Review

Andrew Rowell, Don’t worry, it’s safe to eat  (London &  Sterling, Virginia; Earthscan Publications, 2002) £16.99 hardback

 

The United Kingdom at the end of the last century: two different crises, two different governments. Labour was elected after 18 years of Tory rule, and part of the reason for that breakthrough was the depth of incompetence and cynicism which Conservative ministers showed in trying to cover up their mishandling of BSE, mad cow disease. What this book shows, however, is, as Rowell points out in his introduction, that “nothing much has changed”. The pattern established by BSE was repeated for Foot and Mouth. Public reassurances were given by ministers, but those ministers were saying things which they could not possibly prove to be true. Parliament and the public were lied to. When it came to scientific investigation, yes-men from a tight inner circle of scientists were preferred to those who had real expertise. Corporate interests prevailed, as did those of the big farmers whose interest the National Farmers’ Union prioritises not only over those of the consumer but of those of its own smaller members.

 

The world’s food supply is increasingly monopolistic in structure: “Over 60 per cent of the international food chain is controlled by just ten companies that are involved in seed, fertilizers, pesticides, processing and shipments. Cargill and Archer Daniel Midland control 80 per cent of the world’s grain, and Syngenta, DuPont, Monsanto and Aventis account for two-thirds of the pesticide market. Just four companies control the supply of corn, wheat, rice and other commodities.”  These companies own our food, and Rowell’s book shows that they own our governments and our universities.

 

BSE remains poorly understood and the current policy to prevent its recurrence, while it has so far apparently been successful, is crude and costly. The chosen method of containing Foot and Mouth, however, makes it look relatively sane. Farmers were forced, unnecessarily and, as Rowell shows, quite illegally, to destroy millions of healthy animals.

 

The current controversy over GMOs demonstrates that still nothing has been learnt by government and regulatory authorities. Scientists are picked for regulatory functions by the government for their ability to help it lie its way out of trouble. Dissenters are silenced. The events surrounding the sacking of Dr Arpad Pustzai form the substance of the most disturbing section of a book almost every page of which is likely to shock anyone who believes that the United Kingdom is a democracy. Using standard methods of comparing pathology in rats fed on GM potatoes with a control group fed on non-GM potatoes, Pustzai found that the internal organs and immune systems of rats were damaged by the presence of an additional gene, one which produces a toxin, lectin, in snowdrops and had been used as a promoter gene in the experiments.

 

The problems began when Dr Pustzai took part in a television documentary, although it was not apparent from Rowett Institute's director Professor Philip James’ initial reaction that anything was amiss. In fact, James “congratulated Dr Pusztai on … how well he had handled the questions.”  The next day the Institute issued a press release which made no criticism of Pustzai or his work, but stated that the “range of carefully controlled studies underlie the basis of Dr Pusztai's concerns”.  Two days later Pustzai had been suspended, publicly insulted, and ordered to hand over his data. “His phone calls and e-mails were diverted; his personal assistant was banned from speaking to him. He read in a press release issued by the Institute that his contract would not be renewed.” The charges against him, where they had any substance – many simply being innuendo – were quickly discredited by independent review. He had not grown muddled. His work was never intended to be the last word on the subject, but it was sound and he had drawn reasonable conclusions from the evidence. These events, which – coupled with two mysterious burglaries, one on the Pustzais’ home and one on the laboratory, where, in both cases, his data were targeted - ruined the health of both Dr Pustzai and his wife, who was sacked along with him, appear characteristic not of democracy but pf what occurs in dictatorships. This impression is confirmed by the testimony of independent witnesses – eminent scientists who had worked at or with the Institute, including Professor Robert Orskov OBE, who, according to Andrew Rowell, worked at the Rowett for 33 years and is one of Britain's leading nutrition experts” to the effect that the change in attitude on the part of Pustzai’s employer came after a chain of phone calls, running from Monsanto to President Clinton to Prime Minister Blair to Professor James. James denies the claims.

 

Fortunately, many other scientists rallied behind someone who was widely known and respected as a leading authority in his field and a man of integrity and impeccable professional standards. Twenty independent scientists signed a memorandum in support of Dr Pustzai, and others spoke out not only in defence of a persecuted individual but of the integrity and objectivity which are the purported standards by which science and scientists should be measured. Ronald Finn, for example, former president of the British Society of Allergy and Environmental Medicine pointed out that  “at the very least raise the suspicion that genetically modified potatoes may damage the immune system.” This was surely worth investigating, because British people eat a lot of potatoes, as do many others, and “if the immune system of the population was weakened, then the mortality would be increased many, many times."  Another researcher, Stanley Ewen of the Department of Pathology at Aberdeen University, who worked with Pustzai and also published results of similar experiments conducted separately speculated that "It may be that in GM food a drug-delivery system has been created, delivering something you didn't want to." [Both quotes taken from BBC website On this day feature “1999: Scientists highlight hazards of GM food” 12 Feb 2003 See: H.A. Kuiper et al “Adequacy of methods for testing the safety of genetically modified foods,” The Lancet, 354:1315-1316, 1999]

 

Tony Blair and his Science Minister, the unelected supermarket magnate Lord Sainsbury, act as standard bearers for the agricultural biotech industry, routinely rubbishing people who do not share their enthusiasm as “Luddites” conducting “a retreat into the culture of unreason.” Remember: this includes a majority of the British people, the ones who pay his ministerial salary. Government-paid and corporate scientists are regularly trotted out to back these attacks. Professor Philip Dale of the John Innes Centre for example, compared the destruction of GM crops by protestors to “book-burning in supposedly less enlightened times.” Dale is linked to  Sainsbury through the “Gatsby Foundation”, whose purpose is “to exploit commercially scientific breakthroughs in plant science produced by the Sainsbury Laboratory and the John Innes Centre, both in Norwich. Sainsbury had been head of the Gatsby Foundation before joining the government. His benevolence did not end there, of course. Prior to becoming science minister he had donated UKP 9 million to the Labour Party.

