Call for Ceasefire in British Food Fight

Dan is a deputy news editor for Science.

CAMBRIDGE, U.K.--Fed up with the ongoing media feeding frenzy surrounding genetically modified food, 19 of Britain's most eminent scientists, all Fellows of the Royal Society, are calling for a time-out. In a letter to today's issues of London's Daily Telegraph and Guardian newspapers, they say "the time is right to bring good science into the center of decision-making."

The current wave of controversy surrounds work by protein biochemist Arpad Pusztai. Last August he declared in a TV documentary that potatoes genetically altered to resist pests stunted growth and suppressed immunity in rats, according to his own unpublished research. A few days later, Pusztai was suspended from his post at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, on the grounds that he had muddled up data from several experiments. On 12 February, 21 European and U.S. scientists released a memorandum in support of Pusztai and his research and quoted a new, unpublished study that they claimed had proven him right. (Science, 19 February, p. 1094). Transgenic food has rarely been off the front pages in Britain since.

Alarmed by the appearance of unpublished scientific data in the recent clash, the signatories of this week's letter warn that it's "a dangerous mistake ... to assume that all statements claiming to be scientific can be taken at face value." One of the signatories, botanist Ghillean Prance, director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, says they are not pointing the finger at Pusztai's results, but he and several other of the Fellows have been increasingly concerned about the media's hunger for new results, even if they haven't undergone scrutiny by other scientists. "So much bad science is going into the press," Prance says. "Science [itself] should set the agenda." Nobelist Max Perutz of Cambridge's Laboratory of Molecular Biology says he thinks Pusztai's results "should have been subjected to peer review."

A spokesperson says the Royal Society plans to convene a panel of six experts to review Pusztai's results, as well as the possible allergenicity and toxicity of genetically modified foods in general.

Posted in Biology, Europe