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Jul 21, 2008

CSIRO scientist’s GM letter campaign ‘backfires’

A CSIRO scientist's campaign to sway chefs from an anti-GM food stance has hit hurdles, writes Katherine Wilson.

Health scientists have accused CSIRO Plant Industry Deputy TJ Higgins of making innacurate claims, following a CSIRO campaign urging Australian chefs not to boycott genetically modified (GM) food products.

As reported in last week’s Crikey, Higgins wrote on CSIRO letterhead to more than 50 chefs who had signed Greenpeace’s GM-free Chef’s Charter. But his letter campaign has “backfired spectacularly”, according to Greenpeace spokesperson Louise Sales, who says health scientists and chefs are angered over public resources being used for pro-GM lobbying.

Sydney restaurateur and cookbook author Holly Davis told Crikey some chefs are “very concerned. I thought that CSIRO was an impartial research organisation.”

Dr Higgins, whose promotion of GM foods is strongly supported by Australia’s Chief Scientist Jim Peacock and Victoria’s Chief Scientist Gus Nossal, is CSIRO’s co-inventor of the GM Field Pea, abandoned because toxicologists found it caused immune problems and lung damage in mice.

Does this finding contradict Dr Higgins’ assurances to chefs that “independently reviewed tests have not found any connection between health problems and GM”?

No, according to Dr Higgins. In a letter to Crikey, he wrote:

My GM pea research emphasises the effectiveness of case-by-case evaluation of GM plants and the important role science can play in decision-making around the introduction of GM crops. The research does not imply that all GM plants are inherently bad. Food Standards Australia New Zealand undertakes comprehensive evaluation of GM foods to ensure they are safe for human consumption.

But these claims are “simply wrong” says nutritional biochemist and epidemiologist Dr Judy Carman, whom the West Australian government commissioned to undertake independent studies into the safety of GM foods.

Carman told Crikey: “TJ Higgins’ GM pea provides a clear example of the failings of our current GM food regulatory regime. The pea failed miserably on all the [independent health] tests conducted.” And despite Higgins’ claims, “these tests are not required by our food regulator”.

Her assertions are backed by health advocate Dr Kate Clinch-Jones, a director of the Institute for Health and Environment Research, who is concerned that preliminary independent studies, which suggest allergic responses, organ damage and precancerous growth in mice fed GM foods, have not been followed up.

And Crikey has confirmed that contrary to what might be implied in Higgins’ letter, FSANZ did not request any of the independent testing that found health hazards in Higgins’ GM Pea, which was initially meant for livestock consumption. Nor do FSANZ and the US Food and Drug Administration require such testing for any GM food for human consumption.

FSANZ spokesperson Lydia Buchtmann said such testing “does not conform to validated methods for GM food safety assessments”. But she says FSANZ has “a rigorous process for approving GM foods to ensure they are as safe as the conventional variety”, including tests for allergens.

Dr Higgins is also accused of making innacurate claims on two other fronts.

First, his claim to chefs that:

It is untrue to say that GM food has not been tested for human safety. It has, and very widely. These independently reviewed tests have not found any connection between health problems and GM.

This is disputed by toxicologist Dr Aprad Pusztai, who co-authored a study on Higgins’ GM Pea.

“There is only one partial clinical study with one GM crop (RR soybean) done in Newcastle and published in 2004,” says Pusztai.

This study apparently produced worrying evidence that GM material might survive in the human gut — a finding which, says Pusztai, is “hardly a resounding confirmation of Dr Higgins’ claim. No other human study has been published.”

Higgins, as a plant industry scientist, is not qualified to make the claims in his letter campaign to chefs, says Dr Pusztai.

“He has no background or track record in nutritional research and thus he should refrain from making comments on the safety or otherwise of any GM product.”

“We published a paper on this study in 1999 in which he is a co-author but his role was confined to providing the GM and non-GM pea samples for our study and he contributed nothing else.”

Professor Paul Foster, who led the Australian National University team that found immune problems in rats fed Higgins’ GM Field Pea, was contacted for comment, but did not respond in time for this story.

Given scientists’ criticisms of his claims, Dr Higgins reiterated that CSIRO “supports FSANZ’s comprehensive evaluation of GM foods. We back the case-by-case assessment of GM products.” To which Pusztai responded: “Higgins’ response dodges the issue by referring to FSANZ assurances.”

And other health scientists have complained to Crikey about “inadequate” FSANZ GM safety testing. Their complaints and FSANZ’s responses will be published in a future report.

Another scientist, Dr Maartan Stapper, disputes a third claim made by Dr Higgins in his Crikey letter. Higgins wrote that “No-one has been sacked from CSIRO for speaking out on GM.”

Stapper, who worked at CSIRO for 23 years, said he spoke out about inadequate testing of GM foods, but met with stonewalling from CSIRO.

He said the organisation “doesn’t allow internal questioning of GM, no scientific discussion, and as a farming systems agronomist I was told not to talk to farmers and in public against GM, with the threat of being fired.” While CSIRO continues to support pro-GM public campaigning, Stapper was fired last year, allegedly for speaking out about the hazards of GM food crops.

CRIKEY: For those interested, CSIRO suggests further reading about the GM pea can be found at the Organisation’s website here and FSANZ’s GM policy is here. Dr Higgins has responded to this article in the comments section below.

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2 thoughts on “CSIRO scientist’s GM letter campaign ‘backfires’

  1. lillian

    So the GM food we are eating has not been adequately tested. Allergic reactions, organ damage and pre-cancerous to animals eating GM food has not been followed up.

    CSIRO scientists are making claims of safety of GM foods when they are unqualified to do so. Government funded bodies promoting biotech business.

    There is a lot of money at stake in the acceptance or rejection of GM crops. There is also a lot of money at risk if GM food harms public health. This is one of the most important business stories Crikey has broken. Is that why there is not a whisper of this in the mainstream media?

  2. David Grice

    The GM debate is not black or white and there are some shades of grey. As a recent former CSIRO scientist I am saddened by the commercial pressure CSIRO is under. New staff appointments in many Divisions have only recently started to change from up to 93% casual or short term appointments during the past decade. This has obviously severely restricted the opportunity for pursuit of long-term research. This understandably created a climate of fear and a reduction of much needed constructive criticism that science is supposed to be about.

    The conflict of interest (perceived and sometimes real) between commercial interest research for industry and unbiased public interest research may necessitate these arms of CSIRO becoming separate entities if CSIRO’s integrity is to be maintained. The taxpayers should not be asked to fund what industry should itself fund.

    TJ Higgins must exist in a bubble if he thinks CSIRO policy on public comment genuinely encourages scientists to talk about their science. The well reported case of climate scientist feeling gagged is well known. In fact the Policy on Public Comment developed during that time by Donna Staunton ( had to be overturned after an inquiry by CSIRO when scientist finally rebelled. It is now not as blatantly restrictive, but scientists are only human and are only too aware that great care must be taken not to offend commercial interest or politicians or the hierarchy.

    The scientists genuinely struggle to maintain impartiality and integrity. The majority succeed, but it is foolish to think this is not put under great strain because of restricted funding opportunities and increasing commercial pressure. I am concerned the strains will cause more scientists to compromise, leading to irreparable damage to CSIRO’s reputation. When this happens public funding will completely dry up.