SIRC Media Watch Archive
The Pick – May 2001

Alien alert. What on earth is going on? President George Bush's advisers have warned him that he should build a high-security laboratory to protect the planet from extraterrestrial life-forms for the day when a spaceship comes back with rock samples from Mars. The advisers point out that the danger from an unknown biohazard, though low, is "not zero". True enough. A zero hazard is, after all, a philosophical non-starter; "never say never" is a reasonable rule of thumb. But if we stick for a moment with grubby real life, we can perhaps agree that (despite news of old water on Mars and all that) it is not very plausible that extraterrestrials pose a serious threat to life as we know it. Independent.

The Great Food Gamble. 'The Great Food Gamble ends with a set-piece interview between John Humphrys, enemy of modern cant, and . . . er, John Humphrys, enemy of modern intensive farming … What disturbs most about the book is its under-lying self-congratulatory tone and its wrong-headed conception of science. How can anyone trust scientists, he writes, "when they disagree with each other all the time and when each new generation of scientists disproves half the conclusions reached by the previous one?" Here, alas, is yet another example of Humphrys's immoderate demand for certainty, which so undermines his journalism. For science is nothing if not progressive, open to endless improvement and refinement … If we have a problem with our method of food production, science, not a reactionary retreat into the past, provides by far the best hope of solving it.' Book review in the New Statesman.

A jihad against some of America's best and brightest researchers continues unabated. Arsonists struck again in the Pacific Northwest last week, gutting a University of Washington horticultural lab in Seattle and burning down property at a poplar tree nursery in Clatskanie, Ore. The fires caused an estimated $3 million in damage … The fires are a testament to the scientific illiteracy and moral bankruptcy of these so-called "eco-terrorists." They target biotechnology and all things "unnatural," even if it means trashing invaluable research to restore and protect the environment … It's no wonder the eco-thugs do their evil deeds at night. Sunlight reveals who the real monsters and heroes are. Washington Times.

Judges want to scrutinise science advisers. Under the Woolf proposals an environmental court would handle a broad range of cases where all interest groups would have their say. The scientific evidence would be in the public domain and specialist judges would be able to highlight the risks and the benefits of taking forward controversial policies. The court would also be backed up by a regulatory system which could evaluate the work of scientists as well as giving them "due recognition". Independent.

What’s Wrong With Organic? One of the most common arguments used against organic produce is its cost. Although consumers are said to have a choice about what food they buy, most low income households are unable to afford the more expensive organic food products having to rely instead on the cheaper, intensively produced conventional foods. A survey conducted by Dr Anna Ross, a cookery writer and economist, found that in supermarkets organic products are on average 62 per cent more expensive than conventional produce. Of this figure only 20 - 30 per cent can be accounted for by more costly production methods, the rest is simply a mark up for profit. Unison.

Educate the people about the latest in technology. At the beginning of the new century, no technology has a greater capacity to generate complex emotions and excite the imagination than biotechnology, as people grapple with the hopes and fears sparked by developments in the field … Today, many organizations and individuals have already taken sides on the issue in order to influence public opinion … What is worrisome is that those involved in the debate often fail to keep an open mind and to communicate with each other on the basis of facts and reason … Such crass debates do not inspire the public, instead they may tend to confuse people. Fortunately, as far as I can see, such chaos has not yet occurred in Taiwan. Taipei Times.

Take politics out of family life. Politics is being taken out of the areas in which it matters – the broad domain of social and economic life – and put into areas where politicians have no business: our personal and family life. The state effectively becomes the 'parent-in-waiting'. Whatever the motives, the more government bodies intervene in child-rearing the more they undermine the authority of parents. If politicians want to do something positive to help parents, they should stop interfering in the everyday intricacies of family life, and take some practical measures that would massively improve parents' lives. Spiked!.

US children eating better, but weighing more. Many of the eating habits of the typical American 10-year-old have improved over the past 20 years, but an increasing number of children are overweight, researchers report. "Although diets have improved, we clearly documented the increase in obesity in children," Dr. Theresa A. Nicklas, a pediatrician at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, told Reuters Health. "Children weigh more today than in 1973." … The researchers speculate this may be partially due to a decrease in children's physical activity in recent years. And today's children watched more television, which studies have linked to an increased tendency toward obesity. Reuters.

