SIRC Media Watch Archive
The Pick – November 2000

Green guru slams GM trashing. Environmental campaigner Jonathon Porritt has spoken out against the "trashing" of GM crop trials sown to see whether they damage the countryside … Mr Porritt, who is a patron of the Soil Association and former chairman of Friends of the Earth, said he was reserving judgement on GM crops. "I personally do not think it's very sensible to go into fields and trash crops. I feel we need to do proper evidence-based research to give us more information." Despite widespread public opposition to GM crops, the remarks are significant because Mr Porritt advises the Prime Minister on environmental issues. Nothing is inherently wicked, or immoral or unsustainable about genetic engineering, he said because in the future "maybe it will produce some benefits". Farmers Weekly. (Registration required)

Don't make kids fear foods with fat. Many U.S. parents believe that dietary fat is toxic for children, but turning kids into "little adults" with restricted diets will backfire, creating more overweight and poorly nourished youngsters, scientists reported USA Today.

Laboratory heralds agricultural revolution. A host of African crops stand to benefit from biotechnology research now being undertaken at the University of Legon. Her equipment may be a little rudimentary, and the smell of bats nesting in the roof somewhat off-putting, but Elizabeth Acheampong's laboratory heralds a transformation in Ghanaian agriculture … Her shelves of yam, cassava and plantain seedlings reflect what many feel are the first stirrings of a biotechnology revolution across the continent. Financial Times.

A matter of life or starvation. To ignore modern biotechnology as a possible solution to pressing food security challenges would be most unwise. Modern biotechnology is not a silver bullet for achieving food security, but, used in conjunction with traditional or conventional agricultural research methods, it may be a powerful tool that should be made available to poor farmers and consumers in the fight against poverty. Bangkok Post.

Mobile phones and the illusory pursuit of safety. The deceptively simple question, much loved by television and radio interviewers, "Is it safe?" is the scientist's banana skin. A Nobel prize awaits the person who first designs an experiment to show that anything is "safe". The best that can be achieved is an experiment or epidemiological analysis of data that demonstrates, within specified limits of statistical probability, that the risk associated with a drug, a new mode of radiation, or other insult to the body is no greater than a specified figure--for example, one in a million … Ultimately the public perception of safety will be heavily influenced by the perceived level of benefit from the activity in question. This level is clearly high in the case of mobile telephones and in many other domains where individuals exercise freedom of choice … [Gas] is piped into millions of homes in the country. Is it safe? Of course not but the amenity value is such that people are prepared to live with the risk. Researchers into the pursuit of safety, of mobile telephones or other features of modern living, would be well advised to take this political element into consideration. The Lancet.

No evidence of risk. The official inquiry into the health risks of mobile phones published last May found no evidence of any detrimental effects on users' health apart from a demonstrably greater risk of car accidents for anybody driving while having a telephone conversation. Independent.

Tacogate: There Is Barely A Kernel of Truth. It's been amazing to watch the chain of events unfolding since StarLink, a genetically modified variety of corn used in animal feed but not yet approved for human consumption, was found in American-made taco shells…With all the hue and cry, you'd think a dangerous, if not deadly, ingredient had been introduced into the U.S. and international food supply. But what's the startling discovery the alarm-raisers have made? Hold onto your seats, folks: Our corn, it seems, has been contaminated by--corn! Washington Post.

Epidemic feared as measles jab rate drops. London is facing a measles epidemic that could strike at any time because of the low level of immunisation among children in the capital. Public health experts are warning that vaccination rates have dropped so low in some districts that an outbreak of the disease is increasingly likely. They point to the position in Dublin where measles has struck 1,569 people this year, put more than 100 in hospital and caused two deaths. Independent. (See also Riskfactorphobic health professionals put children's lives in danger, Scaremongers: the new threat to children's health etc.)

So much for the precautionary principle? Speed limits 'threaten rail safety'. Safety measures taken since the Hatfield train crash have actually made rail travel more dangerous, it has been claimed. Government ministers have been advised that speed restrictions imposed since the 17 October crash have disrupted drivers' routines and made errors more likely, according to The Economist. BBC.

Fat is not a sin but an organ vital to survival. Body fat is good for the health, medical experts said yesterday. It boosts the immune systems, produces hormones, plays an important role in metabolism and is actually an organ performing vital bodily functions. The role of adipose tissue was discussed at a joint meeting of the Association for the Study of Obesity and the Nutrition Society which heard that fat had been found to produce leptin, a hormone which acts as an essential signal to stop eating. Telegraph.

How to enjoy life – the chaos way "… the secret is never to give in to panic, since almost every finding is countermanded by other, later studies. For instance, we now hear that red meat, for so long excoriated by health freaks, can both help us lose weight and boost our IQ. Caving in to scares expends extra effort and worry, both of which deserve to be husbanded with great care." Mary Ann Seighart in The Times.

