Prince to meet GM row scientist

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PRINCE CHARLES has asked Dr Arpad Pusztai, the controversial scientist whose research first ignited public health fears over the safety of genetically modified foods, to brief him personally on his findings.

The move is likely to cause irritation in Whitehall, where ministers have been trying to defuse the controversy surrounding GM foods. It will also confirm that the prince is determined to be independent in forming his views and is prepared to risk antagonising the Government on an issue close to his heart. The meeting, in about 10 days, will be only the second time the prince has held a face-to-face conversation with a leading figure in the GM debate, although he did hold a seminar involving all sides at Highgrove last year. The other meeting was with Robert Shapiro, the chairman of Monsanto, the US firm most aggressively pushing GM technology.

Dr Pusztai - who has described himself as "a very enthusiastic supporter" of GM foods - caused a national furore after briefly mentioning in a BBC television programme that experiments he had carried out on rats fed genetically modified potatoes had shown damage to their immune systems, brains, kidneys and other vital organs.

The scientist, acknowledged as one of the world's foremost experts on lectins, the proteins used in genetic engineering, was forced from his job at Aberdeen's Rowett Research Institute, where he had worked for 37 years, even though it had agreed to his television appearance. He claims he was subsequently denied access to his research data.

Over the last month Dr Pusztai has borne the full weight of disapproval of the political and scientific establishments. The Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Robert May, accused him of violating "every canon of scientific rectitude" and only 10 days ago, Dr Jack Cunningham, the Cabinet Office Minister, who is co-ordinating government policy on GM food said his research had been "comprehensively discredited".

Over the last two weeks Dr Puztai's work has been attacked by the Royal Society, Britain's most distinguished scientific body, the House of Commons select committee on science and technology, and the much-criticised Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, the Government's official advisers on GM foods.

Last week the Independent on Sunday published a memorandum from Dr Cunningham's office which showed that the Government was "compiling a list of eminent scientists" to write articles and give interviews to attack Dr Pusztai's work and "to trail the Government's Key Messages".

The Prince accepts he is not competent to judge the scientific facts and has no wish to challenge the Royal Society, but he wants to hear what Dr Pusztai has to say at first hand. He recognises that he is a scientist of great experience, and a supporter of genetic modification who saw, or thought he saw, something that alarm-ed him in the result of his experiments.

Martin Polden of the law firm Ross & Craig, who is president of the Environmental Law Foundation, has taken up Dr Pusztai's case. He said yesterday: "The meeting is a valuable and welcome recognition that Dr Pusztai is engaged in serious and honest work.

"It says a lot for the Prince that he has not been swayed by the unprecedented rubbishing of a responsible scientist who is one of the world's leaders in his field."

The Prince's conversation with Dr Shapiro was cordial but there was no meeting of minds. He raised his ethical doubts as to whether genetic modification should be undertaken at all and his concerns about the effects on the environment.