Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - June 16, 2004:
* Nitrate Imbalance
* GM food 'essential' to meet future needs
* IMPORTANT AGRICULTURE ROLE IN ECONOMY AND UPLIFT IN ASIA
* Organic Food Has 'Significantly Higher' Contamination, Study Finds
* Norwegians spurn healthy, organic and homegrown food
* GMO cotton cultivation in India seen rising sharply
* GM Food in China
* Country may become ag-biotech star
* More sorry than safe
Date: Tue, 15 Jun 2004 21:01:13 -0700 (PDT)
From: "Timur Hyat-khan"
Subject: Nitrate Imbalance
The swift response to my concers is highly appreciated. While I have to check with our Expert base about what has been stated, I do have some points.
Firstly, If it is true that we require some Nitrates in our Food, Why do we have a WHO standard for permissible Nitrate levels?
Also we can get our required Nitrates from Water that contains permissible levels of Nitrates. Why do we have to go the extra mile in supplying them to the plants so that they can supply us?
Whereas the points brought forward are scientific and logically stated, I do not understand the statement that this is an old arguement used by organic growers to promote their produce. This is entirely irrelavent.
I am not an exclusive Bullshit grower, I use Nitrate balancers based on Plant Nutrition for more reasons than those refuted. Firstly, Nitrate imbalance in a plant causes Auxin Hormone dominance that leads to tall slender plants with little fruit/ grain. These plants are subject to lodging.
Secondly, the plant is forced to suck calcium from its cell walls to balance Nitrates. When this occurs the cell walls tend to leak nutrition. When this Nutrition trail hits the ground, crawling insects that happen to cross the trail recognize that it is food and follow it (the trail) into the plant. This is the only way that a crawling insect can identify that the source is good for a free meal. This is called a Chemical Trail or Chemitaxi.
Secondly, excessive amino acids produced in the leaves to counter excessive Nitrates, create an odour that flying insects are attracted to. This leads them directly to the plant. Thank you Nitrates.
I am not condoning conventional Organics, In fact I seek to find a Via Media that is based purely upon facts. I believe that pure and stable mineral nutrients are essential for a plant and I would like to send my critic a complete document (16 pages) in this regard for review and comment, if that is agreeable.
I strongly believe that excessive Nitrates will affect the development of Brain Cells in children. You are what you eat and fresh manure is not what I want to be. The animal hormones in Poultry products have fuelled your Sex revolution and the pesticide affect on the endocrine gland have fuelled your female activists due to femminization of males and masculanization of females. Is this too simplistic a view or can it be considered for pure research. There are many examples of the deletrious affects of pesticides in Pakistan.
From: "Alex Avery"
Subject: RE: Nitrate Imbalance
Date: Wed, 16 Jun 2004 09:52:14 -0400
Response: I understand that this discussion is far removed from the typical agricultural biotechnology discussions, but in the interest of transparent and full discussion:
TIMUR ASKS: "If it is true that we require some Nitrates in our Food, Why do we have a WHO standard for permissible Nitrate levels?"
The WHO standard for permissible nitrate levels is for drinking water only, not fruits or vegetables. The WHO drinking water standard of 50 mg/L nitrate is based on the US drinking water standard of 44 mg/L (equivalent to 10 ppm nitrate-nitrogen), which in turn is based on the purported risks to infants from powdered infant formula reconstituted with water. Yet even this level has been questioned based on recent research and epidemiological studies. The US standard was based on a simple, yet flawed public health survey conducted in 1948-1949 by the American Public Health Association. (See Avery, AA. EHP 107(7):583-586 and L'hirondel and
TIMUR WRITES: "Also we can get our required Nitrates from Water that contains permissible levels of Nitrates. Why do we have to go the extra mile in supplying them to the plants so that they can supply us?"
Not all water contains significant quantities of nitrates and many people apparently require more than is consumed. A little known fact is that our bodies endogenously produce about half of the total nitrates we are exposed to, even more when we are suffering from an infection. Obviously, there is still much we need to learn about nitrate physiology and we have only recently begun to elucidate it's many roles in our bodies.
I would be interested in references to the phenomena of "Nitrate imbalance in a plant causes Auxin Hormone dominance that leads to tall slender plants with little fruit/ grain. These plants are subject to lodging" and "excessive amino acids produced in the leaves to counter excessive Nitrates, create an odour that flying insects are attracted to."