 

Fortunately, Blair and the rest of corporate biotechnology’s supporters in the UK have an uphill task. Protestors destroying crops might not have been to the taste of the likes of Philip Dale, but when they won unexpectedly widespread support and public condemnation  from no-one but the usual procession of suits, the attempt to pull off a GM takeover of British agriculture appeared to have hit some unfavourable weather. One field in Wivenhoe, Essex was attacked no less than 13 times in a few weeks, while at one point protestors, guards, police and dogs were almost falling over each other. A poll showed that 89% of the local population opposed the growing of the crop (the rest were possibly police officers who needed the overtime) and, after three-quarters of it had been destroyed, only three protesters had been arrested, charged with criminal damage valued at 20p. [John Vidal, “Damages charge of 20p for anti-GM crop protesters”, The Guardian, 8 August 01] The fact that protesters were being acquitted by both juries and magistrates was clearly encouraging. The acquittal of Greenpeace chief and former Labour minister Lord Melchett and twenty-seven others in September 2000 was only the highest profile example of a phenomenon which must have presented the government with an unpleasant reminder that the country over which they presided retained many features of a democracy. When, in June, 2001, seven people who had dressed as grim reapers and cut down and trampled on a genetically modified maize crop were acquitted of aggravated trespass by Weymouth magistrates, several local people visited another GM field near Weymouth and started to pull the crop down, attracting no attention from the constabulary, who had presumably decided not to waste their time. These protests were, moreover, much more than symbolic, with Syngenta confessing that they could delay the commercialisation of GM rapeseed for at least a year. Clearly, the destruction of the crops was, in the face of a government which refused to respond to public opinion, the most effective form of action. Other forms of direct action – including those which most certainly involved no law-breaking, such as a simple refusal by consumers to buy GM products – were also having their effects, with supermarket chains and other retailers increasingly demanding GM-free alternatives from their suppliers. Then it was revealed that seed firms had “bungled” field trials, failing to follow regulations aimed at preventing contamination from GM maize pollen [Kurt Kleiner, “Seed firms bungle field trials”, New Scientist, 24 Aug 02, p.11].

 

These were just some of the events keeping the controversy alive. When the BBC broadcast a peak time BBC One drama series, Fields of Gold, posited entirely on the notion that GMOs were potentially dangerous and that sinister forces were at work attempting to conceal this fact, it reached a broader section of the public than would be directly touched by the ongoing debate, however fierce it may have been in some quarters. Yet, at the same time, Blair’s government was actually attempting to veto the EU’s plans to require GM foods to be labelled. The dissonance between public opinion and government action was deafening. With fewer than one on three British consumers finding GMOs in food “acceptable”, it was time, as Consumer Association Director Shiela McKechnie pleaded, for the government to “take the corporate fingers out of its ears and start listening to what consumers really think about GM.” [Reuters, “UK consumers uneasy over GM crops and food – report” 2 Oct 02]

 

The UK’s continuing attempts to scupper vital aspects of the EU’s package of GMO regulations, its appointment of fanatically pro-GMO individuals to high positions in the food safety hierarchy, and finally, the sacking (not resignation, as was claimed at the time) of the GMO-sceptical Michael Meacher from his position as environment minister showed not so much that Blair was indifferent to such criticism, but that, as in so many other areas of policy, pressure from the US corporate and political powerbrokers was simply greater than that from the people whom he had supposedly been elected to serve.  The mystery of how Meacher had kept his job for so long was cleared up immediately after he was forced out, when he began to blow the gaff on the links between the industry and the government, including links which seriously compromised the independence of those involved.

 

If the government has learnt nothing, if the pet scientists wheeled out to endorse ill-thought out, corporate-friendly policies have learnt nothing, at least the British people’s refusal to swallow GMOs shows that there are limits, that, as the man said, you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. The agbiotech industry almost succeeded in foisting GMOs on the American people without their knowledge. It is still trying to force Europeans to drink milk from cows fed on recombinant bovine growth hormone, banned in every country of the world except the US and its satellites.

 

But its timing, in the case of the UK at least, was unfortunate. There would probably be more chance of the British people swallowing GMOs if government ministers began to say they were dangerous and should be banned. Credibility, after two major agriculture-linked scandals in a decade is at an all-time low. Whether this will, in the end, save us from a third crisis, and stop more lives and livelihoods from being lost, we shall see. At the very least, Rowell’s fine book has given us a valuable weapon with which to further our fight for the right to eat wholesome food.

 

The reviewer, Steve McGiffen, is Spectre’s editor and an adviser on biotechnology to the United Left Group of Members of the European Parliament. He is currently working on a book for Pluto Press on the international regulation of biotechnology.