Some Chemicals With Your Lettuce Sir?

30 07 2009
Organic Pig...or is it?

Organic Pig...or is it?

Here in the UK organic food has become quite a major money spinner, with most large supermarket chains offering organic options. For example if I pop into my local Sainsburys I can buy the standard issue tomato for say £1.78 per kg, or buy the organic range ones for quite a bit more. There are also shops that specialise in organic produce where I could, if was substantially richer or insane, buy a single avocado for £1.80 ($4.50).

Today the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) released a report , which took the form of a ‘systematic review of literature’, carried out by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). LSHTM’s team of researchers, reviewed all papers published over the past 50 years that related to the nutrient content and health differences between organic and conventional food. This systematic review is the most comprehensive study in this area that has been carried out to date (according to the FSA). The conclusion it reached was that “organic food is no healthier and provides no significant nutritional benefit compared with conventionally produced food “.

This set off something of a firestorm in the newspapers comments section which brought up some very good points.

1)Just exactly what is organic food anyway?
To me the term has always been very woolly, conjuring up visions of hardy smock-wearing individuals toiling in the fields whilst chewing on barley stalks. I assumed it meant that no ‘artificial’ pesticides or fertiliser had been used on crops and no hormones, antibiotics, moisturising cream etc administered to animals. But what is an artificial fertiliser? I can use crop rotation and plant lupins or some other nitrogen fixing plant one year to fertilise the soil, but why not just bung on some nitrogen fertiliser and grow more food crops instead? Does that make me non-organic? Which brings me onto the next point…
2)Who defines what organic food is?
Here in the UK it is in fact the European Union which has set down a Compendium of UK Organic Standards. Farmers who want to label their produce must adhere to the standards and be certified by a Government approved body such as the Soil Association. The UK Soil Association does have an attempt at defining organic on their website saying that ‘artificial chemical fertilisers are prohibited’ (so nitrogen fertiliser is out) in preference of clover crop rotation. However they also say that pesticides are ‘severely restricted’ (ie not banned) although it seems OK to use copper sulphate as a fungicide.

It was interesting to see the polarising effect of this study, which divided people mainly into two camps. One side was more or less along the lines of ‘I don’t want to put chemicals into my body so therefore organic is better’ while the others were put off by the expense and lack of clarity over exactly what the supposed benefits were, assuming nutrition is not one of them. Clearly modern farming practise has greatly increased food production, which presumably is a good thing.

Unfortunately the effects of fertiliser/pesticide or agricultural practises on the environment were outside the remit of this report. I think a most people do take the overall environmental impact into consideration when buying organic and although I haven’t seen any studies it seems to me quite obvious that they can have an impact – look at the problems with the Rotorua Lakes or Mad Cow disease (BSE) for example. Certainly when it comes to animal welfare and to an extent GMO crops I would tend to be on the side of ‘organic’.
However I think the study is useful in order to show those who run a mile at the word ‘chemical’ that in fact their $2 carrot and my 20c one aren’t actually as different as they may think.


UK Roundup 27/07/09

27 07 2009
Geller Jacko

Close Personal Friends

Uri’s Story: Uri Geller, well known source of amusement for many, has squeezed the last few drops of fame by association  out of his ‘close personal’ friendship with Michael Jackson by appearing in a documentary on the UK’s ITV channel. An almost evangelical sounding Geller waxed lyrical over his time spent with Jackson, pausing to break down in tears from time to time. He peppered his dialogue with references to ‘energy’, managed to squeeze in a reference to his attempt to help Jacksons broken foot while confessing he was ‘not a healer’ and even got in a spoon bend. Most amusing moment was when MJ left a message on Geller’s answering machine expressing his heartfelt desire to be the first pop star to moonwalk on the actual moon – at least he wasn’t a lunar conspiracy theorist. Hopefully this shoddy, hastily thrown together and frankly weird programme will be the last we hear of him for a while, although somehow I doubt it. If it’s shown in NZ I’d recommend it for amusement value only.
Hatch ‘n’ Match
The Church of England have upset almost everyone (again) by launching a new service that combines baptism and marriage in a sort of ecclesiastical buy one, get one free offer, with the aim of increasing church attendances.  Conservative christians are upset that the new scheme acts as tacit approval of sex before marriage, while most non-religious commentators found themselves unable to stop laughing.
Meanwhile the UK police force proves it is an equal opportunity employer, and sensitive to the needs of its officers by allowing pagans in the force to have their own allocated days off (summer solstice etc). Apparently there are more than 500 pagan police officers in the UK. A representative of the Police Association said “This is nothing to do with black magic, or devil worshipping.Witchcraft is not the hocus pocus, puff of smoke, turning people into frogs stuff you see on the TV.” PC Andy Pardy, of Hertfordshire Police, a Heathen who worships Norse gods, said the public had nothing to fear. Which I think we can all agree, is good news.

What’s Wrong With Catching the Measles!