Finally, the theories that "animal hormones in Poultry products have fuelled your Sex revolution and the pesticide affect on the endocrine gland have fuelled your female activists due to femminization of males and masculanization of females" are certainly interesting. However, there are no hormones allowed in any poultry production in North America and never have been -- sexual revolution notwithstanding.
Director of Research
Center for Global Food Issues, Hudson Institute
GM food 'essential' to meet future needs
- Financial Times, June 16, 2004, By JOHN MASON
The use of biotechnology, including genetic modification, will be essential to address world hunger in future decades, Jacques Diouf, the director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation is expected to tell non-governmental organisations today.
Mr Diouf sent a firm response to a coalition of NGOs, including the Intermediate Technology Development Group, which has written to the FAO leadership complaining about the organisation's support - albeit limited - for GM technology.
In May, the FAO said the technology could benefit small farmers if research funding and public-private partnerships could be properly directed towards poor producers.
The FAO report angered NGOs which claim that it shows the organisation has become biased in favour of the biotechnology industry. GM technology would only worsen food insecurity and rural inequalities in the developing world, they argue in a letter to Mr Diouf.
Mr Diouf is expected to say in reply that GM technology is not needed to meet current UN targets of halving hunger by 2015. However, by 2050 the situation will be different, since food production will have to increase by 60 per cent.
"Such a situation will require intensified cultivation, higher yields and greater productivity. We will have to use the scientific tools of molecular biology, in particular the identification of molecular markers, genetic mapping and gene transfer for more effective plant enhancement, going beyond phenotype-based methods," he told the FT.
Developing countries will have to participate in making decisions about the use of biotechnology and increase their scientific capacity to do so effectively, he said.
* Cereal prices could rise and become more volatile in world markets in 2004/5, the FAO warned yesterday.
Although production of wheat and other cereals is expected to be higher than last year, when heatwaves hit harvests in Europe and elsewhere, continued increases in consumption will mean more use of reserve stocks, it said.
Henri Josserand, head of FAO's global information and early warning system, said: "Production prospects are good but not up to expected total levels of utilisation. In view of already tight stocks, the possibility of higher and more volatile prices in 2004/5 should not be ruled out."
IMPORTANT AGRICULTURE ROLE IN ECONOMY AND UPLIFT IN ASIA
- The Nation (Pakistan), June 16, 2004
FAISALABAD - National Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering
(NIBGE) has not only potential and expertise to develop Genetically Modified (GM) crops but was also fully prepared to train necessary manpower to implement the bio-safety guidelines, said Dr. Ahmed Mukhtar Khalid Director NIBGE.
He was addressing the participants of the 4-day national workshop on GM
crops: GMO Detection here Tuesday.
Underlining the importance of modern agro biotechnology, he said that it was developing at this crucial phase in the history of agricultural sciences. The conventional green revolution paradigm is being forced to shift to a more ecologically just and politically sound paradigm of sustainable agro biotechnology, he said and added that it will now depend on a judicious mix of public opinion, regulatory and political safeguards, new partnerships and organisational formats, social contracts and scientific judgements. "This also entails changes in the expectations from science and in the existing policy processes and instruments", he said and added that agricultural Biotechnology is now marked by new research and development partnership demanding new capabilities in the social sciences to analyze relationship between science, technology and society.
He said that we have always relied on plants and animals for food, shelter, clothing and fuel, and for thousands of years we have been changing them to better meet our demand. "Society's demand for resources provided by plants and animals will increase as the world population grows", he said and added that the global population, which numbered approximately 1.6 billion in 1900 has surged to 6 billion and is expected to reach by 10 billion in 2030. He said that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation has estimated that world food production will have to double on existing farmland if it is to keep pace with the anticipated population growth.
Dr. Khalid further said that agriculture has played an important role in the national economy and development in Asia, where most of the population resides in rural and depends on agriculture for subsistence. "Biotechnology indeed can help meet the ever increasing need by increasing yields and decreasing crop inputs such as water and fertiliser and providing pest control methods that are more compatible with the environment", he added.
The Director NIBGE said that Biotechnology has presented considerable potential by boosting outputs, reducing production costs, increasing nutritional value and promoting the efficiency of agro processing.
