SIRC Media Watch Archive
Articles of Note – January 2000

New role for MSG? For decades, researchers have been on the trail of the elusive fifth taste. Salty, bitter, sour and sweet are all accepted. But there has always been a belief that a fifth taste -- called "umami" by scientists but known more familiarly as the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate, MSG -- deserved to be put in the same class. Now, scientists at the University of Miami School of Medicine have found evidence that it does -- and the ramifications of this may ripple across the culinary world … If adding glutamate to food does drive a person's taste for protein, researchers suggest, then it could possibly help those with nutritional deficiencies. Salon Magazine.

Minefield! Governments last weekend won the right under international law to ban imports of genetically modified organisms. Or so they hope. But concessions won by major grain-exporting nations such as the US in the final hours of negotiations in Montreal may create a scientific and legal minefield. New Scientist.

Bad Rap: Addressing Criticism of Meat and Milk Products. In recent months, many papers have carried articles and letters critical of meat (particularly beef), milk and milk products. We are told to reduce or eliminate them from our diet to prevent or cure various diseases and environmental problems. But these prescriptions are scientifically invalid and won't achieve their touted goals. They are urged upon us despite the fact that nutritionists have recognized the exceptional dietary merits of meat and milk for over a century. DrKoop

Professor John Hillman, director of the world-renowned Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI), said the debate on GM food had been "obscured" by unhelpful language. "Cars, cigarettes, stepladders and playing sports are dangerous – eating GM food is not." He also warned of the potential drawbacks of organic foods. BBC.

Crying Wolf. While the benefits of genetically engineered foods are huge - disease and pest-resistant strains which diminish the need for pesticides - some thoughtful lobbies have questioned the costs. It's a pity that showy groups like Greenpeace have injected bad science and frivolous stunts into the debate. No doubt it helps their fund-raising but it doesn't help the public understand the issues when they are told the Monarch butterfly is at risk from genetically-altered corn when studies show that it is not. Calgary Herald

China, India Lead Asia Race on GM Crops. The world's two most populous countries, China and India, are racing to develop genetically modified crops to feed their growing populations. GM sweet pepper, cotton and tomatoes have been commercialized in China while field testing on GM cotton is under way in India. Yahoo News

MMR Vaccine. People in rich countries have forgotten what it is like to lose half your kids to disease. After a few decades of antibiotics and vaccines, superstition is taking over from healthier fears. I know there have been safety worries about the combined vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella. But there is little evidence to back those fears, and even fanatics can't begin to claim that the vaccine does anything like the same harm as measles, which even in the US kills three in every 1000 who get it, leaving others blind or deaf. New Scientist.

Australian scientists are researching putting a measles gene into genetically modified food to provide an alternative to traditional vaccination against the virus. Fox News

Farmers Declare Support For Biotechnology. Farmers from the United States and Canada today urged delegates attending the Biosafety Protocol to "look beyond the fearmongering" and study the facts about the biotechnology and its significant positive impact on farming and the environment. "We plant these crops," said Bob Boeding, a corn farmer from Lawler, Iowa. "Biotechnology corn means I am applying fewer insecticides on my crops. That is good for my health, for my family's health and for the environment." Canada Newswire

Mowlam tells UK biotech firms to defend products. Britain's biotechnology industry must step up the public relations battle on the safety and potential benefits of products like genetically modified foods, Cabinet Office Minister Mo Mowlam said on Tuesday. After facing nightmare publicity last year condemning GM products as "Frankenstein foods", Mowlam told the industry the time had come to fight its corner more effectively. Reuters

Golden chance to save eyesight. A golden rice that can fight malnutrition has been created by genetic modification. This development underlines how much of the recent GM food furore has focused on First-World angst about the theoretical risks rather than practical benefits for the developing world. Telegraph

Seeds Of Division. In the spectrum of attitude between "unsafe at any price" and "don't care," the majority in much of Asia falls into the category of "don't know." In China, where access to information is restricted, awareness can be low even in quarters where consciousness is usually high. "Genetic manipulation? Never heard of it," says a spokeswoman for the Beijing-based group Friends of Nature. Asiaweek

In a strong show of support for crop biotechnology and the Canadian food regulatory system, a coalition of scientists urged food companies to "stay the course" to ensure a "healthy and sufficient food supply for the growing population in Canada and the world." The letter, signed by more than 150 leading Canadian scientists, is being sent to food manufacturers, major grocery chains and independent grocers across Canada. It was released at a media conference in Montreal along with a statement in support of biotechnology signed by more than 400 scientists from around the world. Canada NewsWire

Sex drive warning to vegetarians and elderly. Elderly and vegetarian men are being warned about the effect of low protein diets on their sex lives in later years. People who do not eat meat are particularly at risk, because animal products are good sources of high biological value proteins. BBC

Why the West must swallow gene foods. They're boycotted by British shoppers, and this week an international conference will decide if trade in GM organisms should be controlled. But many scientists believe they are the solution to starvation in the Third World. Observer

Planet Organic, the frighteningly fashionable Notting Hill purveyor of politically correct comestibles, is on the march. The famous Westbourne Grove store so loved by luvvies has signed the lease on its second branch and is drawing up plans to open it in the spring. The expansion will test whether the organic food fad is just that, or a genuine long-term shift. London Evening Standard.