Crumbs of comfort. As researchers in the United States prepare to harvest the world's first hypoallergenic wheat, Stephen Day reports on a crop that could transform the image of GM food. If wondering why European consumers have taken to genetically modified crops much like florists to turnips, biotech companies could do worse than look at their product lists. Amongst the many pest, disease and herbicide-resistant GM varieties created for farmers, only stay-firm-for-longer tomatoes have been offered to woo supermarket shoppers: once sold as puree here and fresh in the US, even these are no longer available. Now, however, something metaphorically closer to a rose than a root vegetable is on the horizon – researchers in California are testing what could be the world's first harvest of hypoallergenic wheat. Guardian.

Forget Organic: Just Eat Those Veggies. One of the more unglamorous, but important, public health victories of our time is the rapidity with which one particular prescription for better living has won almost universal consensus. It is this: People – particularly kids – should consume two to four servings of fruits and three to five portions of vegetables a day. But lately, this healthful prescription arrives with a mixed, and potentially self-defeating, message. The carrier of that message is the $7-billion organic-foods industry, which routinely denigrates as "unsafe" or "environmentally unfriendly" any food that is not grown locally, seasonally and without pesticides. By doing so, as one school nutrition director puts it, kids – and the rest of us for that matter --end up with the false notion "that the only vegetables and fruits that are truly safe and conscionable to eat are organic." Faced with the high cost – and just plain weirdness – of a $2 tomato, what kid wouldn't rather go on a Doritos binge? LA Times.

The state should keep out of our lives — and our marriages. We get rid of one odious feature of our society — the class system — and something almost as bad quickly takes its place — paternalism. In the same week that the electorate demonstrated a pleasing lack of deference towards politicians, interference in the private things of life is carried a stage further with the publication of a document called Married Life, a rough guide for couples today. In future, all couples who give notice of their intention to marry, whether in a register office or a church, will be asked to read it … You may say that this stuff is harmless, but I do not believe so. It is pernicious, because it makes people think that for every difficulty, there must be an expert or a book that will provide the solution. It implies that there is a body of knowledge "out there" that is superior to one's own common sense. It puts busy-bodies in charge of our lives. It elevates the nanny state. It emasculates us. It makes children of us all. Andreas Whittam Smith in the Independent.

Purity can be so unhealthy. An obsession with eating well and rigorous exercise may be an addiction flab-fighters can do without. Becoming healthy has never been so trendy – or so fraught. Perhaps you, or someone you know, is striving to lose weight (who isn't?), only eats organic, studies the labels on jars, pops vats of vitamin pills and supplements, and exercises fanatically. If so, you – or they – might be suffering from a newly identified condition: orthorexia nervosa. Glasgow Herald.

GM animals 'have role for third world'. Genetically modified farm animals – altered to resist tropical diseases such as sleeping sickness – could play a powerful role in helping the developing world, according to a report today by Britain's science elite, the Royal Society. Guardian.

Is it possible to be a dignified non-threatening vegetarian? I have my doubts. "A strange contradiction this: militant vegetarians and animal-rights groups claim that eating meat makes you aggressive. Yet log on to the website of Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and you find rant after angry rant … It was Peta that wrote to John Prescott objecting to a plan to search for the Loch Ness monster with a net, claiming it was a "rare animal" which might feel pain. And it was Peta that wanted inmates on Death Row in the USA to be refused meat in their final meal, claiming "eating animal corpses can only encourage criminals to be violent". Bit late. Janet Street Porter, Independent.

To benefit from progress, we must stop fearing fiction. The novel The Day of the Triffids has a lot to answer for. Public attitudes to the technology of genetic modification are dominated by fear of the unintended consequences of scientific progress, the theme of John Wyndham's allegory (although it might have been predicted that creating a species of giant, mobile, stinging plants would lead to trouble). Independent.

There's Something Fishy About These Dietary Guidelines. The FDA and environmental groups can't decide what sorts of fish are safe for pregnant women. So the public is left without any answers … So which fish, exactly, can you eat if you're pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant? That really depends on your own judgment call. "Poor American consumers are probably just throwing their hands up at this point," says Carolyn Manning, R.D., associate professor in department of nutrition and dietetics at the University of Delaware. "They're being pulled in different directions, told totally different things almost every day. Do pregnant women need to give up tuna fish, for example? If you listen to the FDA, the answer is no. If you listen to these very vocal environmental groups, the answer is absolutely," says Manning. Time.

