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Organic farming is 3 times better than GM? Not so fast.

The Guardian today has a Comment is Free piece, Genetically modifying and patenting seeds isn’t the answer. Comment is Free seems to have lower standards for truth than regular articles – I’ve written about previous CiF articles playing fast and loose with the facts on topics as broad as animal testing, GM soy and mitochondria donation. This time it’s the turn of organic farming to get the “sorta true but not really” treatment.

Holding all other variables constant, certainly a large wheat field will produce more if it is treated with chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers. But organic agriculture, and especially permaculture and traditional peasant agriculture, don’t hold variables constant at all. Each farming culture adapts over time to the unique characteristics of the local soil, biome and climate. Numerous studies show that when organic agriculture is practised well, it can bring double or triple the yields of conventional techniques. With intensive intercropping on mixed permaculture farms, yields can be higher still. It is a myth that mechanised, chemical, GMO agriculture maximises yield per hectare.

What would you expect to see when you clicked on “numerous studies”? A collection of studies? A review? How about the brochure of an organic food company.

Search through that, and you’ll eventually trace the claim back to a paper called “Organic agriculture and the global food supply”, which helpfully is online for free (PDF).

Read that, and you get a slightly clearer view. In the developed world, Organic farming yields slightly less than conventional farming – typically it looks like organic farming gives you about 90-95% as much as you would get from regular farming.

In the developing world, the picture is different, and these miraculous twofold yields start appearing. Good news, right? Except…

At present, agriculture in developing countries is generally less intensive than in the developed world. Organic production is often compared with local, resource-poor methods of subsistence farming, which may exhibit low yields because of limited access by farmers to natural resources, purchased inputs, or extension services.

In other words, this paper isn’t comparing organic food against state of the art pesticides and genetic engineering, it’s organic vs. the most basic sort of subsistence farming. Bringing any sort of organised, scientific methods into farming will give you more crops, regardless of whether the science is based on organic farming or conventional farming (incidentally, this actually disproves the author’s own claim that “permaculture” and “traditional peasant agriculture” are the best!). This doesn’t prove that organic farming is better than conventional farming at all – in terms of crop yields, in the developed world where pesticides and fertilizers are commonplace, it gives lower yields. There may be other reasons to replace conventional farming with organic, but crop yields are not one.

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The Sun, 20 mph speed limits, and a lot of nonsense

CONTROVERSIAL 20mph speed limits designed to cut road casualties are not working, official figures show.

So says The Sun anyway*. So, what’s the problem?

A report from the Department for Transport shows there were 2,262 fatalities and injuries in 2011 on 20mph roads in built-up areas — 24 per cent more than in 2010 when 1,827 were recorded.

That compares to a one per cent reduction in casualties on 30mph roads in built-up areas.

How many people died or were injured on roads with a 30 mph speed limit then? The Sun doesn’t say, but the official data is easy enough to find. In 2010, 127,377 people were killed or injured on a road with a 30 mph speed limit. In 2011, it was 125,494.

In other words, that “1% drop” corresponds to almost 2000 fewer people were injured on 30 mph roads, while 400 more people were injured on 20 mph roads. That is a net decrease of 1448 injuries/deaths.

Just looking at the number of injuries on 20 mph roads is not going to tell you about how effective 20 mph speed limits are. You have to compare them with other speed limits. Data about how many 20 mph zones there are is hard to find, which makes making sense of the Sun‘s data difficult, but it certainly looks like a lot of them have been springing up lately, so an increase in injuries is to be expected – if there are more roads, there will always be more accidents!

Studies of 20 mph zones consistently find that the same stretch of road will see fewer accidents and fewer injuries if the speed limit decreases from 30 mph to 20 mph, especially if this decrease is enforced by speed bumps and other traffic calming measures.

* Incidentally, far from being “controversial”, surveys consistently find around 74% in favour of 20 mph speed limits and just 12% against them.

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The Telegraph’s “depraved sexual fantasies”

A couple of weeks ago, The Telegraph ran an article titled “Women’s sexual fantasies less depraved than men’s“. I didn’t see the article at the time, but it’s clearly gone on to have a big second life on social networks, remaining in the top five most read articles on the site – and with a title like that, it’s not hard to see why. After all, it hits all sorts of popular myths and memes: men are pervs, women are innocent maidens, Fifty Shades of Grey is somehow revolutionary. It’s just a shame that the article itself doesn’t back it up.