Genetically modified foods not only safe but necessary. While there are many issues surrounding genetically modified foods, safety and nutrition are not among them. These foods are as safe and nutritious as their conventional counterparts. Columbus Dispatch

Rebranding rhubarb Too late to celebrate now, but January 14th was National Gourmet Winter Rhubarb Day. "You might imagine that rhubarb is one of those one-time staples of the British diet which is slowly sliding off the menu, along with cold blancmange and suet pudding .. but some people reckon rhubarb is making a comeback." Economist.

God loves GM (2) "There are no specific indications from the Magisterium of the Church on biotechnology. Because of this, I have stopped all those who demand the condemnation of these products." Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice-president of the Pontifical Academy for Life and director of the Institute of Bioethics of the Sacred Heart University of Rome. ZENIT.

Outright quackery. The net's full of dodgy doctors and conmen. A significant minority of healthcare sites seem to be operated by characters every bit as unscrupulous as the purveyors of online porn whom they rival in popularity. Guardian

Traffic fumes 'do not harm London health'. Millions of pounds spent combating traffic pollution on health grounds may be wasted because vehicle emissions now cause little harm, according to official research. Times

So why are Friends of the Earth saying that UK air quality is the 'worst ever'?BBC.

Tricks of Memory. The 20th century has witnessed the conquering of infectious disease, soaring life expectancy and a miracle of economic growth, argues Geoffrey Wheatcroft. Yet it is often described as the most terrible century in human history - and we can't even remember its horrors without descending into a kind of false memory syndrome. Prospect Magazine.

Yellow rice gives dietary boost. Researchers have genetically engineered a more nutritious type of rice which could help alleviate the serious problem of vitamin A deficiency. The seeds will be made freely available to farmers in developing countries. This will please aid organisations who have expressed concern that the new plant technologies will be priced beyond the reach of the world's poorest farmers. BBC and Science [subscription required]

A Quick Recipe for "Frankenfood" Frenzy. Combine lots of emotionally-charged doomsday rhetoric with a good amount of anti-capitalist sentiment. Add just a pinch of scientific uncertainty about safety and you've created enough "Frankenfood" Frenzy to serve the world. Caution: This dish can be ruined if contaminated by facts about the health or environmental benefits of genetically modified foods. Reason

Riskfactorphobia? In a previous era, spirits and demons oppressed us. Although they have been replaced by our contemporary concern about invisible viruses, chemicals, and toxins, the mechanisms of contagious fear remain the same. New England Journal of Medicine.

It is the best of times to be alive – ever. There have been plenty of setbacks and tragedies over the past century, and there is no shortage of problems left to deal with in the world today. But for all that, the fact is that people now are living longer, healthier and wealthier lives than ever before in human history. And if we were to raise our sights a little, we could be doing a lot better yet. LM Magazine

Hong Kong Rejects Compulsory Labelling of GM Food. Hong Kong's government has rejected calls for the introduction of compulsory labelling of genetically modified (GM) foods. Secretary for Environment and Food Lily Yam, in overruling a legislative vote in favour of such labelling, said there was no conclusive proof that GM foods are harmful, news reports said Thursday. Deutsche Presse-Agentur

Good Health Information on Web Difficult to Discern. Looking for medical help on the Web? Not only will you have to pick your way through a thicket of misinformation, but even information on a good site may be too hard to read, says a study in this month's magazine Pediatrics. DrKoop

US consumers favor GM crops to curb pesticides. Nearly three-fourths of American consumers would support genetically modified crops if the technology means farmers can reduce pesticide use, according to a survey released Tuesday by the American Farm Bureau. Reuters

Genetically Modified Crops Feed Ongoing Controversy. "There has never been a technological advance in the history of mankind that does not bring out the Luddites, and they are in full cry over the biotechnology issue at the present time" JAMA

Health advice 'nannies' killed off by ministers. The Health Education Authority is to be closed and half its staff made redundant or moved as part of a shake-up in the way ministers inform the nation on how to lead healthier lives … Last year the HEA issued advice on how to make a healthy sandwich and how "friends can be good for your health". Telegraph

C of E's prescient fear. Last year the Church of England's General Synod Board for Social Responsibility opined: "From time to time, public thinking about the use of new scientific techniques can be unduly influenced by slogan words that are unreflectively taken to carry sinister meanings. A striking example of this happening has been with irradiated food. This carefully controlled process is effective in making food safer by killing harmful bacteria. However, public fear inspired by the word 'radiation' (perceived as invariably signifying an invisible menace) led to demands for labelling, which in turn proved to be the kiss of death for this food safety measure because of unjustified public fear. It would be regrettable if a similar story repeated itself in relation to GM foods."

X-rays to blame for cancer and heart deaths, researcher claims. British experts yesterday denounced a scientist who claims most heart disease and cancer deaths are caused by X-rays. Professor John Gofman's conclusions were condemned as unscientific and likely to incite misleading alarm for patients' safety. Express

'Lukewarm' turns to 'icy'. The SIRC comment on Tesco's banning of crops grown on former GM trial sites has been followed by more strongly worded rebuke from the Independent. "The pressure group Greenpeace crowed with delight, saying it was a "blow to Government efforts to find farmers willing to host GM crop trials this year … But was it? Within hours the PR spin was unravelling. Other supermarkets said they would not follow suit - a big flop for any PR effort. Scientists ridiculed the pseudo-scientific concerns raised by Tesco, and pointed out that if the company took its own concerns seriously it should ban all its organic produce from its shelves, and many products imported from the US.