Source: Transcript from Channel 4 News (UK), October 15, 1999
Andrew Veitch reported that biotech companies have invested millions in trying to engineer potatoes, maize and grapes to carry their owncalled lectins. That’s one reason for the alarm when Dr.Arpad Pusztai, a world expert on lectins, warned the crops might be dangerous, this before any of them had come to market. His research, based on feeding potatoes with lectin to rats, was published in the medical journal the Lancet today, after being rubbished by much of the scientific establishment.It is still highly controversial. The experts chosen to referee the work were divided. But work at Dundee University and the Scottish Crop Research Institute, also published in the Lancet today, also raised potentially more serious concerns. They tested lectins not on rats but on human blood cells.
Dr.Caroline Bolton-Smith (Dundee University):I think what it’s saying to companies, industry, out there, who may be considering putting lectins into foods, that it1s certainly not something that should be done at the moment, until we have a firm idea of what those lectins are doing to human cells and human health.
Andrew Veitch: Snowdrops, like most plants, produce poisonouscalled lectins, to defend themselves against those who would eat them, from bugs to humans. They work by disrupting the organisation of cells, or communication between them. They affect the immune system and the development of cells; that is why they are being tested as natural pesticides. The gene for the lectin has been inserted into potatoes and maize.
Now it was thought that the snowdrop lectin would not harm humans, but amazingly no one had tested it on human cells. That is what the scientists in Dundee have now done, and they found the lectin binds to white blood cells. That suggests,they say,that it could damage the human immune system. They don’t know that,the work now needs to be done, but at this stage they say it’s a red flag for the companies developing GM crops with snowdrop lectins.
The biotech firm Novartis, which is developing snowdrop lectin in maize said:”We are taking notice of the red flag and we will make sure it’s evaluated before we go any further.”
While the work of the Dundee teams only applies to lectins, they are concerned about GM foods already on the market.
Dr.Caroline Bolton-Smith (Dundee University): If there are going to be any health effects they may only come out in the next 10 or 20 years. We still have time to say, ok – there is some slight evidence there may be some detrimental effects, and to do something about it. So to ignore the possibility of risk I think is probably not wise.
Andrew Veitch: The problem, as the Lancet found when it decided to publish Dr.Pusztai’s paper, is that pressure to push ahead with the technology is intense.
Dr.Richard Horton (Editor the Lancet): There are extreme forces at play in this debate. There is a great deal of potential research investment in the UK that could come from food technology industries, and any concerns about the safety of these foods could jeopardise this huge investment. So I can understand why scientists would be very anxious about jeopardising that investment. But we need to listen to what the public are saying. And the public are saying, please take it slow.
Andrew Veitch: Which is why scientists at Sussex University will next week launch a plan to dismantle the barricades between government, scientists and consumers.
Andy Stirling (Sussex University): Many of the issues of greatest concern to the public aren’t being addressed generally, as there is this, as I described it, something of a siege mentality. (It) obstructs good communication between a scientific community who are doing their best to reveal the full scope of the effects of these technologies, and trying to reassure the public as much as they can. But the communication is really not working as it should.
Andrew Veitch: After Northern Ireland, the new minister in charge of GM foods is no stranger to the siege mentality. There are hopes that under Mo Mowlem’s leadership communication might improve.