First of all, despite what the article claims, this research doesn’t seem to have been published yet. The only record I can find of it is a press release on the University of Granada website, titled “A study Shows that Men and Women Have the Same Sexual Fantasies“. That’s… well, that’s precisely the opposite of what the headline says.

Even The Telegraph admits in the article itself that:

The team said there were not “significant” differences between men’s and women’s racy thoughts, but that there were subtle differences between the sexes in the scenarios that they imagined.

Just as importantly, there’s no way of saying what’s “depraved” and what isn’t (and a Telegraph journalist would hardly be my first choice to draw the line…) Men tended to report fantasizing more frequently about group sex while women said they fantasized more about submission. Why is one more “depraved” than the other?

In fact, talking about what sound like safe, fairly common sexual fantasies in terms like “depravity” is probably just about the worst way you could report on them. As the press release says:

The University of Granada researchers point out that having sexual fantasies “favors some aspects as sexual desire and arousal”. In therapeutic terms, researchers think that it is not only the presence of lack of sexual fantasies what should be considered, but also the patient’s attitude towards them.

If  The Telegraph is calling people depraved for having what seem to be fairly common fantasies, is that really going to improve their attitude towards them?

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No drug is tested on humans, except all the drugs tested on humans

Another day, another “science” piece on Comment is Free that plays fast and loose with the science. Let’s get this over with.

When a dog with a life-threatening uterine infection was recently carried into my veterinary practice, I was confident we could save her. Following a rapid infusion of intravenous fluids and antibiotics, I performed emergency surgery. Partly because of the drugs she was given, “Annie” recovered well. I had the luxury of knowing they had all been tested on other animals of the same species, and were unlikely to inadvertently cause any harm.

Unfortunately, my brother does not have that luxury. He works as a resident in a hospital emergency department, and although the drugs he uses have also been thoroughly tested on animals, this doesn’t provide quite the same level of comfort. It is one of the tragedies of modern medicine that adverse reactions to pharmaceuticals cause thousands of potentially avoidable deaths.

Sadly, dogs are just as susceptible to drug side effects as humans are. But more importantly, “I had the luxury of knowing they had all been tested on other animals of the same species [...] my brother does not have that luxury“? That sounds to me like a fairly strong implication that drugs are never tested on humans. This is obviously, blindingly untrue. Any drug has to go through multiple stages of human testing, from safety tests in healthy volunteers, to short laboratory tests, to huge randomised trials involving thousands of patients – sometimes lasting decades. At every stage of the process, the patients are carefully observed, and (in theory*) any side effects are noted and analysed. Indeed, Andrew Knight admits this in the next two paragraphs:

Modern drugs are more carefully studied than ever before. After lengthy tests on animals, those considered safe, and potentially effective, enter very limited human trials. About 92% are then weeded out and deemed unsafe or ineffective.

The remaining 8% are some of the most closely scrutinised compounds on the planet. You might be forgiven, therefore, for assuming they are safe. But at least 39 studies over three decades have ranked adverse drug reactions as an important cause of hospital deaths. Only heart disease, cancer and stroke are more reliably lethal.

No drug is ever tested on humans, except for every single drug ever, all of which are tested on humans!

Adverse drug reactions are always something drugs companies should try to reduce, but for the vast majority, it’s not the case that they weren’t picked up in testing – cases like thalidomide, where no-one knew the risk until pregnant women started using it, are the exception, not the norm. Most adverse side effects that are known about and carefully measured, and the doctor will have had to measure up the risks versus the benefits for each before prescribing the drugs – if you look at the study he links to, 75% of severe reactions to drugs are known side effects caused by dose, and a lot of the rest are allergic reactions. As the paper itself says “This may suggest that many [adverse drug reactions] are due to the use of drugs with unavoidably high toxicity.” We could test as hard as possible, but there would always be drugs that could never be 100% safe.

The author of the piece, Andrew Knight, has written a book on the subject, linked to in the piece (it also apparently focuses more on data than debate, which is usually good, though admittedly the only scholarly review I could find accused the book of bias in the way it analysed this data – Knight’s rebuttal is here), and he does seem to be someone knowledgeable in the field. But that doesn’t change the fact that this particular column is bad. It defends a reasonable viewpoint – let’s try to find ways to test drugs on computers or in petri dishes rather than having to use live animals – with nonsense. Even if we did everything this column recommends, and managed to completely replace animal testing with simulations, I don’t see how it’d cause a significant change in the number of reactions to drugs. It might plenty of other good effects – not least, reducing the number of animals used, of course – but that wouldn’t be one of them.