22 07 2009
A child with Small Pox in Bangladesh 1973

A child with the now eradicated small pox in Bangladesh 1973

A recent article on the warning of a measles epidemic in New Zealand bought out some of the weird and wonderful ideas a (hopefully small) proportion of New Zealanders have about the measles.  What a polarizing subject it is!  The majority of people who were questioning the vaccination were taking what on the face of it is a reasonable stance in that the state should not be able to dictate health care to the public.

For a comprehensive discussion of the scientific reasons why such an argument is flawed I would suggest that you read the Science Based Medicine Blog.  But to summarize there are two principle issues namely herd immunity and risk.

There are members of the community who cannot have vaccinations due to age (such as babies) or due to medical conditions and therefore the only protection that they are afforded is herd immunity to avoid contracting preventable diseases.

Depending on the disease, for effective herd immunity the threshold for the percentage of the population to be immunized is between 75% and 95%.  Effectively, while there is a high number of immunized people, a parent who chooses not to immunize their child will be taking advantage of the herd immunity.  However, when to many parents refuse vaccinations the threshold drops to a point where the disease can thrive and even cause an epidemic.  Once an unvaccinated child contracts a disease they then have to deal with the next principle issue of risk.

The statistical likelihood of a child being harmed by a vaccine is considerably lower than if they actually contract the disease.  Diseases like the measles will cause a small proportion of children significant long term harm or even death due to pneumonia or brain swelling caused by encephalitis.  Such risks are dramatically reduced through the use of vaccination.  People with immunodeficiencies are far also more likely to suffer the extreme effects of these diseases.

So, when many parents refuse to vaccinate their children, it ends up putting many other children at risk.

That’s enough of the dry stuff.  I want to point out some of the pearl’s of wisdom out of the many anecdotal stories that came through the readers comments to the article:

Leigh # 4 asks:

“I would also like to question why the alternative homeopathic vaccination program that was available 20 years ago, which I used successfully, has been removed from the market? Yes, we middle-class parents like to question- and with very good reason!”

I can probably answer this one – it’s because injecting children with magic water does not vaccinate them against diseases!

Phil # 16 after accusing all studies that show the benefits of vaccines as being fraudulent stated:

“Please don’t vaccinate your children, they need to get measles, mumps, chicken pox etc. No-one wishes suffering for any child, but the human body needs to be exposed to these things to work correctly later in life. I believe, through years of research, that vaccinations may well be child abuse.”

So everyone who has had a vaccination and not subsequently contracted disease can not expect to have a body that works correctly later in life…show me the evidence.  Also, I would suggest you observe a child going through the discomfort of the measles, mumps, or the chicken pox – allowing your child to be inflicted with such diseases when they are preventable could also be argued as child abuse.

Les # 19 Does his best to totally butcher year 9 probability:

“Educated parents are aware of the risks, that’s why. A basic risk analysis will show the vaccine isn’t worth it. From the MOH own vaccination site: 1 in 1000 measles cases get inflammation of the brain so using 100 cases a year, it will take ten years before someone should have that complication. However, the same site shows the vaccine causes convulsions in one in 3000 recipients, and inflammation of the brain in 1 in a million. Assuming even 30,000 doses a year, thats at least 10 having convulsions. Not my child thank you”

So lets fairly compare 100 people who are not vaccinated and contracted the measles with 30,000 people who are given a vaccination…spot the imbalance!  In fact according the website if one thousand children contract the measles approximately one will get inflammation of the brain versus 0.001 children in one thousand who suffer inflammation of the brain from the vaccination (of course there still will be a small proportion of vaccinated people who get the measles – but usually because there is no herd immunity!).

Phil # 62 After providing an anecdote that shed no light on the discussion he said:

“Herd ammunity has been proven to be a load of hype, and cannot work. Outbreaks will always happen, and some cases will result in death. No vaccination campaign will ever stop that, even if you choose to believe it will. Vaccines are fraud. End of story, and the MoH knows this but will never back down in their promotion of it. So sad, for the millions who are harmed through vaccines. The diseases will happen anyway: it is not vaccines that has stopped them.”

And small pox just stopped itself…

I thought that Tim #31 gave a good summing up of the skeptical position:

“How is it that in this day and age we have people who believe that vaccines cause autism, 9/11 was carried out by the CIA, the moonlandings were a hoax etc etc. BUT they don’t believe the brain damage and harm the real diseases like measles can cause?

I am a ‘middle class, educated parent’ whatever that means. I say it is a crime not to vaccimate your kids when they are supplied free of charge by the government. What will happen when we have a polio outbreak? or worse… Just get the poor kids vaccinated NOW.”

Apollo 11 Degaussed?

18 07 2009

Buzz Aldrin Apollo 11NASA’s recent reported admission that the original footage from the Apollo footage was degaussed along with 200,000 other tapes has resulted in a flurry of discussion on New Zealand’s Stuff website.  This combined with the release of re-mastered digital upgrades of footage taken of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s moon landing has provided additional ‘evidence’ for moon hoax conspiracy theorists that the USA never sent people to the moon.