However, in the meantime as the impacts of biotechnology on human health and environment remain unknown, Bio-safety has become a primary issue, he said and added that all the countries in the region are aware of capacity building to assess and monitor the risks and benefits associated with Genetically Modified Organisms He hoped that this workshop would not only help its participants to understand the GM crops but also learn to effectively implement the bio-safety rules and guidelines.
Organic Food Has 'Significantly Higher' Contamination, Study Finds
- CNSNews.com Senior, By Marc Morano, June 14, 2004
A new study on food safety reveals that organic produce may contain a significantly higher risk of fecal contamination than conventionally grown produce.
A recent comparative analysis of organic produce versus conventional produce from the University of Minnesota shows that the organically grown produce had 9.7 percent positive samples for the presence of generic E. coli bacteria versus only 1.6 percent for conventional produce on farms in Minnesota.
The study, which was published in May in the Journal of Food Protection, concluded, "the observation that the prevalence of E. coli was significantly higher in organic produce supports the idea that organic produce is more susceptible to fecal contamination."
In addition, the study found the food-borne disease pathogen salmonella only on the organic produce samples. There was no evidence found of the deadly strain of bacteria, E. coli O157:H7, in either type of produce tested. The study looked at fruits and vegetables at the "preharvest" stage, not at the retail store level.
The principle investigator of the University of Minnesota study, Francisco Diez-Gonzalez, told CNSNews.com that "organic agriculture was more susceptible to carry fecal indicators."
"In many ways it is confirming what is believed, indeed, if you are using animal manure for fertilizer, the chances that you are going to get fecal bacteria on the product are greater," Diez-Gonzalez said.
The higher incidences of fecal contamination in organic foods were linked to heavy reliance on composted animal manure for fertilizer. While conventionally grown produce may use some manure, it chiefly relies on chemical fertilizers. Past research has shown that Animal manure is the principal source of pathogens such as salmonella, campylobacter, and E. coli 0157:H7
But Diez-Gonzalez cautioned that his study does not show organic produce to be a higher risk food choice. "What the data is telling organic agriculture is there is some room for improvement," Diez-Gonzalez said.
"I don't think we need to be more concerned about organic vegetables. Based on the epidemiological evidence, we can say that both organic and conventional vegetables would pose the same [food borne pathogen] risk for consumers," he added.
But Diez-Gonzalez did acknowledge that a higher presence of generic E. coli could mean higher risk for deadly pathogens."We use E. coli as indicator that the potential could be there [for food borne pathogens]," Diez-Gonzalez explained.
Asked about how consumers -- who buy organic food for health reasons -- will react to his study showing higher fecal contamination, Diez-Gonzalez responded, "The consumer perception may not be very favorable and that is a potential consequence."
'Facade is crumbling'
Alex Avery, director of research and education at the free-market Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues, says the latest scientific study confirms years of research that organic produce may pose a higher risk for food-borne illness.
"Organic food activists, which include many activist researchers entrenched in liberal university halls, have claimed organic food superiority for years in their efforts to mold society and scare consumers into buying their politically correct fare. Now their farcical facade is crumbling," Avery told CNSNews.com.
Avery was particularly concerned about a possibly elevated risk for pathogens such as salmonella and the deadly E. coli O157:H7 in organic produce. E. coli O157:H7 can attack the kidneys and liver, causing severe internal damage and even death, especially among the elderly and young children.
Avery called the risk of contracting salmonella from organic food a "crap shoot," with the pay off being "diarrhea, typhoid fever, and Reiter's Syndrome that causes joint pain and painful urination that can last for years after the initial salmonella infection."
The University of Minnesota study found salmonella in one sample of organic lettuce and one sample of organic green peppers. The researchers collected 476 Minnesota produce samples from 32 organic farms and 129 samples from eight conventional farms. The produce analyzed included unwashed tomatoes, lettuce, green peppers, cucumbers, broccoli, apples, and strawberries.
The study reported that "an increasing number of gastrointestinal disease outbreaks have been linked to the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables," accounting for a total of 148 outbreaks between 1990 and 2001.
The study found organic lettuce had the highest rate of fecal contamination, with a rate of over 22 percent. And Avery says consumers can't assume they can simply "wash off" the fecal matter from the lettuce.