Organic is 'good', even when the GM version is better: acid test. The hasty decision of the Soil Association, which holds a near-monopoly in certifying organic production, to take a dogmatic line against genetic engineering looks increasingly odd. If its concern is to reduce synthetic pesticides that reach the consumer and reduce the damage to the environment without using more land or money, then genetic engineering may well be the best innovation for years. This will not be true in every case: some GM crops may need more sprays. But there is nothing to stop the certifiers allowing some GM crops and not others. Otherwise, one is left with the suspicion that the belief in the superiority of organic food is more theological than scientific. Matt Ridley in the Telegraph.

Destructive precaution.While [the precautionary principle] may sound reasonable in theory, this principle would be disastrous in practice. One cannot prove a negative. Every food, product and tool poses some risk. Without the use of fire, automobiles, antibiotics, coffee, water, salt and chlorine, human life would be brutish and short. Yet none of these existing "threats" to human health and the environment passes the precautionary principle's standard … Does this mean the precautionary principle has no utility whatsoever? Not at all. In the words of the Social Issues Research Centre, in Oxford, England: "If we apply the precautionary principle to itself -- by asking what are the possible dangers of using this principle -- we would be forced to abandon it very quickly." National Post.

Healthy change for young Scots. Scottish teenagers are eating more healthy food, taking more exercise and watching less television than at any time in the last decade, according to new research. BBC.

Dirty' bugs in fight on allergies. An "anti-clean" bacterial vaccine to counteract the harmful effects of the modern obsession with hygiene is to be tested on 100 asthma sufferers in the UK. Specialists believe that the cleanliness of everyday living conditions may help to account for the dramatic rise in asthma and other allergic diseases in Britain and the West. Independent on Sunday, and A germ-free childhood in a small family could expose young people to a higher than average risk of cancer, according to new research. Sunday Times, but Television chefs display an "irresponsible" attitude to food safety that sets a bad example to viewers, the country's hygiene watchdog will warn the BBC in a formal complaint. Sunday Telegraph.

'Forbidden foods' send girls on guilt trips. Parents who want to their daughters to develop healthy attitudes toward food and their bodies might be advised to let them eat cake, study findings suggest. According to a report published in the November issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, parents who restricted the diets of young girls increased the likelihood that the girls would eat forbidden foods and then feel bad about having indulged. Feelings of guilt, sadness and shame can make young girls vulnerable to low self-esteem, which has been shown to be a precursor of disordered eating, the report indicates. Reuters.

That frying burgers causes a nuisance is true. But the words of the Arts Minister Alan Howarth reveal the almost manic devotion with which this government sets out to stop people doing things: 'For far too long visitors to our royal parks have been hoodwinked by the burger bandits into paying exorbitant prices for unhygienic fare …not only that, but there have been worrying media reports that organised crime may be behind the traders’ operations.' In other words, a government which attacks the Fourth Estate at every turn for its 'distorted' reporting on matters such as European integration is suddenly prepared to take it at its word when it comes to finding an excuse to outlaw an entire industry. And why are customers 'hoodwinked' when they have merely made a free decision to buy an item of sustenance at a clearly advertised price? When it comes to hoodwinking customers, that is surely the role of upmarket restaurants, with their arcane cover and service charges. Spectator.

Patenting the painful price of saving lives. "We have to make a choice. If we want a cure for cancer … someone is going to have to do the research and produce the drugs. They aren't going to do this unless they can smell the profits at the end … My genes are mine, not the Wellcome Foundation's or Repligen Corp's. But there is nothing I can do with them except wait and see which ones will kill me. The alternative is to halt research, or nationalise drugs firms, which isn't going to happen. So perhaps reluctantly, and with great control we must let the would-be gene patenters have their way." Express.

Free fruit for school pupils. Thousands of pupils across the country will get free fruit every day in a health drive which is set to become as important for improving diets as the introduction of free school milk. Express.

Chewing over the facts on food safety. Food is an issue that can divide people and provoke polarised views. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but Joanna Blythman (Weekend, November4) does readers a disservice by dressing up opinion and presenting it as fact. Guardian.
[see also Parkinstein Food?]

Sermons on science from a royal soapbox. "The difference between William Blake and Prince Charles is that Blake was denouncing the scientific principle per se and not, as the Prince and Mr Porritt are doing, suggesting bogus science as an alternative to true science – and delivering their pronouncements from the unanswerable heights of Highgrove. Meanwhile, Prince Charles continues to annoy the inhabitants of Kensington by chugga-chugga-chuggaing everywhere in his gas-guzzling helicopter." Sunday Telegraph.

UK media discourage women from breast-feeding. Media portrayals of breast-feeding as problematic, difficult and as the choice of the wealthy and celebrities may discourage many women in the UK from choosing this method of infant feeding, results of a study suggest. Reuters.

