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Tuesday, May 18, 1999 Published at 18:36 GMT 19:36 UK


Sci/Tech

GM potatoes and all that

"Everyone is a loser in this sorry affair"

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

So Dr Arpad Pusztai's poor rats do not throw a dark shadow over all research into genetically-modified (GM) crops and foods. It is a conclusion that most scientists had expected, but whether it reassures the public about the safety of GM crops remains to be seen.

Food under the microscope
Everyone is a loser in this sorry affair. The research institute concerned appeared harsh and dismissive in its treatment of Dr Arpad Pusztai. Dr Pusztai himself had his scientific reputation tarnished, and parts of the media have not come out of it well, having produced ill-informed, scare-mongering reports of the research in question.

The green lobby had clearly wanted a fight with scientists over GM foods. And they got it, winning round one.

The pressure groups were delighted with the reaction they received in February after they organised a press conference attended by 20 scientists to highlight what they saw as the dangerous consequences of Dr Pusztai's work.

Role of news organisations

The news organisations bought it - the conference got headline coverage and a moral panic was born. But few in the media enquired into the qualifications of these scientists who were hardly world-class.

Many of those scientists must be feeling a little uncomfortable now after the Royal Society's findings.

The distinguished organisation's report says that Dr Pusztai's research was flawed and that it was unjustifiable to draw any sweeping and damning conclusions about GM foods from his work, which was released to the public at far too early a stage.

So what are the lessons here?

Peer review

The Royal Society says that scientists working in such delicate areas should get feedback and criticism from their colleagues so that they are sure of their results before they release them to the media.

This is a strategy that may work in less contentious areas of research but as far as GM foods are concerned we can be sure that Dr Pusztai's work will not be the last controversial study to be picked up early and exaggerated by the media.

This is the inevitable consequence of the "What do we fear? Who is to blame?" approach to science that some in the media hold.

Many reports look at things from the perspective of the consumer, not enough bother to acknowledge the work of scientists whose endeavours have ensured there is more to buy at the supermarket than just mangy apples and products made from fungus-ridden, low-grade wheat.

It is to be hoped that the Royal Society's verdict on the Pusztai affair will bring some sensible debate to the GM issue.



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