"Past research shows that E. coli 0157 can enter into the lettuce through the roots and be inside the lettuce, meaning you can't wash it off," Avery said.
Organic: 'Most especially at risk'
The controversy over the safety of organic food began in 1997, when Robert Tauxe, chief of the food-borne illness division of the Centers for Disease Control, addressed pathogens that thrive in manure. Tauxe was quoted in the Journal of the American Medical Association as saying, "Organic means a food was grown in animal manure."
The article in the 1997 Journal of the American Medical Association implicated "organically grown, unprocessed foods produced without... pesticides or preservatives" as an increasing source of food-borne illness.
The nationally syndicated television news program American Investigator also quoted the Food and Drug Administration's Virlie Walker as warning Americans that, "Most especially at risk [for food borne pathogens] are your organic products because they could be fertilized with manure."
Walker, the spokesperson for the FDA's Denver district, told the news program in June 1998, "We do encourage folks to pay special attention to cleaning their organic products."
In 2000, ABC's John Stossel, followed up with a similar television report on 20/20 about the potential bacterial dangers of organic produce.
Diez-Gonzalez believes his findings of increased fecal contamination in organic food will not surprise consumers "if they have been following the media [reports]."
"Most likely, [our study] is going to serve to prove that some in media were right in terms of the E. coli, the fecal contamination, but not in terms of pathogens," Diez-Gonzalez said.
'Lightening rod for public officials'
Avery sees the issue of organic food politics as being too hot to handle for most food regulators.
"Organic food production has become a lightening rod for public officials. The CDC does not want to touch this with a ten foot pole," Avery said.
Referring to the CDC's Tauxe -- and his comments about organic food in 1997 -- Avery said the organic lobby "went ballistic and inundated the CDC with phone calls."
"This research continues to raise the red flags that have been raised in the past by credible food safety experts like Tauxe at the CDC. How many red flags have to be raised in order to get stricter manure regulations?" Avery asked.
Avery also believes that the driving force behind organic produce, the fear of chemical pesticides, is completely unwarranted.
"The National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, found in 1999 that the cancer risk from pesticide residue is theoretically lower than the risk from naturally occurring carcinogens. Both types are too low to be appreciable cancer risks," Avery explained.
"We are still looking for the first cancer death victim from pesticide residues. But we have several examples of children killed by pathogenic bacteria on organic produce," he added.
Norwegians spurn healthy, organic and homegrown food
- Just-food.com, 14 Jun 2004, By Jonathan Tisdall
A new survey from Market and Media Institute gives Norwegian authorities plenty to chew on as findings defied recent long-term campaigns to publicise the various benefits of organic food and domestic produce.
Norwegians were increasingly health conscious until 2001 but the latest study shows a broad retreat, newspaper Nationen reports. The MMI survey found that now only 44% were concerned about a healthy diet, 22% thought it was very important that produce came from Norway, and a scant 13% were willing to pay more for organic fruits or vegetables.
Programmes to revive and promote traditional Norwegian food also seem to have missed their mark so far, with only 50% expressing affection for local products, a number stable since 1997.
A trend analyst questioned by the newspaper blamed poor information campaigns that failed to convince "trendsetters".
GMO cotton cultivation in India seen rising sharply
- Reuters (VIA AGNET), June 16, 2004, Atul Prakash
Industry officials were cited as saying on Wednesday that genetically modified (GMO) cotton sowing in India is expected to expand rapidly this year mostly due to illegal planting, with farmers showing keen interest in the new technology, GMO cotton, into its third year of use in India.
Vishwa Nath, chairman of the state-run Cotton Corporation of India, was quoted as telling Reuters that, "GMO cotton has a bright future in India. Last year, farmers were generally happy with the Bt cotton. Surely, the area will significantly rise this year."
Though no government or trade estimates are available, seed companies producing GMO cotton were cited as saying the area may surge to 3.3 million acres this year from just one million acres (404,700 hectares) in 2003.
Traders say some companies have been selling GMO seed at lower prices, without government approval. Some people also procure transgenic seed from other farmers, who have stocks from the previous crop.
Authorities had earlier destroyed some GMO cotton grown illegally by farmers.
GM Food in China
- CRI Online, 2004-5-26
GM food now has a massive global presence. China's GM cultivation remains well below that of the US.Yet her consumption of imported GM modified products has exploded. How does GM food look in the eye of consumers there?
