Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Mums who sell junk food? Arrest them

In London last night, mayor Ken Livingstone outlined his radical agenda for punishing parents who dare to eat 'unethical food'.

"If I was running the schools, you’d have had all that crap out of the schools right away. They’d have had good healthy food. And you’d arrest the mums passing junk food through the school fence"

This was not some crank caller to a radio phone-in, but London mayor Ken Livingstone speaking last night at the Hay Festival event ‘The Ethical Food Debate’ at London’s Garrick Theatre. Even more disturbingly, he was wildly applauded. This could only laughably be described as a ‘debate’, since all four panellists – and most of the audience – were quite in agreement about the need to protect the environment, eat organic, avoid chemicals and reduce ‘food miles’.

Despite the title, the debate wasn’t particularly about food. Led by Sheila Dillon, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme, it was really all about education, markets, transport, obesity and GM crops – and what policies would be needed to foist the prejudices of the gathered company on to the population at large, who apparently must be saved from themselves.

While Ken was saving the kids, Keith Abel – co-founder of organic food delivery company Abel & Cole – thought it was the Third World that needed rescuing from agribusiness. ‘There are currently around one-and-a-half billion subsistence farmers in the world, who are being told by the chemical industry that they need to either adopt their GM crops or start covering them in artificial fertilisers so they can all move into shanty towns and live as prostitutes.’ So if you think that Third World farmers might actually be keen to modernise their farming methods, and in the process make their lives a bit easier and more fruitful, think again. According to Abel, modernisation is a risky business and agribusiness companies are the moral equivalent of people-traffickers.

Abel argued that kids here at home need protecting, too. ‘I’ve got two little monkeys of primary-school age.… I think there are a number of very straightforward things we can do to prevent these vulnerable little beings being taught the wrong way.’ Specifically, he called for junk food advertising aimed at young children to be banned.

Meanwhile, Jenny Jones, Green Party councillor and former deputy mayor, argued that the main challenges are how to reduce London’s ‘ecological footprint’ and also reduce food poverty. She claimed that six per cent of Londoners go to bed hungry. That may be true, but perhaps they might be better served by better pay and benefits rather than Jones running a mission to provide them with organic vegetables, locally sourced.

The fourth member of the panel, former Masterchef winner Thomasina Miers, didn’t seem to be terribly well-informed or insightful. Her main policy suggestion was that the government should ‘do something’. But then, being ill-informed didn’t seem to be much of a barrier to participating in this debate.

Livingstone, for example, showed that he was a dab hand at elevating personal prejudice into established scientific fact. His opening statement, on why he thought food was an ethical issue, was a list of deeply dubious ‘facts’ that encapsulated every green scare of our time. There was his claim that ‘the smallest amount of artificial or toxic substances can cause all sorts of problems, not just cancers but everything else’; his comments that pollution was much worse today because ‘I grew up in the postwar world where it was heavy, dirty old soot you could wash away – now it’s particulates and nitrous oxoids [sic] which are just getting worse and worse’; and his assertion that all this ‘goes a long way to explaining the huge increase in kids in asthma and eczema and hayfever’.

In truth, very small amounts of chemicals are harmless. Even deadly poisons in the quantities in which pesticide residues occur – parts per million – would cause no injury. But pesticides are not deadly poisons; they are selected because they are harmful to pests rather than humans. We consume far more naturally-occurring poisons than pesticides or other manmade chemicals. As Bruce Ames and Lois Swirsky Gold note elsewhere on spiked ‘The natural chemicals that are known rodent carcinogens in a single cup of coffee are about equal in weight to a year’s worth of ingested synthetic pesticide residues that are rodent carcinogens.’ (1) And London’s air used to be thick with particulates at levels more than 10 times greater than today before first smokeless fuels and then alternative forms of heating were introduced. During the Great Smog of 1953 they were 1,000 times their normal levels today (2).

Livingstone also claimed that the ‘tipping point for irreversible climate change is most probably four or five years away at most’, which apparently means we need to crack down on agribusiness now, because agribusiness is a ‘disproportionate’ generator of carbon emissions and ‘food miles’.

