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The appearance of BSE


'Frankenfoods' and the battle on GM crops
Aaron Klug Scientist
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I remember once going to a meeting where the Friends of the Earth who were opposing all of this, saying one of their scientific experts... he said, 'Well, you put your gene into the plant and inevitably you get a resistance by the insects.' I said, 'If you sprinkle your leaves of the plant with Bacillus thuringiensis crystals, don't you think the insects would also develop a resistance?' You know, there was a sort of blind... this was a scientist, believe it or not, a so-called scientist. And the things of that sort. So... and indeed it became very unpleasant. If Monsanto had not had this campaign warning of this effect, but then it became not only... the campaign against it also began to involve the anti-capitalists. These were people making a great deal of money, you know, by introducing new varieties and the poor farmers couldn't afford them and so on. And they also did something very stupid. You can put a gene in called the 'terminator gene' into a plant, so that it doesn't produce... the plants will grow in the ordinary way, grow well, but they don't produce any seeds, so it's a terminator, and the idea behind this is that then the farmers who buy this thing would then have to buy their next crop from the suppliers, and I don't think it was ever the intention, but the... so it got a lot of bad publicity and the lady from the Open University began to call these things 'Frankenfoods', but of course she got it wrong because Frankenstein was the creator of the monster, not the monster, but I don't think she knew the story well enough. And so, we actually produced... so I set up a committee for two things, one was a general committee and one was to study the works of [Árpád] Pusztai. Now Pusztai had published very little, nothing had been published in journals, but there were reports which were published in the Institute in which he worked, and it turned out it was just... everything was done in totally uncontrolled conditions. The mice were not on a strict diet, some of the mice were... there were food additives added to the mice, and it turned out there was very little evidence of any disturbance to the immune system. And the weights were irregular because the assistants...

He was a biochemist, and had never conducted any trials with animals at all, and the man who supplied the engineered potato disowned him, but by appearing on television, it made a huge impact. And it was the... I think we were never able to counter that. We published a report, and this report analysed the things as far as we could go. We treated it like a paper with reports, and I set up a committee, they were basically the reviewers and other people who would comment on it would be effectively the editors, and I didn't include just people from the Royal Society, and the paper... this was before he had written the paper for The Lancet, no less, and so when the paper appeared in The Lancet, two of the claims had disappeared. There was a new claim, that the intestinal mucosa of these animals had thickened, and it was already published, and this was done because the editor of The Lancet, whom you may have read about recently with MMR and this lot, is a man who likes to... a young man, a youngish man with a rather distinguished record in medicine, who likes to seek publicity, and he published this paper. It was also pretty... he hadn't gone out to proper referees. Anyway I had the paper refereed myself, by people at the Hammersmith, and it turned out this thickening of the intestinal mucosa was just... the evidence wasn't adequate at all. Anyway, what is the relevance of it? But I'm afraid we've lost that battle on GM crops, because the public are just saying, 'Why do you want it?' Well, the answer why we want it is for the world. If you're going to feed a world of 8 billion people, there's no way in which you are going to be able to do it, and as for the benefits you can have, it's not just pesticides and things of that sort. In the first world, there's the so-called yellow rice, which contains vitamin A, which is already being made in many places, it's made in the Phillipines and in India, and it's the... puts in vitamin A which makes the... oh, we'd better go. Which makes the gene, makes everything yellow, but stops blindness. And there are other ones. Swaminathan in India has been putting in genes from swamp plants which grow up in salty things, he's found what the genes are, he is trying to transplant them into productive plants rather than... so that you could be salt tolerant. So there are many uses of it, but I'm afraid that it's... for the moment, it's a lost cause. What the Friends of the Earth did, of course, was something very clever. They went into these trial plantations, dressed in white de-contamination suits, because you see these deadly genes are in the plants, they'd spring up and contaminate them. That's Melchett and his gang, and they destroyed a lot of valuable trials, but the public was on their side really, because they've been... brainwashed by the Friends of the Earth. And the Friends of the Earth wrote to me and others involved, saying, 'We are watching you.' Literally: we've had individual letters from Friends of the Earth, from the secretary saying that if we... we are taking note of all the things you say and publish, so that when the... I can't remember the exact wording, but when the trials take place of people who suffer disease or harm from the GM crops, we will help finance them to sue you. That's the joys of being a President of the Royal Society.

Born in Lithuania, Aaron Klug (1926-2018) was a British chemist and biophysicist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982 for developments in electron microscopy and his work on complexes of nucleic acids and proteins. He studied crystallography at the University of Cape Town before moving to England, completing his doctorate in 1953 at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1981, he was awarded the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University. His long and influential career led to a knighthood in 1988. He was also elected President of the Royal Society, and served there from 1995-2000.

Listeners: Ken Holmes John Finch

Kenneth Holmes was born in London in 1934 and attended schools in Chiswick. He obtained his BA at St Johns College, Cambridge. He obtained his PhD at Birkbeck College, London working on the structure of tobacco mosaic virus with Rosalind Franklin and Aaron Klug. After a post-doc at Childrens' Hospital, Boston, where he started to work on muscle structure, he joined to the newly opened Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge where he stayed for six years. He worked with Aaron Klug on virus structure and with Hugh Huxley on muscle. He then moved to Heidelberg to open the Department of Biophysics at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research where he remained as director until his retirement. During this time he completed the structure of tobacco mosaic virus and solved the structures of a number of protein molecules including the structure of the muscle protein actin and the actin filament. Recently he has worked on the molecular mechanism of muscle contraction. He also initiated the use of synchrotron radiation as a source for X-ray diffraction and founded the EMBL outstation at DESY Hamburg. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1981 and is a member of a number of scientific academies.

John Finch is a retired member of staff of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK. He began research as a PhD student of Rosalind Franklin's at Birkbeck College, London in 1955 studying the structure of small viruses by x-ray diffraction. He came to Cambridge as part of Aaron Klug's team in 1962 and has continued with the structural study of viruses and other nucleoproteins such as chromatin, using both x-rays and electron microscopy.

Tags: Friends of the Earth, Monsanto, The Lancet, Árpád Pusztai, Lord Melchett

Duration: 6 minutes, 59 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008