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Hot potato

BMJ 1999; 318 doi: (Published 27 February 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;318:611
  1. Abi Berger, science editor
  1. BMJ

    See Editorialby Dixon and p581

    The genetically modified food fandango has been a lesson in confusion. According to the Guardian on 20February, over 1900 column inches had

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    been published that week on the subject, and many more followed. Within a single week the spectre of a food scare has become a full scale war, and the language used by the tabloid press simply served to heighten the tension. We have had “Frankenstein foods,” “terminator genes,” and “verminators.”Yet, as the Daily Telegraph commented (17February), “it is absurd, because the sense of deadly and immediate danger generated by the scare is completely unwarranted.” Amusingly, they went on: “it ought to be a statement of the obvious that Mr Blair and his Government do not wish to poison the population, and yet the tabloid suggestion is the opposite.”

    One reason why the issue of genetic modification took off, after the press conference given by 21scientists in London on 12February, was that several newspapers were already running campaigns against genetically modified foods. The Daily Mail (“genetic food watch”), Express (“safe food”), and Independent on Sunday (“stop GM foods”) were consequently quick to add fuel to the fire. The Mirror joined the fray on 15February by launching its own campaign to have all food products labelled if they contain genetically modified organisms (“label Frankenstein food”).

    Enlisting the help of supermarket chains and famous chefs to decry the horrors of “mutant foods” did much to support the furore. Several writers have likened the scare over genetically modified food to the BSE crisis. As far as the science is concerned, there is little connection between the two issues, but, as Patrick Marks commented in the Birmingham Post (17February), the connection has been made simply because “our confidence in the food process was undermined by the BSE scandal.” Robin McKie of the Observer (14February) went further: “the British public—distrustful of official assurances after the mishandling of the BSE crisis—is in no mood to listen to 'scientific' reason. Nor is the media.”

    No matter that the scare about genetically modified foods originated from unpublished data from a single set of experiments conducted by one man: within days the whole of the biotechnology industry had gone up in smoke. In the Daily Telegraph (15February) Matt Ridley offered one of the few voices of reason: “we would be wrong to throw away all genetic engineering just because it is possible to do something dangerous with it.” But, as the Evening Standard(16February) summed it up, “all too often our public debate loses the thread in a chaos of conflicting arguments, orchestrated by media who compete to raise the volume.”

    The “truth” about Dr Arpad Pusztai's research at the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen has yet to be ascertained. His reported findings that genetically modified potatoes led to abnormalities developing in laboratory rats have yet to be verified, and certainly the cause of the abnormalities remains unknown. A number of papers made valiant attempts to describe the scientific processes in question, and I particularly enjoyed Tim Radford's definition of genetic promoters: “a kind of Don King figure to make the big match happen.”

    But if you really want to understand what may have happened in Pusztai's rats, then the most comprehensive report to date can be found in New Scientist (20February). Andy Coghlan and his coauthors provide a hype-free description of why the process of genetic modification alone is unlikely to have caused the toxic effects of the potatoes. It is more likely, they suggest, that any ill effects would have been caused by something specific to the transgenic potatoes Pusztai used, which were never intended for human consumption in the first place.

    Meanwhile, moratoriums are being called for. But moratoriums against what? In some cases it is clear that a wholesale banning of growing genetically modified crops was what was in mind. In other cases there have been calls for a moratorium on any further research into production of genetically modified food (and if that happens we really will be left in the dark about the dangers, or otherwise, of these foods). In more measured tones, the Independent on Sunday (7February) urged “a freeze rather than a ban” because it said it was happy to listen to the arguments in favour of genetically modified foods.

    By the end of this chaotic week, transatlantic trade wars and the worldwide marginalisation of European farming had been forecast by Guy de Jonquieres in the Financial Times (18February), and the 21″top international scientists” who have been championing Pusztai were found to be not quite so obviously independent as previously thought (according to the Daily Telegraph, Friends of the Earth organised the press conference at which a number of them spoke last week).

    It remains to be seen how much more mileage can be gained from Frankenstein foods, and how long it will take for the scientific community to fight back. But, one way or another, the time is ripe for the British press to inject a little sense into the kitchen.

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