Wednesday, September 26, 2007

GM: where the science doesn't count

Today's climate change activists pose as `defenders of science'. Yet not so long ago, they irrationally rejected the scientific truth about GM crops

Hold the front page: `There is no change in the government's policy towards GM crops', says Hilary Benn of Britain's Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Benn's statement was a reaction to yesterday's scaremongering frontpage story in the UK Guardian. The Guardian headline said `The return of GM', and the report claimed that `ministers back moves to grow crops in UK'

It is hard to remember now, but in 2000 environmental campaigners were protesting all over the country, organising meetings and debates and breaking into premises, all to draw the public's attention to the dangers represented by. genetically modified organisms - crops, mainly. Lord Melchett, himself a former Labour cabinet minister turned Greenpeace activist, tore up GM crops. (My grandfather slaved away for his father at Imperial Chemicals Industries, dying young, as many did, because of the way the chemical fumes tended to accelerate your heart rate, leading to the `Tuesday death'. GM crops would help alleviate the need to use these kinds of chemicals.)

The GM debate was remarkable. In quite a short time, environmental campaigners brought to the surface intense public anxieties about the industrialisation of the food chain. Just before the debate about the introduction of GM foods, there had been another public health scare when one government scientist, Dr Robert Lacey, warned that by 1997 one third of Britain could be infected with the debilitating brain illness Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (CJD), from eating beef contaminated with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)-inducing prions. As it turned out, you were about as likely to die of CJD as you were to be struck by lightning, and there is still no proven link with it and BSE - but public distrust of authority was at an all-time high.

There was no real argument against GM food. But people felt very disconnected from the authorities, having little faith in the public pronouncements that there was no risk. That alone was enough to make most people alarmed. Opportunistically, environmental campaigners realised that they could gain influence by stoking public fears. Activists like journalist Andy Rowell, language-school head Jonathan Matthews of the Norfolk Genetic Interest Network, the Open University academic Mae-Wan Ho, and the Guardian's George Monbiot stirred up a fantastic picture of rogue genes causing all kinds of extraordinary mutations as they passed through the food chain, or as they were carried on the wind from test-beds into `healthy' British meadows.

Of course, there was no scientific evidence whatsoever. The absence of even one example of a negative health impact from the introduction of GM crops in the US put some pressure on the greens. They latched on to examples that really did not demonstrate any danger. Some oil was contaminated, leading to deaths - but it turned out it was nothing to do with GM. And then the Rowett Research Institute's Dr Arpad Pusztai did some experiments on GM lectins in potatoes that seemed to show negative consequences in rats. The press and the environmentalists latched on to the case - except that it only showed that the introduction of poisonous lectins into potatoes was bad for rats. When Pusztai was sacked for overstating the implications of his tests, GM campaigners adopted his case as a cause c,lSbre, only slowly coming to the conclusion that they had indeed overstated the dangers highlighted in Dr Pusztai's tests.

Meanwhile, another hero of the anti-GM lobby, Mae-Wan Ho, who had been involved in biotechnology in the Seventies, was largely preoccupied with the philosophical meaning of genetics rather than hands-on bio-science, and was interested in resurrecting the ideas of the disgraced Soviet biologist Lysenko, and also Bergson's vitalist cult.

GM activists came under pressure from scientists. In a public debate between George Monbiot and biologist Steve Jones, Jones denounced Monbiot as a charlatan (they have since made up). Andy Rowell attacked the scientists for being the mouthpieces of big business. The peer review of Arpad Pusztai's work was denounced as a cover for a hidden agenda to force GM food on an unsuspecting public. Scientific verification was not to be trusted, said the activists, who invoked a higher bar, the `precautionary principle', which puts the onus of proof on those introducing technology that it could do no harm in the future.

Provoking the public's deepest uncertainties about the food chain proved a great success. Supermarkets withdrew GM food from their shelves and made it effectively unmarketable. In 2004, the New Labour government conceded that even the scientific experiments - the rapeseed fields that Melchett had torn down - should be stopped.

The activists, though, were not entirely happy that they had painted themselves into a corner of outright hostility to scientific method. They knew that if their irrational rejection of science and the modern world was made too explicit, people would find it difficult to go along with. On the other hand, the scientists were pretty bruised, too. They were desperate to win back some of the authority they had lost by being portrayed as tools of big business and proto-Frankensteins out to poison the public. Their subsequent pursuit of `public understanding' turned out to mean lots of committees, often full of green activists, seeking to influence the scientists' agenda.

