philosophical concerns, but that’s not the basis on which to make public policy. That’s the basis on which different groups decide on whether they want a product or not. Public policy depends on facts and I hope because the facts are clear and that you will reject this motion.

Thank you.



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