Research spells out Pill risks. The Pill scare in the mid-1990s saved a handful of women from dangerous blood clots, researchers have found. But the thousands of extra unwanted pregnancies due to women stopping taking their contraceptives put many more at risk, say experts … "There was a tremendous amount of distress caused to all women, not just those on the third generation pills, by the way the message was put out." BBC.

Parents' Food Fears Make for Unhealthy Family Diets. When it comes to food, it's fine to feel the fear as long as it's not passed on to your kids, say researchers speaking at a meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Fima Lifshitz, MD, chief of staff at Miami Children's Hospital, tells WebMD that parents' concerns about high fat and cholesterol should not be used to develop diets for their children. OnHealth.

Jonathon Porritt. He is our tree hugger in chief, a self-righteous prophet who now finds himself at the centre of things…Rainforests certainly totter and GM crops undoubtedly sway on land where sheep had better graze sceptically – or not at all. But, Praise the Lord and pass the New Environmentalist's Handbook. There are careers to be made out of all this,sermons to preach and hours of broadcasting time to fill. New Statesman.

Prince denounced as 'arrogant and ignorant'. The Prince of Wales was branded "arrogant" and "ignorant" yesterday by a leading scientist over a speech in which he blamed mankind for the deadly storms and floods that have lashed Britain. Lewis Wolpert, a professor of anatomy and developmental biology, accused the Prince of "abusing" his position. "I feel the Prince is very arrogant and he speaks from a position of ignorance," Professor Wolpert said. "He is anti-science and anti-technology. He abuses his position. He talks about things he knows nothing about . . . and he cannot be challenged because he’s a royal. If he wants to debate science, he should leave the Royal Family or consult more widely." Times.

Hypocrisy, global warming and Charles. What we might call the Highgrove Tendency, after Charles' Gloucestershire estate, is riddled with arrogance and humbug. The Prince has for years been egged on in many of his sillier views by another member of the Tendency, Jonathon Porritt, the noted green campaigner. This Old Etonian lives in a gorgeous four-storey 1860s house in Cheltenham, from where he opined in his last book that real progress depended on "scientists getting down off their high horses and mixing with us ordinary folk". It's almost certain he didn't spot the irony. Express.

Climate treaty 'robs the poor'. A UK climatologist has launched a scathing attack on the developed world's "self-serving ideology" in tackling climate change. The scientist, Dr Mick Kelly, accuses the rich of patronising the poor, and seeking to save the climate on their terms alone. He says they should be concerned with justice, not the free market. And he believes they ignore urgent problems today because they are obsessed with a "comparatively nebulous" future threat. BBC.

Jab fears raise risk of measles. Children are growing up without protection against potentially fatal infections because of scares over MMR vaccine, the millennium medical conference in London was told yesterday. The vaccination level in some areas has fallen so far that it was "almost at a stage where transmission of measles is sustainable", said Angus Nicol, of the Public Health Laboratory Service’s Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre in London. "That’s a matter of concern," he said. Times.

A hard rain. The excitable atmosphere recently created by the fuel crisis, the chaos on Britain’s railways and anxiety over BSE was heightened this week when heavy rain and violent winds afflicted much of Britain, causing widespread flooding and paralysing those parts of the transport system which were functioning … However, most scientists agree that individual weather events cannot reliably be attributed to global warming. After all, this week’s floods are not unprecedented; nor, though they may be more common in Oklahoma than in Sussex, are tornadoes. In fact, around 30 are reported every year; in 1913, a tornado killed six people in Wales. Economist.

The politics of risk: the case of BSE. Ministers and officials were not wholly wrong in fearing an irrational reaction. Public attitudes towards risk are often confused. Information about high risk activities may be ignored, as the case of smoking shows. Information about low risks may often lead to exaggerated responses. The way in which the media pounce on, and headline, risk is often unhelpful. The examples of oral contraceptives and measles vaccination show how easily – and damagingly – information about risk may be translated into overreactions. One general conclusion to be drawn from the Phillips report, with special importance for public health, is therefore that we need to think more about how best to communicate risk to the public and help people to interpret any information given. Here both the media and the schools have important roles. If we want less paternalism, we must first educate ourselves. BMJ.

 Highly infectious: scare stories. Has the country lost its marbles? From the newspapers that have crossed my sickbed over the past 10 days … there has been an overwhelming stench of fear … Risk is unavoidable in life; no human activity is free from risk and those who insist "safe" must mean "zero risk" are deluding themselves. The correct approach when risks are uncertain - if I may paraphrase Lord Phillips - is to ensure the public are properly appraised of them. People are then free to dig their own graves, as it were … The message here is that it is not enough to share information on risks - we have to communicate them meaningfully as well. Risks that count are those attended to by your nearest and dearest, that feature in newspaper headlines or are otherwise drawn to your consciousness. Risks that are undermined by advertising (tobacco), neglected by the media or fall from public awareness are deemed to matter less. The language of risk increasingly dominates our lives - but no one is translating it. Independent.