We get CJD and bile duct cancer so others get rich I'm no longer swallowing experts' advice on what's safe to eat

We get CJD and bile duct cancer so others get rich
I'm no longer swallowing experts' advice on what's safe to eat

May 28, 2001 The Guardian by Felicity Lawrence
Last week the assembled ranks of professors from the Royal Society, our unofficial academy of sciences, told us to stop being Luddite and embrace biotechnological advances.

Professor Patrick Bateson, chairman of the society's working group on genetically modified animals, launched its report with a catalogue of the benefits they could bring: cures for intractable diseases, relief from suffering for millions of patients, help for the developing world. GM chickens resistant to salmonella, GM pigs free of stomach disease, and GM cattle immune to foot and mouth could be on our plates in 10 years. While acknowledging risks that needed to be addressed, he and his colleagues argued that deep public mistrust of and lack of understanding about science must be overcome.

A few days later, expert scientific advisers to the food standards agency alerted us to the possibility of dioxin contamination of milk from farms next to foot and mouth funeral pyres, constructed on the advice of yet more scientific advisers.

No wonder people feel confused. In history's judgment, will those opposing genetic modification look like the poor weavers who destroyed newfangled looms in the 19th century? What if we, in our half-informed confusion and panic at every food scare, turn out to be rebels against liberating progress?

In the world view of the scientific experts, people who reject "unnatural" agricultural interventions or mass factory processing are hopeless reactionaries. They despair of the ignorance that sees all chemicals as dangerous rather than the stuff we are made of, and that draws an imaginary division between artificial and natural. We share about 30% of our genes with a banana, after all, as another member of the GM working party, Professor Ian McConnell, said. Dioxins in milk are diluted to parts per billion before they get to us, so what's the worry?

But when Prof McConnell is quoted as saying that "everything will be tested to see if these animals are safe to eat before they get to the marketplace", it's time to draw up a neo-Luddite charter.

Britain has just recorded its 100th victim of CJD, the human form of mad cow disease. We no longer trust experts who say they can fully anticipate the consequences of accelerated change to natural patterns, or that our exposure is so limited the risks are too small to bother with.

In many fields, where there are uncertainties about the extent or nature of hazards, the idea of a precautionary principle has become common currency. But with the food supply chain it is still struggling to be recognised, as Dr Tim Lobstein points out in the latest consumer policy review.

Moreover, technology is not neutral: its advances reflect the economic systems that create them. And it is legitimate to ask, for whose benefit are these advances? If GM technology concentrates power over food production in the hands of those developing it, we are right to ask whether we really need it. The pyres were needed to cure an economic disease in an agriculture which requires maximum yields.

Processes that accelerate change in living organisms beyond previous experience should be treated with suspicion. It may be 30 years before the effect of our experimenting becomes known. You need look no further for confirmation of this than an astonishing piece of research on liver cancer published last week in the leading medical journal, Gut.

The authors, led by Dr Simon Taylor-Robinson from Imperial College school of medicine in London, reported a 15-fold increase between 1968 and 1996 in the incidence of a previously rare form of liver cancer: cancer of the bile duct. The liver detoxifies the blood and the toxins that are removed hit the bile duct. The emergence of this sort of cancer is therefore unusually precise evidence of toxicological damage.

The authors, respectable and cautious scientists, are investigating what the causes could be and although they have some prime suspects in their sights, they are all too aware of the dangers of creating alarm by premature speculation. But we consumers may quite reasonably decide we cannot wait.

The incubation period for the cancer points to some profound change in the past 30-40 years: the industrialisation of farming and with it the use of nitrates; the mass processing of food dependent on additives, in particular preservatives; and the rise in persistent fat-soluble pollutants, especially organo-chlorines (from plastics and pesticides) and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, from the fluids used in electrical transformers).

These are the lines of inquiry Taylor-Robinson and his colleagues want to pursue. The figures they have on soil contamination already show a remarkable mirroring of tumours and environmental pollution. The use of organochlorine compounds in plastics and pesticides got going seriously after the war. If you burn them you get carcinogenic dioxins. (Why were we using old railway sleepers, sprayed with organo-chlorines and classified as toxic waste in Germany, for those pyres?)

Trawling through toxicological data on additives and residues in food will be more difficult. Independent public funds for tests on these have been virtually eradicated and industry does the work. But nitrates from farming and nitrites used as preservatives are in the frame.

While we wait for further research we might want to ask that question again: for whose benefit?

The industrial-scale use of nitrate fertilisers to boost production was a postwar phenomenon. Nitrate-processing chemical works proliferated during the war to make explosives. By 1945 a huge industry was producing nitrates that were no longer required. They were switched to agricultural use as part of the drive to make us self-sufficient in food. Intensive farming was born and, with it, an agriculture dependent on heavy doses of pesticides including organochlorine compounds. Few now deny that we need a radical policy rethink.

Preservatives are often cited as the justification for all food additives. Without them, we would die from food poisoning. But there are other effective and safer ways of keeping food - fridges, pasteurisation, better hygiene in factories.

Who knows, perhaps none of these is the culprit or perhaps a combination of them will be. In another 30 years' time perhaps the effects of toxic load will have become clear. Or perhaps there are none and a new generation of scientists will be able to laugh at our superstitions.

But meanwhile, being a neo-Luddite seems sane. The 21st-century Luddite feels almost as powerless the original ones. But we can at least use today's protest of choice, not violence, but economic rebellion. Where possible, boycott.

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