GM food now has a massive global presence. 25million hectares of the worlds land mass are now under GM influenced cultivation. 60% of all US processed food and 7000 products on the British market, including baby food, chocolate and even staples such as bread now contain modified soybean products.
China's GM cultivation remains well below that of the US only recently reaching 650 000 hectares. Yet her consumption of imported GM modified products has exploded. In 2003 China imported $4.8billion dollars of modified soybeans, an increase of 100% over 2002. With 9% of her huge population still wanting for adequate food China's potential need for safe GM foods is huge. Recently 6 key domestically produced GM foodstuffs including soybean and rice have been approved for consumption on the Chinese market.
In Europe, in the face of strong anti GM resistance, strict laws govern GM production and labeling. In March 2002, leading to the brief halting of soybean imports, China introduced bio-safety rules of her own that demanded the strict labeling and extensive documenting of all food shipments.
It was a lawsuit brought against Nestle and a Shanghai supermarket in June 2003 which brought the GM issue out of obscurity and into the Chinese public spotlight. The case was simple. A woman bought a packet of Nesquik only later finding out from the internet it contained GM modified ingredients. In Europe it seems Nestle had promised not to use GM products whilst no such promise had been made to the apparently less fussy Chinese market. Not happy with the complete lack of labeling she hired a lawyer and took the case to court on the premise that "Customers should have the right to know which foods are genetically modified".
The case itself collapsed when the claimant pulled out yet this did not stop the start of fierce debate within the Chinese Scientific and political community over the safety and viability of GM foods. Along fault lines which mirror the Global debate Conservatives expressed fears of disease, environmental disaster and threats to existing plant and animal species coming from a science which is still immature and far from fully understood. Supporters of GM emphasized high yield, pest resistance and increased nutritional value in their backing of GM crops. They also pointed out that as a nation in which 9% of the population still struggle to get enough to eat bio- technology should be seized as a possible alleviator of suffering.
It has also become clear however that there is startling ignorance of GM foods amongst the Chinese general public. A survey carried out by the Nanjing Agricultural university discovered that less than 25% of people thought they knew anything about GM foods whilst a Green Peace survey found that 64% of Guangzhou citizens did not even realize that GM products are already sold in supermarkets.
However if there is one principle that can be taken from all of this it is surely that consumers should be fully informed of the benefits and risks associated with biotechnology and ensured the right to make their own decisions in the marketplace.(
Country may become ag-biotech star
- China Daily, 2004-06-15
China could become an agriculture biotechnology leader in the next couple of years.
"China's use of ag-biotech is substantial in this global biotechnology revolution," said Dr Neal Van Alfen, dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, University of California, Davis.
Alfen was speaking at the 16th National Agricultural Biotechnology Council (NABC), which ended Tuesday.
The three-day event, held at the University of Guelph in Canada, is one of the world's pre-eminent agricultural biotechnology conferences. It touches on issues emerging from the development of ag-biotech, ecological systems, life quality and food health and safety concerns.
China large population represents a potential market to take advantage of agricultural biotechnology advances.
In the past decade, China has seen a double-digit increase rate in adoption of new agriculture bio-technologies, Alfen said. It has the fastest adoption pace in Asia and one of the fastest among developing countries.
China planted 700,000 hectares of transgenic cotton three years ago. That figure has now jumped to 2.8 million hectares, ranking 5th in the world. Only the United States, Argentina, Canada and Brazil, at 42.8 million, 13.9 million, 4.4 million and 3.0 million hectares were ahead by the end of 2003.
"China will take the lead in the next five years," said Robert Wager, professor with Malaspina University.
Ninety per cent of Chinese farmers are small producers who grow one or two hectares of land. The number compares with some thousands of hectares per farmer in the United States.
Still, China has successfully planted transgenic cotton varieties.
Known as Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) cotton, the variety helps deal with pests that can mean huge losses for farmers.
While pushing ahead on cotton, however, China is taking a conservative approach to corn and soybeans.
Delegates from developing and developed countries backed the importance of research.
Still, opinions are divided but "hunger" tops the list of pros to quicken the development of ag-biotechnology.
At the same time, the imbalance of research input and importance attached to bio-technology divides rich and poor countries.