Daily Pinta Is Good For You. For years children were encouraged to eat their greens and drink their milk. Scientific evidence has shown greens do fight against cancer, but it was thought the high fat content in milk was not so healthy. However researchers from Bristol University have men who regularly drink milk are in fact less likely to have coronary heart disease, and also seem to get some protection from cancer and stroke. Sky News.

Protesters try to scare pupils off their milk. Animal rights campaigners are to target primary schoolchildren directly to discourage them from drinking milk, claiming it will make them "fat, spotty and windy". Nutrional experts, education and farmers leaders yesterday condemned the move by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to hand out cards at school gates as "totally irresponsible". The Milk Sucker cards – featuring grotesque cartoon characters – warn that drinking milk causes spots, wind, phlegm and weight gain. Scotsman.

The Genetically Modified Crop Debate in the Context of Agricultural Evolution. "Many other innovations that are now commonplace in our lives were met with skepticism and opposition when first introduced. Such fear of technology was especially more pronounced in food-related innovations (e.g. Pasteurization, canning, freezing, the microwave oven). However, once consumers recognize that new innovations can enhance their quality of life and once they understood that risks are either minimal or manageable, such technology eventually could enjoy public acceptance … Humans and crops will always be mutually dependent on each other's survival, and the guided evolution of crops will continue but increasingly will be more knowledge-based and responsible. An appreciation of the history of agricultural development however may provide us with a useful roadmap for devising appropriate strategies to informing and rationalizing societal responses to crop improvement. Paraphrasing the American philosopher George Santayana, ignoring history may condemn us to repeat it, but an understanding of the past may as well lead us to an enlightened future." Channapatna S. Prakash in Plant Physiology, May 2001, Vol. 126, pp. 8-15.

How alcohol makes the heart go longer. Alcohol saves about 10,000 more lives a year in Britain than it costs. If everyone stopped drinking, deaths would increase by 2.8 per cent among men and 0.9 per cent among women. This is because drinking reduces the risk of dying from heart disease, an important cause of death, especially among men, say Annie Britton and Klim McPherson of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. They have found that the reductions in heart deaths outweigh increases in motor vehicle accidents, suicides, falls, cancer, liver disease and other causes of death made more likely by drinking. Times.

Generation Next – They may think of Hague as a pig and Blair as a dog, but young Britons take a resolutely middle-of-the-road attitude to most political issues … Given the chance to lay blame for the foot-and-mouth crisis at the door of big business, only 19 per cent of our young people finger "supermarkets", while 70 per cent put it down to "bad luck" … Rampant moderation appeared again when we asked about the importance of animal welfare issues. More than 70 per cent of our panel don't rate animal welfare in their top three issues. New Statesman.

Diet books' war on carbohydrates could be dangerous, experts warn. Top-selling diet books are giving slimmers potentially dangerous advice about cutting their carbohydrate intake, the Consumers' Association warns today. The low-carbohydrate diets, which are the latest fad in the slimming world, can cause harmful changes to the metabolism, according to a panel of experts assembled by Which? magazine. Independent, BBC.

Should the world renounce meat? In the wake of BSE and foot and mouth, vegetarians seem to hold the moral high ground. Colin Tudge, however, finds their arguments flawed, to the point of being effete. New Statesman.

How Fat and Salt Became Bad. Does eating a lot of salt and fat kill people? "Of course," most Americans would respond. Many would even think salt and fat are almost as bad as tobacco. After all, isn't this what we've been told for years by the health-care professionals who set government dietary guidelines? Reason.

 "A lot of people have said that fibre is good… but if you look carefully at all the studies, the evidence is not so solid." – Dr Goodlad. Private Eye.

 Large-scale, Global Anti-capitalism Protests Putting Smaller, Local, Anti-capitalism Protests Out Of Business. There were calls today for multinational pro-anarchy pressure groups to be investigated for monopolistic practices after the NW3 branch of the London Radical Left Movement For Socialist Revolution was disbanded due to lack of interest. The group's spokesperson, leader, treasurer, secretary and only member, Nigel Wilkinson, believes that global anarchy movements such as the ones responsible for the G7 riots in Seattle and the disturbances expected in London on May Day are to blame for forcing out smaller, independent operations like his. "These large American anti-capitalist movements have effectively taken over the militant scene in this country," he said from his bedsit in Highgate. "There used to be lots of small, independent groups all with their own unique character. Now it's the same old anarchy all over the world." Urban Reflex.