Normally, I don’t like to criticise people for their backgrounds; after all, they can’t help it, and I prefer to challenge their ideas. But when audience members like Rosie and Henrietta joined with Thomasina to tell us how ‘we’ – the decent right-thinking middle classes – could protect the poor, the blacks and the children, it was more than I could stomach. Panellists and audience members seemed to believe that the masses are too stupid to treat junk-food advertising with a pinch of salt, and too feckless to feed their children properly. The proper approach to food, as exemplified by Livingstone, is to wrap yourself up in ethical knots about which food has the least-worst balance of food miles and pesticides while still being ‘fairtrade’ and avoiding supermarkets.

Fortunately, I am a man of direct action. So after the insufferable non-debate finished, my partner and I adjourned to a nearby pizza chain for mass-produced convenience food, the ingredients of which may well have been produced in pesticide-soaked fields and flown thousands of miles to my plate.


A myth that deceived Britain's out-of-touch Leftist elite

Nursing Standard magazine has revealed how Caroline Flint, the Public Health Minister, told a fringe meeting at the Labour conference that pregnant teenagers now smoke to try to reduce the size of their babies, in order to make delivery less painful. This has sparked up an earnest debate, with Ms Flint saying that young women must be educated to learn that “smoking is not the answer, pain relief is” (she might try teaching that to the “natural birth” zealots among Britain’s midwives).

Ms Flint admitted she had heard these horror stories only “anecdotally”. Anybody with an ear in the real world would surely have known straightaway that such tales are an urban myth. Presumably these girls who smoke to shrink their babies are the same ones who get pregnant from toilet seats and forcefeed their toddlers chips through a teat.

Worse, this story is, literally, a joke. My wife reports that, ever since health warnings about having a fag while having a baby began, pregnant women whom she knows have been joking with each other about taking up smoking to make childbirth less painful. No doubt you have to be there, in full hormonal bloom, to see how funny it is. Call it labour-ward humour.

This is a sign of how far out-of-touch ministers and health experts are with those whom they patronise as “ordinary people”. Behind all their touchy-feely talk of “inclusion”, these social engineers retain a deeply contemptuous view of young working-class women as the fag-end of society.

The chief executive of the National Childbirth Trust responded to Ms Flint’s claim by saying, presumably with a straight face: “We are bringing up our young women very fearful of labour.” Those who retain a sense of humour on this subject can fill in your own punchline.


Treatment 'to neutralise all flu'

Scientists say they are developing an entirely new way of providing instant protection against flu. In preliminary tests, it was found to protect animals against various strains of the virus - and may also protect against future pandemic strains.

University of Warwick researchers used a flu virus naturally stripped of some genetic material to compete with other invading flu viruses. This slowed the rate of infection so much the body could fight it off. In effect, the invading virus became its own vaccine by triggering an immune response sufficiently powerful to neutralise it before it could gain a strong enough foothold.

The Warwick team plan to develop the treatment as a nasal spray. Experts warned much more testing was required. However, they said the development of the vaccine was timely, amid concerns the H5N1 bird flu strain circulating in south east Asia could mutate into a pandemic strain which would put millions of lives at risk.

Existing vaccination methods depend on stimulating the body's immune system, so that white blood cells produce antibodies that attach to the surface of the virus and start the process of killing it. This works well for many diseases, such as smallpox, polio and measles, but is much less effective with flu, as the coat of the flu virus is continually changing. Vaccination against one strain of flu is totally ineffective against another.

Professor Nigel Dimmock has spent more than two decades developing the new approach. The "protecting virus" with which he worked had naturally lost around 80% of the genetic material of one of its eight RNA constituent segments. This deletion makes the virus harmless and prevents it from reproducing by itself within a cell, so that it cannot spread like a normal influenza virus. However, if it is joined in the cell by another influenza virus, it retains its harmless nature but starts to reproduce - and at a much faster rate than the new influenza virus. This fast reproduction rate - spurred by the new flu infection - means that the new invading influenza is effectively crowded out. This vastly slows the progress of the new infection, prevents flu symptoms, and gives the body time to develop an immune response to the harmful new invader.

