Dr Bernard Dixon, science writer and former editor of New Scientist magazine, is the winner of this year's HealthWatch award for his many years of work in providing high quality information on scientific issues. After receiving his award at the HealthWatch Annual General Meeting in October, Dr Dixon gave HealthWatch members an illuminating and most enjoyable talk on what is possibly the most discussed yet least understood issue currently in the news.
It would be oversimplifying matters to blame the furore surrounding genetically modified foods entirely on the media. But they, along with many others, have played their part. Genetic modification is not new. The techniques were being developed twenty-five years ago when scientists voiced their concerns about possible dangers at a meeting at Pacific Grove, California. These were famously reported on in the American magazine Rolling Stone in an article entitled "Pandora's Box".
But the hysteria we have seen recently is a uniquely British phenomenon. And it was not until 10 August, 1998 that it was essentially triggered by a World in Action television programme. This described experiments in which Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Research Institute, Aberdeen, had apparently demonstrated that mice developed stunted growth and an impaired immune response as a result of eating genetically altered raw potatoes. It seemed that Pusztai had inserted into the potatoes a gene coding for a lectin (a type of protein produced by many plants as natural insecticides). Amplified by banner headlines in newspapers and through television newscasts worldwide, World in Action's theme was the horror of "Frankenstein food".
There were, however, immediate grounds for caution over the practical significance of the Aberdeen work. Firstly, the results on potatoes were preliminary and unpublished. Secondly, even if the very worst interpretation were placed on this research, it scarcely justified the condemning of all GM food. However, the media claque which both preceded and followed the TV programme was not cautious. The Express ran a front-page splash, "Genetic crops stunt growth", accompanied by an editorial on Frankenstein food ("The latest revelations... raise the prospect that scientists might be creating something truly dreadful"). The Daily Mail's front-page story announced that the discovery undermined repeated assurances from manufacturers and governments that such foods posed no risks.
The furore quickly ended in farce. Barely three days after World in Action released its bombshell, Rowett Director Philip James announced that the experiments had not been done using genetic methodology at all, but by spiking potatoes with a lectin. Arpad Pusztai had been suspended.
The Daily Mail, to its credit, gave the same prominence to a front-page announcement that "Food scientist got it wrong" as to the original story. Other papers performed less creditably.
One clear lesson, at this stage, was that, just as scientists should not release data to the media until they have withstood appropriate critical scrutiny, so journalists need to question whether and where research claims have been published. While the refereeing process cannot guarantee absolute veracity, it undoubtedly helps to minimise error in the professional domain and needless alarm in the wider public forum.
Secondly, people commenting on genetic manipulation need to recognise that adverse effects coming to light during screening tests confirm, rather than repudiate, the effectiveness of those procedures.
With rare exceptions, this was not an impressive episode in the media coverage of science.
But then, six months later, it all erupted again. "Frankenstein food fiasco", "Shops in fear over GM food" and "Safety fears at 70 sites testing GM crops" were typical headlines on 12 February 1999. The trigger was a Guardian report that 20 scientists had supported Arpad Pusztai in stating that mice suffered adverse effects when fed on raw potatoes containing a lectin gene. Unfortunately, neither The Guardian article nor a press conference later in the day revealed precisely what Pusztai had done. Speakers said they had written a report, but it was unavailable. And-six months after the original claim-the work remained unpublished.
Such niceties did not deter the many reporters (not science correspondents) who went into overdrive in the ensuing days. "Scientists back findings of ousted expert" announced The Daily Telegraph. "Scientists are vying to produce the ultimate in Frankenstein foods-plants and animals with human genes", added The Express two days later Then The Guardian published a list of "GM foods to avoid like the plague", with names of companies, brands and products.
Absent from all of this was any recognition that the term "GM food" had three very different meanings. Not one writer, over several days, explained that a cheese, sugar or oil made by a recombinant organism differs considerably from a product such as tomato puree containing denatured DNA, and in turn from a plant containing viable genes.
Virtually no attention was given to the laborious vetting procedures of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes. Also ignored were the committee chairman's public request for the potato/lectin results, her criticism of the way information had been released directly to the press, the Rowett Institute's rejection of the new claims as misleading and its call for open publication of the findings.
Instead of addressing reality, most otherwise serious programmes and publications took the simpler course of accelerating the bandwagon. The Sunday Times announced that "GM food is already widely available. Now scientists warn it could be a health risk"-suggesting that tomato puree or vegetarian cheese could be as dangerous to eat as raw, poisoned potatoes.
Such antics perplexed many scientists outside the UK (and many inside). Yet there were wider messages. One was the danger that national hysteria could not only jeopardise an entire industry in one country but create tidal waves elsewhere and indeed threaten international trade.
It is tempting to blame the media solely for Britain's GM food furore of 1998-9: there is much incriminating evidence. Yet others played significant roles, sometimes unwittingly. The furore was ignited not by a journalist but by a scientist, Arpad Pusztai. It was then supercharged by the group of 20 scientists in February 1999 whose protest, it later emerged, had been co-ordinated by Friends of the Earth.
Consider too the British Medical Association's report on The impact of Genetic Modification on Agriculture, Food and Health, issued in May 1999, and the ensuing media coverage-"Doctors on alert for GM diseases" (The Times) and "Doctors sound alarm on GM food" (The Independent).
But what did the BMA report actually say? One of its key conclusions was that "transgenic products may adversely affect people suffering from allergies. Soyabean containing genetic material from Brazil nuts cause reactions in individuals allergic to nuts". In fact, the single reference which the BMA used to back its claims was to a paper showing that an allergen from a food already known to be allergenic could be transferred into another food by genetic engineering. In other words, a screening test on a well recognised allergen, carried out specifically to exclude hazards of this sort, has been transformed in the public mind into the threat of unforeseen allergies lurking in our food. Neither the BMA report, nor any of the reports on the report, pointed out that one of the most valuable potential applications of genetic modification to food is to remove possible allergens by deleting the appropriate genes.
A quite different but nevertheless significant factor was the growing realisation that, with the increasing commercialisation of Britain's university science departments and publicly funded research institutes in recent years, it was now very difficult to find truly independent expertise for the evaluation of contentious issues such as the alleged risks associated with genetic modification.
Campaigning groups such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association clearly played major roles too. (They might have been told that one of the principal motives for genetically modifying crop plants was to give them inbuilt resistance to attack by pests. This is far preferable to using chemical insecticides, and indeed is the very style of "biological control" which Rachel Carson advocated in Silent Spring in 1963.) So (inadvertently) did certain scientists who went over the top in dismissing public concerns as simply irrational.
Another significant voice was that of Prince Charles, who on several occasions spoke out against GM foods. A final, powerful influence was a circulation war between Britain's national newspapers, which no doubt helped to increase the temperature of sensationalism which characterised much of the media coverage.
The most regrettable feature of the UK furore over GM foods has been the pervasive insinuation that science in general is not positive but negative. Of course, the development of genetic modification, like every other discipline, will probably be accompanied by some risks-though none have come to light since the advent of recombinant DNA over a quarter of a century ago-and mistakes will be made. But given the practical fruits of scientific research in healthcare, agriculture, environmental protection and other fields, the idea that science simply creates problems which it cannot contain is absurd.
Some material adapted from: Dixon, B. What are science journalists for? Information Services & Use 1999; 19: 75-81.