Kanayo Nwanze, director general of the Africa Rice Centre complaints that "little research has been done on sub-Saharan crops so far."
Dr Klaus Ammann, with Switzerland-based University of Bern, told China Daily that China is progressive in establishing institutes and using talents in recent years.
More sorry than safe
- Spiked Online, by Brendan O'Neill, 16 June 2004
'If everything we did had to be absolutely safe, risk-free, proven to have no adverse outcomes for anyone or anything, we'd never get anywhere. Buildings wouldn't go up, planes wouldn't get off the ground, medical breakthrough would come to a standstill, science would be stifledů. Shall I go on?'
Professor Sir Colin Berry is not a big fan of the 'precautionary principle', the idea that scientists, medical researchers, technologists and just about everybody else these days should err on the side of caution lest they cause harm to human health or the environment. Berry is one of Britain's leading scientists; he has held some of the most prestigious posts in British medicine, including head of the Department of Morbid Anatomy at the Royal London Hospital from 1976 to 2002. Now he watches as his 'good profession' threatens to be undermined by what he says is an 'unscientific demand' to put precaution first.
One of the most common definitions of the precautionary principle is that put forward by Soren Holm and John Harris in their critique of it in Nature magazine in 1999: 'When an activity raises threats of serious or irreversible harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures that prevent the possibility of harm shall be taken even if the causal link between the activity and the possible harm has not been proven or the causal link is weak and the harm is unlikely to occur.' For Berry, this is one of the biggest problems with the precautionary principle - the notion that we could ever fully predict the outcome of an experiment or piece of research before it is complete, and that if we can't then we should play it safe. 'It doesn't allow for the unknown', he says. 'Or for taking a risk in order to do something potentially useful.'
Berry says it is in the nature of scientific and medical research that you start out before you have all the information to hand - indeed, almost all of the great scientific advancements of the past 200 years have been a process of 'learning as we went along'. 'Consider blood transfusions', he says. 'When we started doing them, we knew about some blood groups but there were others we didn't know about. We only came to know of these other blood groups when patients started to have transfusion reactions. There was an unknown, but we were able to learn from it and refine the process.'
He wonders whether, if the precautionary principle had been about for the past 200 years rather than the past 20, breakthroughs such as blood transfusions would ever have been made. 'I certainly don't think we would have radiotherapy or the various applications of x-rays if Marie Curie had been under pressure to comply with the precautionary principle', he says. In the early twentieth century, Polish-born physicist and chemist Curie devoted her working life to the study of radium, paving the way for nuclear physics and the treatment of cancer. It cost her her life - she died from leukaemia in 1934, almost blind, her fingers burned by radium. 'Curie's work caused her "irreversible harm"', says Berry. 'The precautionary principle would not have permitted her to take such risks, and the world would have been a worse place for it.'
Berry says that when he challenges 'our obsession with safety', some imagine that he is leading the charge for being reckless, for throwing caution to the wind, as the saying goes. He insists that isn't so. 'Precaution is a part of everyday life. It is sensible to do things that minimise risks to ourselves and to others. You shouldn't close your eyes when you cross the road; you should stub out your cigarette before going to sleep.' But, says Berry, problems arise when precaution is transformed into an abstract principle that we're expected to live our lives by. 'Safety is a description of an approach, rather than an absolute state', he says. 'We can never be absolutely safe and free from risk. Indeed, aspiring to such a state brings its own problems.'
For Berry, there is a great irony in the precautionary principle - it causes its own harm; our obsession with keeping safe can have the effect of exposing us to new dangers. On a simple, everyday level, he cites the example of the choices we make about commuting. He says that those who opted to travel by road rather than rail following the Hatfield train crash of October 2000, which killed four passengers and injured 30, had in fact exposed themselves to an increased risk of injury or death. 'Road accidents kill more people than railway accidents do', he says. 'Yet because there is a perception that rail travel is unacceptably risky, some people opt to go by car instead. But the death rate on the road per billion person miles travelled is about 12 times that of the railways.'
Berry says the precautionary principle has a similarly ironic and detrimental impact in the world of medicine. As a father, grandfather and doctor who started his career at the Institute of Child Health at Great Ormond Street, Berry has a special attachment to child health. Later this month, the World Health Organisation is hosting a conference in Budapest under the heading 'Children's heath and the environment', where some of the great and the good of the children's health world will debate what kind of precautionary measures can be taken to ensure that children around the world 'grow in an environment that allows them to reach their highest attainable level of health'. Berry is all in favour of giving children, wherever they are, the best healthcare - but he argues that precautionary measures, without the backing of evidence and data, are not always the solution.