The Warwick team believes its research indicates the protecting virus would have the same effect regardless of the strain of flu infection. This is because the coat of the virus is irrelevant to the protection process - the effect works on the virus genes inside the cell. In addition it protects instantly, whereas protection generated by conventional flu vaccination takes two to three weeks to become fully effective. Experiments so far show that a single dose of protecting virus can be given six weeks before, and 24 hours after an infection with flu virus and be effective.


Patriotism incorrect in England

When Australian Kay Rowland was sacked from her job for sending what she thought was a patriotic email about England to colleagues she couldn't believe it. The temp [secretary] was sacked from Castrol Oil after forwarding the email, which the Pipers Way-based company and Reed Employment, deemed to be inappropriate, to five other employees. But Miss Rowland, of Oakhurst, North Swindon, doesn't think the email was offensive and says people have the right to express their own opinion.

Part of the email said: "I am not against immigration, nor do I hold a grudge against anyone who is seeking a better life by coming to Britain. However, there are a few things that those who have recently come to our country, and apparently some born here, need to understand. "This idea of London being a multicultural centre for community has served only to dilute our sovereignty and our national identity. As Britons we have our own culture, our own society, our own language and our own lifestyle."

Miss Rowland, who has been temping at Castrol as a telebusiness operator since January, said: "I was sent the email last Thursday by an employee at the same company and I then sent it to five other employees. "Nothing was said at the time but I overheard some colleagues saying it was true. "But now I know that some of the people I sent it to complained to management."

On Monday morning Miss Rowland says that she felt something wasn't right when a representative from Reed Employment arrived at her office. She said they usually check up on their temps in the afternoon. "My team leader and the Reed lady were both in the meeting room and then I was called in," she said. "They told me some people had complained about the email and that my employment was terminated immediately. I was escorted from the building.

"I didn't think people would enjoy reading the email but I could see where this man who wrote it was coming from. I wasn't offended by it. "I thought the people who I sent it to would look at it and see this man had guts to say what a lot of people are afraid to say."

But Miss Rowland didn't think that the email would land her in such hot water. "In the meeting I was very upset. It was a very big shock and every word came behind a tear. I have been told I was sacked because of the content of the email. "They also said, not in so many words, that I'm not welcome back there." She added: "I think I've been made an example of but I don't think it's an example that should have been made." Miss Rowland, who is moving back to Australia at Christmas is now looking for work elsewhere. Sarah Reynolds, a spokeswoman for Reed Employment, said the company was unable to comment.



Say something derogatory about homosexuals and you are in immediate trouble. Otherwise they're not much interested

An inquiry has been ordered after police failed to respond to five 999 calls from a primary school reporting an armed intruder. The man broke into the school brandishing a lump of wood and threatened staff by telling them 'you're dead'. School had finished for the day, but there were still children inside and frantic staff rang 999 on five occasions over a 50-minute period. Eventually the man left of his own accord, but officers never turned up to investigate.

Kent Police chief constable Michael Fuller has ordered the investigation following a complaint from headteacher Stuart Pywell, of St Stephen's Junior School in Canterbury. The drama at the school unfolded last week, when five young men were seen fighting with lumps of wood in the school grounds. At 4pm one of the men burst into the school through a back door brandishing a lump of wood and threatened staff. Mr Pywell said there were still children at an after-school club, but they were kept away from the intruder.

He said: 'He was standing in a corridor armed with a thick stick being very aggressive and abusive to everyone. He was clearly high on drugs. I told him the police had been called but he just kept threatening us, saying "you're dead". He was very agitated and had the lump of wood but, for all we knew, he could also have had a knife so we were reluctant to physcially tackle him. 'We do not expect the police to put people's lives at risk by failing in their duty to respond to situations like this. There was at least a dozen children and staff at risk yet no officer attended.' Mr Pywell said the man was escorted from the site, but suspicious men in a four-wheel drive vehicle remained outside the school gates. He said he even gave the control room his mobile number and no one 'bothered' to call him.

