Saturday, July 05, 2003

GM food ban lifted

The EU has agreed to allow new GM foods to be sold for the first time in five years. However, there is a strict (though logically inconsistent) labelling proviso. All of this is justified on the basis of (1) a precautionary approach in relation to human health, (2) consumer choice and (3) the fact that we produce too much food, so we don't really need GM, so let's keep it out.

Two letters in the Times this week were pertinent in discussing the question of GM and health:

Sir, John Parfitt (letter, June 26) requests human trials on GM food. But it is not obvious from his letter what new scientific information would emerge from feeding GM rape oil to human beings compared to ordinary rape oil when the chemical composition is identical.

Nor does he explain why human trials are suddenly demanded when even the safety of pharmaceutical products is not tested in this way. Neither does he explain how he would carry out such tests, when toxicologists rejected the whole notion 20 years ago because they concluded that human trials for novel foods would not adequately test human safety.

There have been hundreds of published long-term feeding tests with all the current GM products in this country on cattle, pigs, sheep, rabbits, poultry and fish, which have produced absolutely nothing.

Mr Parfitt should be careful in asking for long-term human trials for novel foods. The Soil Association insists that organic food is different in composition from ordinary food and thus is a novel food. Following Parfitt’s logic we should ban all organic food until long-term human trials have been performed.

Yours faithfully,
(Professor in Plant Biochemistry),
Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology,
University of Edinburgh,
Mayfield Road, Edinburgh EH9 3JH.
June 27.

From Mr Robert Blood

Sir, One of the more striking myths distorting the current GM debate is the claim that biotechnology is owned by corporations and that it is corporations which are forcing GM crops on poor countries.

Monsanto and the other biotech firms may have been the first to produce commercially successful GM crops, but the real growth in this field is occurring not in the multinationals but in the hundreds of publicly funded agricultural institutes and universities across the world, mostly in developing countries.

In Africa, scientists are working on pest-resisting and salt- and drought-tolerant fruits and vegetables. In Asia, new varieties of GM rice, papaya, rubber and 14 other crops are in lab or field trials. In Brazil, often cited as a country that has rejected GM crops, government-funded researchers are working on biotech maize, sugarcane, cotton, eucalyptus, rice and potato.

Of the 3,200 scientists — including 20 Nobel prizewinners — who have endorsed Professor C. S. Prakash’s declaration in support of crop biotechnology, fewer than two fifths work in the private sector.

We are rich and over-supplied with food. Much of the rest of the world is poor and has to feed an increasing population off the same area of farmland with more nutritious crops, less chemicals and less effort (because more work means more child labour). Biotechnology, properly tested and regulated, offers by far the greatest promise.

Yours faithfully,
Erwinstrasse 99,
79102 Freiburg, Germany.
June 30.

In answer to the three points above, it might be argued that (1) there's no reason why GM should be any more or less harmful to health than any other food; (2) that consumers can hardly make an informed choice when they don't know all the facts - all they know is that there is something weird about this food which means it needs to be labelled; and (3) we DO need to improved productivity wherever we can. I would like society to be able to feed itself with the minimum of effort so that we can devote time, resources and land to much more useful activities.

Euro vote ends GM food ban, BBC News, 2 July 2003

SARS update

The WHO has given the all-clear in Taiwan, the last country to be affected by SARS. This is not the end of SARS, but merely containment, apparently.

I've made my criticisms of the WHO clear on this site before, but this latest news confirms them. This is what I wrote on spiked on 19 March 2003, just after the epidemic was made public:

This is just the latest in a long line of weird and wonderful illnesses to briefly burst on to the front pages, only to disappear just as rapidly: remember Ebola virus, MRSA and necrotising fasciitis? All of these diseases are nasty, but they affect relatively few people. The fact that such stories can gain currency is indicative of a time when we feel isolated and powerless, unable to put risks into proper perspective - a mood that is exacerbated by thoughts of war and terrorism. Infectious disease is not quite a thing of the past, but our ability to identify, contain and treat such illness makes it a relatively minor threat. What is more of a threat is our loss of faith in our ability to deal with such problems.

Three-and-a-half months later, I think that initial assessment was borne out. While SARS went on to kill over 800 people, that is a minor problem in comparison to much more long-standing diseases like malaria and tuberculosis. But the worldwide attention that SARS received did indicate a generalised sense of anxiety in which human capabilities are downplayed and risk is exaggerated.

In reality, SARS was dealt with effectively by well-organised public health measures, combined with a pleasing level of co-operation between experts around the world. However, the SARS panic did succeed in creating unnecessary anxiety, cost many jobs, restricted economic growth and disrupted lives. The WHO can take much of the credit for the success, and much of the blame for the panic.

Last Sars hotspot contained, BBC News, 5 July 2003

All quiet on the blogging front

I've been away for a few days. Everybody needs a little r&r once in a while. And I know what you're thinking: a guy like me has got to engage in some pretty adventurous holiday adventure stuff, right? So, where to go for a week long break?

The Norfolk Broads. It's about as risk-free as it gets. And very nice, too.