He cites the controversial issue of SIDS - Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, aka cot death - about which parents are given lots of often contradictory advice. Berry says that in the 1980s, the favoured precautionary measure to guard against the possibility of your baby falling victim to SIDS was to lay her on her side or front. 'We tended to consider babies and young infants as being rather like the unconscious patient', he says, 'where it is not clear that all the reflexes around the nose and mouth, for breathing and swallowing and so on, are finely tuned. So parents were told to put babies on their side or front, as you would do with an unconscious or stroke-troubled patient. It seemed like a reasonable, precautionary measure to take. Now we know that, in fact, it cost lives.'
Berry says that subsequent observations made in Australia and New Zealand, and a case-controlled study in Britain in the 1990s, showed that reversing this policy and putting babies to sleep on their backs instead reduced the death rate from SIDS. In the UK, it fell from about 1,300 to 1,400 a year to about 300 to 400, he says. 'With the best intentions the precautionary measure of putting babies on their sides or fronts caused misery; a great many precious baby lives were lost because of what seemed like a reasonable precaution. It was one of those things that just happened to be wrong. This shows that we need data - that being precautionary, taking safety measures without testing the evidence, is not enough.'
For Berry, the precautionary principle most clearly becomes a potential life-threatener when applied to the third world. He becomes especially animated when we discuss the outbreak of cholera in Peru in the early 1990s. In 1991, an epidemic of cholera, which had earlier been eradicated in Peru, claimed around 6,000 lives and caused illness among another 800,000. It spread from Peru to Columbia, Brazil, Chile, Guatemala. Berry describes it as 'one of the major epidemics of the twentieth century', and says precaution played a part in causing it.
It has since been discovered that the epidemic was, in part, a result of the Peruvian authorities' decision to stop chlorinating drinking water supplies - and that one reason they stopped doing this was because reports issued by the American Environmental Protection Agency had claimed there was a link between drinking chlorinated water and an increased risk of cancer (a link which the EPA has since admitted is not 'scientifically supportable'). 'Chlorinated water would have prevented the outbreak', says Berry. 'The water production and cleaning system had gone wrong before the outbreak, so it wasn't just that they stopped chlorinating water and then, bang, cholera arrived. But in a deteriorating situation, the failure to chlorinate - based on the principles of precaution and bad science - helped to make things a whole lot worse than they might have been.'
Berry points to the restrictions imposed on DDT - the pesticide used to get rid of malaria-carrying mosquitoes - as another example of how the 'application of precaution' can cause death and disease. In some third world countries where malaria had been all but eradicated over the past 20 years, there have been epidemics of the disease since DDT was restricted. Currently malaria is on the rise in all the tropical regions of the planet; in 2000, it killed more than one million and made 300million seriously ill. 'Campaigners claimed that DDT was bad for the environment; they said that it caused harm to American birds of prey. I'm sorry, but why should people in the third world at risk from malaria care about American birds of prey? Decisions about these things should be based on local needs and on empirical evidence.'
The same should go for genetically modified crops, reckons Berry. 'If we want to miss out on this new technology, that's our lookout. But we should not be in a position to restrict the use of GM in the third world. As an African said recently, "You go ahead and ban GM crops, but can we eat first?"' Berry says the restriction of the use of potentially life-saving technologies in the third world is 'a kind of environmental imperialism - if something is perceived to be bad for some American bird, then no one else in the world can use it either. That is absurd; we really cannot go on like this.'
For Berry, issues of scientific and medical advancement, and the policymaking decisions that arise from them, should be based on two things
- what people need, and good, rigorous data. 'Almost no new technology can be assured to be risk-free. If your position is that you don't accept any incremental risk, you are in effect saying no to all new technologies, whether it be a better anaesthetic, a better car, a better aeroplane, a safer environment for children - in fact anything worth having.'
Professor Sir Colin Berry is speaking at 'Science, precaution and the future of innovation', a debate organised by spiked at the EuroScience Open Forum in Stockholm on 26 August 2004. For more information visit the spiked-events page.