On the issue of climate change, scientists and environmentalists found more to agree on. As the international diplomatic manoeuvres engendered a new science of climate change, there was more influence for those scientists who lent their research to heavy-duty warnings of global catastrophe. The environmentalists were thrilled to find that the one community that had been most resistant to their ideas were now providing the ammunition.

Once environmentalists had routinely attacked science, drawing on the caricatures of the scientific method found in the Frankfurt school of sociology. Now they were defenders of science against the supposedly `irrational' climate change deniers. The radical academic Bruno Latour, who had made a career arguing that science was nothing more than an ideological construct that reflected the interests of the powers-that-be, suddenly changed his mind over the issue of climate change. Protesters against the new runway at Heathrow summed up the activists' changed attitude to science. They marched with a banner that read: `We are armed only with peer-reviewed science.'

The new, more positive attitude to science on the part of the environmentalists, though, is the reason why the previous issue of GM is still unresolved. The pressure for a return to GM testing in Britain comes from the National Farmers Union, which is lobbying to be allowed to introduce the latest biotechnology. Whether a minister did or did not talk to the Guardian over the weekend about reintroducing GM, the government's explicit position is that there will be no return to GM testing.

Still the activists are alarmed. They have an intuitive understanding that they got away with a lot when they committed the UK to outright opposition to GM testing. The decision was an outrage against scientific experimentation. The activists' arguments back then were a lot more hostile to science than they are today. The Guardian suggests that the pro-GM lobbyists, too, think that the debate has moved on, and that GM crops can be defended on grounds that they might be a solution to the problems raised by global warming. But whatever the reason, Britain should be engaged in GM testing - not because it can help with the problems of global warming, but because it is the right thing to do.


Mobile phones are safe, but let's panic anyway

The experts' schizophrenic message about mobiles captures society's curious love/dread relationship with new technologies

What is it with the mobile phone scare? Study after study has failed to find any evidence that using a mobile phone causes brain cancer (or `fries our brains' as the tabloids like to put it). And yet the authors of all the studies still warn us to be super-careful when it comes to mobiles: to avoid using them too often, and to think twice about giving handsets to our children. You know, just in case these little electronic bundles of bleeps and radiation might cause some unknown harm now or in the future. Like something out of a dimestore horror novel, the scientists' and politicians' message to society seems to be: `Mobile phones are safe.or are they?' (Indeed, Stephen King, the master of horror-writing, depicted the mobile as an evil machine that turns people into flesh-eating zombies and telekinetic psychos in his novel Cell, brilliantly capturing contemporary society's curious love/dread relationship with new technologies.)

Now, just as spiked has launched a new debate on the `mobile footprint' in conjunction with the mobile service provider O2, another study finds, yet again, that mobile phone-use is safe - and it warns, yet again, that we should err on the side of caution anyway. The continuing failure to uncover evidence that mobiles are bad for our health, coupled with the continuous warnings that mobiles might be bad for our health, shows that the mobile phone panic has little to do with science. This is not an `evidence-based' scare, to use the buzzphrase of the moment. Instead, the mobile has become a metaphor for a generalised free-floating feeling of fear, and for today's widespread sentiment that everything should be treated as dangerous unless it has been shown beyond a shadow of a doubt to be 100 per cent impeccably safe.

The latest study, published yesterday by the UK Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme, is the work of 28 teams of experts. With a budget of 8.8million, they spent the past six years exploring possible health impacts of mobile phone-use. Their conclusion? That there's no evidence that mobiles cause cancer. The experts said their findings were `reassuring', showing no association between mobile phone-use and brain cancer and `no evidence' of immediate or short-term harms to health from mobile phones. The six-year study also `failed to substantiate' any of the wild claims that have been made about mobile phone masts causing increased cancer rates amongst the communities in which they are erected. As Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrats' science spokesman, said: `This report is good news for the public, phone users and the industry. There is no basis on health grounds for any further tightening of regulations or advice on mobile phone masts or the use of handsets.'

Phew. Except.the authors of the study decided to flag up what they don't know as well as what they do. Professor Lawrie Challis, chairman of the research programme, said: `We cannot rule out the possibility that cancer could appear in a few years' time, both because the epidemiological evidence we have is not strong enough to rule it out and, secondly, because most cancers cannot be detected until 10 years after whatever caused them.' So while the report was `reassuring' on the safety of mobile phone-use now, `we can't reassure people about the long-term use', said Challis. Some of the researchers even pointed out that it took 10 years for anyone to realise there was a link between smoking and cancer. It is true, of course, that it's impossible to rule out some potential future harm from mobile phone-use; it is impossible to prove a negative: that mobiles will never pose any risk at all. But should we really worry that chatting to our mates on a mobile might be doing to our brain what sucking in smoke does to the lungs? Surely health advice should focus on warning people of proven dangers, rather than pushing us to fantasise about hypothetical worst-case scenarios?