However, I would be keen to know if anyone has a link to the news conference where Richard Nafzger, a NASA engineer, is alleged to have made the admission of the degaussing.  The news story reported on Stuff originated with Reuters and the identical story has been reported all over the world.  The NASA website simply states that a final report is nearly completed in relation to the missing tapes that will be released in the near future – or is this further evidence of the conspiracy?

It goes to show how far reaching the 2001 documentary “Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?” has entered into the popular consciousness and contributed to the creation of a bizarre but persistent conspiracy theory that is alive and well in New Zealand.  While many of the comments on the Stuff website were either indifferent or ridiculing the moon hoax conspiracy, a small but vocal minority were insistent that the USA never sent people to the moon.

One of the fervent moon hoax conspirators called ‘Paul T’ made a number of comments claiming that the classic image of Buzz Aldrin used on the Stuff website (and reposted above) is evidence of a fake as it shows evidence of having multiple lighting sources aside from the sun.

For a more comprehensive explanation, I will direct you to Phil Plait’s excellent Bad Astronomy website, but briefly Paul T is right – it does have multiple lighting sources, but not from stage lights.  The obvious lighting source is the sun and the others are the reflective surfaces around Buzz in the photo namely the moon itself!  The moon’s surface dust reflects a small percentage of the sunlight (which is why we see the moon from the Earth) and it serves to slightly illuminate images.  The exposure length and aperture of the camera will also be important in determining the brightness of the reflected light.

‘Paul T’ also makes the ridiculous claim that there were astronauts who were going to speak out about the hoax who died in mysterious circumstances.  This is presumably a reference to the tragic death of the three Apollo 1 astronauts in a launch pad fire.  All I can say is – show me the evidence!

However, the Stuff’s decision to focus on what are minor points in the scheme of the Apollo moon landing are unfortunate given its wide readership in New Zealand.  Lets hope they have something more of celebratory tone for Apollo 11’s 40th anniversary on Monday the 20th of July.

UK Roundup 17/07/09

17 07 2009

In Ireland this week some labourers discovered an image of the Virgin Mary holding a baby in the remains of a tree trunk that they had just felled. The grain of the willow tree revealed by the chainsaw cut left the vague shape of Mary, enough to impress locals who immediately started a petition to turn the stump into a permanent shrine. Now these things happen every so often, and there is certainly no doubt that having a full time shrine would bring a bit of money into a fairly rural area of Limerick, which I’m sure was a consideration for some of those signing the petition.

However it was the reaction from the church that caught my attention. Father Willie Russell, the parish priest, said: “There’s nothing there, it’s just a tree. You can’t worship a tree. A tree is a tree. A person with imagination is a person with imagination.” While Father Paul Finnerty, the spokesman for the Limerick Diocese, said: “The Church’s response to phenomena of this type is one of great scepticism. While we do not wish in any way to detract from devotion to Our Lady, we would also wish to avoid anything which might lead to superstition.” On one hand this reaction is encouraging, however a Catholic priest ‘wishing to avoid anything which encourages superstition’ strikes me as somewhat strange. Perhaps he is working from a different definition of ‘superstition’ than I am.

As the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landings hits the news, so do the large numbers who believe the whole thing was some sort of cosmic hoax. It’s quite amazing that people are so willing to believe in conspiracy theories that fly in the face of such overwhelming evidence and basic common sense. Without going into the seemingly interminable arguments over whether the flag should have been waving, or the lander should have made a bigger impression etc etc it seems to me that to perpetrate such a hoax would have been a bigger achievement than actually going to the moon. The fact that the Russians didn’t immediately debunk such a cover up, and the sheer number of people who would have been in on the scheme in the US seems to me pretty conclusive, given that government ministers today can’t even claim a few extra quid on expenses without being discovered.

UK Roundup 07/07/09

8 07 2009

Richard Dawkins managed to get on the front pages this week by helping to subsidise the UK’s first ‘Atheist Camp’ for 8-17 year old children. Created as an antidote to traditional faith based camps run by various churches and the Scouts (didn’t realise the Scouts were particularly religious but apparently they pray from time to time) the camp will teach critical thinking and evolution alongside the usual activities such as canoeing, getting sunburnt and being stung by wasps. Sounds like a great idea. In fact Dawkins hasn’t really got that much to do with it – he just put up some money to help out, but that didn’t stop the usual torrent of abuse in his direction. I imagine he’s pretty used to it by now.

In other news The Sun, that erstwhile bastion of truth and light, has surveyed 1000 of it’s readers and found that 60% of them had visited a medium, 40% believed their star signs and 90% believe in ghosts. It also said 72% believed they had psychic powers themselves. Not sure if this is depressing or just confirms my suspicions about Sun readers.

Meanwhile in Melbourne, a nightclub that has been getting a lot of bad press due to violent incidents taking place there (including two murders, brawls etc etc) has sorted out its problems by calling upon a psychic to ‘banish evil spirits’ from the venue. Apparently five separate malign forces were discovered and sent packing. Although as one wit noted in true Aussie style, they would probably be better off blacklisting all the w**nkers who go there in the first place.