There have been other previous incidents, including vandalism at the school, when police failed to respond to calls, he said. A superintendent had previously apologised for police failures. 'It has got to the stage now where we have employed our own security guard at weekends.'

Deputy Chief Constable Jim Barker-McCardle said: 'We treat all incidents at schools seriously. We're concerned about how this matter was handled.' A police spokesman confirmed an internal inquiry into the handling of the incident has begun and said tapes of 999 calls made by the teachers will be examined. Senior officers are expected to meet with the headteacher.

Earlier this year Police Federation leaders claimed forces were struggling to cope withcalls because they were too busy 'chasing statistics' for the Government. In a scathing attack on Labour's law and order strategy, the Federation said crimes such as burglaries and car theft were being downgraded by control room staff because there were not enough officers to deal with them.

There have been a number of reported incidents in which emergency services have failed to turn out to 999 emergencies. In April police took an hour and a half to react to 999 calls about violence that led to the mob murder of two brothers. Mohammed and Hayder Ali were dragged from a van in a suburban street in London, stabbed with machetes and beaten around the head with wooden posts. In the 90 minutes before they were killed, five emergency calls was made to Scotland Yard detailing running battles and youths wandering around with weapons.

Last May John Lockley, 60, died after police and ambulance took six hours to respond to 999 calls that he was lying unconscious in the street in Stoke-on-Trent.



History teaching at A level [Senior High School] is so fragmented that pupils are left with no understanding of the order in which important events occurred and little idea of what went before or after them, one of Britain's leading academics said yesterday. David Starkey, the television historian and a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, said that A levels were too often taught as if they were miniature degrees, with so much analysis crammed in that the periods they covered had to be cut short into "tiny gobbets of chewed-up material".

He said: "There is no point in doing merely a fragment in time with no sense of what might have led up to events and what consequences flowed from them. At the moment, pupils study a bit of American history and a bit of Hitler. That's almost useless." Dr Starkey said that it was absurd that the main history syllabus covering Hitler stopped in 1939. "There is no Second World War and no Holocaust. This approach does a lot of damage. It glamorises Hitler. You have to ask yourself, what is the point of studying it at all?"

He was equally critical of how syllabuses tackled Henry VIII and the Reformation, his own specialist period. "With Henry VIII, the syllabus covers 1502 to 1529. It stops when things get interesting. The other part of the syllabus covers 1529 to 1547 - the interesting bit. This is an absurd fragmentation. It leaves no space to take a step back and discuss what came before or after. "History, if properly taught, should give people a sense of time and a map of time. You should be able to place yourself in time," he said.

Dr Starkey said that teaching also placed far too much emphasis on the science of gathering evidence for historical events, an approach known as the discovery method. "Teachers use the discovery method to teach when the Norman Conquest was. We know when it was. What's the point in having a teacher if not to tell the students what the facts are?" He added that the study of original documents and the search for evidence should not come until university level. Dr Starkey also despaired of the way his own works and those of other historians were used in schools, with teachers focusing increasingly on historiography - the study of the way history is written - rather than history itself. "A-level students would not be able to tell you what happened at the beginning of the Civil War, but they would be able to tell you what (the historian) Conrad Russell thought about the Civil War," he said.

Dr Starkey was speaking before the premiere this week of the film version of Alan Bennett's successful play The History Boys. It depicts the clash between two teachers, one who values learning for its own sake and one who sees teaching as a series of artificially selected exam techniques. It is a debate that Dr Starkey believes is worth having, not least because he fears that the current system of exams, targets and league tables is destroying Britain's education system.

He fears that highly prescriptive curriculums, combined with a fear in schools of failing in the league tables had produced "nothing but elaborately polished mediocrity" among students, who were coached to pass exams, but not to understand their subjects. He believes that among teachers it has bred an "encompassing cynicism" and destroyed their autonomy, self-confidence and sense of risk


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