As well as talking up future unknowns, the research coordinators threw into the debate what we might call `present unlikelies'. They said there was a `very slight hint' of increased incidences of brain tumours among long-term users of mobiles, which is at `the borderline of statistical significance'. That sounds to my admittedly unscientific mind like a roundabout way of saying there is possibly a statistically insignificant risk of harm to some users.

Consequently, and perhaps unsurprisingly, a study which found no association between mobile phone-use and cancer, and which was welcomed by sensible scientists as a green light for us to continue chatting and texting to our heart's content, has been transformed in some quarters into a document which foretells mankind's diseased doom. `Mobile phones could cause cancer to long-term users', said the London Evening Standard. `Mobile phones: they could cause major cancer explosion in years to come', bellowed an online alternative health magazine. It is a sad sign of the times when even a seemingly airtight scientific study which found no evidence that mobiles are bad for our health can generate handwringing headlines claiming that mobiles are.bad for our health!

A headline in The Times (London) captured the schizophrenic message sent out by this latest research project: `Mobile phones don't cause cancer in the short-term. Long-term, who knows?' This is not the first time that a study has found no evidence of harm yet posited the possibility of harm. `Who knows?' just about sums up officialdom's attitude to new mobile communications and their possible impact on our heads. In 2000, the report Mobile Phones and Health, generally known as the Stewart Report after Sir William Stewart, who chaired the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones that produced it, found that: `The balance of evidence to date suggests that exposures to RF radiation below [official] guidelines do not cause adverse health effects to the general population.' However, the report also said that `it is not possible at present to say that exposure to RF radiation, even at levels below national guidelines, is totally without potential adverse health effects'. So it recommended that `a precautionary approach to the use of mobile phone technologies be adopted until much more detailed and scientifically robust information on any health effects becomes available'.

In January 2005, Sir William Stewart launched a report by the National Radiological Protection Board, the government's advisory board on radiological issues. That report simply restated existing knowledge on mobile phone-use (that there is no evidence of harm to human health), yet Stewart chose the occasion of the report's launch to `speak from the heart'. He said: `I don't think we can put our hands on our hearts and say that mobile phones are totally safe.' Therefore we shouldn't give them to children under eight, he advised. Needless to say, Stewart's heartfelt but non-scientific feeling that mobiles might be bad for little'uns - his elevation of the heart over the mind, one might say - stole headlines away from the fact that, yet again, a report had failed to uncover evidence of mobiles damaging health. Also in 2005, a study published in the British Journal of Cancer, which surveyed data from five European countries and the health of 4,000 people, found that using a mobile for up to 10 years poses no increased risk of acoustic neuroma (a rare tumour of the nerve connecting the ear to the brain). How did the Health Protection Agency in Britain respond to this study? By saying: `This is good news.but we still need to be a bit cautious.'

From Stewart in 2000 to the big new study this week, this is the precautionary principle in action. The fear of mobile communications demonstrates the extent to which super-precaution - the idea that everything should be treated as dangerous until it has been proven safe beyond all doubt - dominates public discussion today. The evidence to date suggests there is nothing inherently dangerous about mobile phones or masts - and yet, precisely because they are so commonplace and now so central to our everyday lives, they have become the focus of general fears about new technologies, invisible signals, radiation, environmental destruction, bullying and just about everything else. This has led to a schism: on one hand, studies suggest mobile phone-use is safe, and sales figures show that people find them extremely useful for both work and play; on the other hand, there is ongoing political and public trepidation about the spread of mobiles and masts and what impact they might have on The Future. Consequently, even as millions of people enjoy the liberating aspect of always being communicado, there is also a lurking sense of unease that contributes to a general anxiety about everyday life, and especially its impacts on our children.

The mobile is the ideal metaphor for today's culture of fear. Society's discomfort with breaking technological boundaries, because of the impact it might have on the environment or human health, is projected on to the mobile and mobile phone masts. So is officialdom's fear of potentially `toxic' human contact. Some seem uncomfortable with the idea of millions of people talking and texting anywhere and anytime they please; witness the numerous shock stories about mobiles being used to bully people, or even to lure them into being kidnapped. This fear of mobiles is likely to be doing more damage than mobiles themselves, certainly in the here and now. While we can be fairly sure that mobile phones are not damaging our health, the precautionary principle is harming society: it is slowing down new technological developments, stunting investment in newer and improved forms of communication, and spreading fear and queasiness amongst the population.


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