Biotech critics at risk-
Economics calls the shots in the debate
Summary of the San Francisco Chronicle article
by Mark Dowie
January 11, 2004
Arpad Pusztai, John Losey, Ignacio Chapela, and Tyrone Hayes are four biologists from Europe and North America who met face to face for the first time on the UC Berkeley campus last month.
Between 1999 and 2001, unbeknownst to the others, they made a simple but profound discovery that challenged the powerful biotechnology industry.
Monsanto and Sygenta and other biotech firms have aggressively attacked the four discoveries of these four biologists.
Arpad Pusztai fed transgenically modified potatoes to rodents in one of the few experiments that have ever tested the safety of genetically modified food in animals or humans. Almost immediately, the rats displayed tissue and immunological damage.
His findings underwent peer review and were published in the United Kingdom's leading medical journal, Lancet. Pusztai's home was burglarized and his research files taken. Then, he was fired from his job at Rowett, and he has since suffered an orchestrated international campaign of discreditation, in which Prime Minister Tony Blair played an active role.
Cornell Professor John Losey was patiently dusting milkweed leaves with genetically modified corn pollen. Monarch butterfly larvae ate the leaves and died in significant numbers but a control group fed nongenetically modified pollen all survived; Losey was not particularly surprised.
Losey's work was intended to produce an internal pesticide, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), intended to attack and kill the corn borer and some particularly troublesome moth caterpillars.
The vehement attack on Losey's study that followed from Novartis and Monsanto were open attempts to discredit his work and the extent to which mass media leapt to their support. Losey is still at Cornell, where his future seems secure.
This was not the case for Ignacio Chapela, however; he was denied tenure at UC Berleley because of his discovery. He is a microbial ecologist in the plant sciences department at UC Berkeley. In 2000, he discovered that pollen had drifted several miles from a field of genetically modified corn in Chiapas into the remote mountains of Oaxaca in Mexico, landing in the last reserve of biodiverse maize in the world.
In November 2001 Nature published Chapela's peer-reviewed study, after which the Bivings Group launched an aggressive public relations campaign for Monsanto.
Then, Nature editors did something they had never done in their 133 years of existence. They published a cautious partial retraction of the Chapela report. Mainly because of that retraction, Chapela was not be offered his teaching assignment in the fall.
Tyrone Hayes, a UC Berkeley endocrinologist specializing in amphibian development, exposed young frogs in his lab to very small doses of the herbicide Atrazine; they first failed to develop normal larynxes and later displayed serious reproductive problems (males became hermaphrodites), suggesting that Atrazine might be an endocrine disrupter.
As soon as word of Hayes' findings reached Sygenta Corp. (formerly Novartis) and its contractor, Ecorisk, Inc., attempts were made to stall his research, and funding was withheld. It was a critical time, as the EPA was close to making a final ruling on Atrazine. Hermaphroditic frogs would not help Sygenta's cause.
Hayes continued the research using his own funds and found more of the same results. Then Sygenta offered him $2 million to continue his research "in a private setting." A committed teacher with a lab full of loyal students, Hayes declined the offer and proceeded with research because he knew that the research had to remain in public domain. He found damaging developmental effects of Atrazine at even lower levels (0.1 parts per billion). The prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published the results of the study, Sygenta attacked it and claimed that three other labs it contracted had been unable to duplicate Hayes' results.
Hayes has obtained tenure at UC Berkeley and continues to teach.
These four men were not attacked because of flawed or imperfect experiments but because the findings of their work have a potential economic effect.
Editor's note: Yes, the economic effect, but also because these studies provided the truth.
Mark Dowie lives in Point Reyes and teaches a science writing class at UC Graduate School of Journalism.
John L. Fielder D.O.,N.D.,
Osteopath & Lifestyle Consultant
Academy of Natural Living