* Sadly, some pharmaceutical companies have tried to hide the safety data for their drugs – just last week, GlaxoSmithKline was fined $3 billion for doing so – but as things stand, this would happen regardless of whether the safety data was from animals, humans or computers.

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50 Shades of Babies

Baby boom predicted next year thanks to success of Fifty Shades of Grey books, says theDaily Mail today. It’s such nonsense that I don’t really know where to be being. Let’s have a quick rundown of the problems.

  1. Fifty Shades of Grey did not invent sex, nor did it invent porn. There have been plenty of erotic books written for women before Fifty Shades came along. People like Jilly Cooper were best sellers decades ago, and somehow these authors didn’t inspire baby booms of their own.
  2. The sort of sex Fifty Shades of Grey is credited with inspiring – again, according to the Daily Mail, quoting a poll by a dating website – is going to tend to be controlled and organised. The Twilight fanfic book does after all focus heavily on contracts between sexual partners. It stands to reason that people would be more likely to use contraception if acting out scenes from the book.
  3. There’s no real evidence that Fifty Shades of Grey has led to people having more sex – a few people posting “I had so much sex after reading this!” on Mumsnet isn’t really enough. Fifty Shades of Grey didn’t just magically materialise in people’s houses, they had to go out and buy it. Presumably most of these people would have bought a similar book if Fifty Shades was not available, especially if they were looking to “spice things up in the bedroom”.
  4. The story comes, ultimately, from one Professor Ellis Cashmore (the only professor I know of whose website has an intro video). I’m sure he’s a smart guy, but he’s professor of culture, media and sport, not demography or statistics or anything else that you might expect someone making predictions about the birth rate to be grounded in. He’s in the papers quite a lot too, for sometimes quite disconnected stories. In the past month alone, he’s explained the psychology behind penalty shootouts, the meanings of footballers tattoos, homosexuality in sport, the place of Wimbledon in British culture and the reasons Madame Tussauds is so successful. It’s not proof he’s wrong, of course, just a reason to be a bit wary that he’s suddenly leapt out of his department to give the Daily Mail a juicy story about a particularly popular book.
  5. Come on, seriously, this story is nonsense meant solely to drive traffic to the Daily Mail and boost Professor Cashmore’s profile. In 2010, 723,165 babies were born in England & Wales. To be statistically significant, you’d need the book to lead to tens of thousands of extra births – i.e., ones that were not planned. Even for a book that’s sold a million or so copies, that’s a lot of babies.

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Did GM soy cause allergies to soar? Probably not.

So, California’s planning a referendum on the labelling of genetically modified food. The Guardian has covered this not in it’s regular news pages, but in its Comment is Free section, under the title “How California’s GM food referendum may change what America eats“.

The article is mostly an opinion piece – fair enough – but there’s one statistic buried in there that leapt out at me.

While researchers have not yet found a “smoking gun”, which would prove that GM foods as a class are dangerous, there are troubling signs that they may be a factor in the recent epidemic of food allergies. Soon after GM soy was introduced to the UK, for example, soy allergies escalated by 50%.

The link there doesn’t go to a scientific paper, but to a piece on “News. Controversy. Opinion.” site Opposing Views, and their figures seem to come, ultimately, from American Academy of Environmental Medicine, a group that has some decidedly quackish views on topics like water fluoridation, vaccines and “Multiple Chemical Sensitivity” (a scientifically unfounded belief that everything in modern society contains toxins). It’s not impossible to support some outlandish ideas while being right about things, of course, but it does ring some alarm bells.

Neither article links to any of the studies it referenced, but with a bit of digging, I found this piece at Academics Review which seems to be dealing with the same statistic. Go there if you want the full takedown, but in a nutshell, it refers to marketing information from a group called “York Nutritional Laboratories” (which sell food allergy testing kits) the rise was in people with a particular antibody, not those who reported allergies and the study didn’t find any connection (the rise simply happened at a similar time to the introduction of GM, although it actually took place before GM soy became mainstream).*

I decided to have a look on Google Scholar for papers looking in the allergenicity of GM soy. There are plenty of studies and review papers looking into this – one, two, three, four, five – and all the ones I’ve found so far suggest that genetic soybeans and GM soybeans pose exactly the same risk of allergy (though as far as I can tell, these are all animal trials. There isn’t much data on human soy allergies out there).

In this case, the claim that GM soy may be responsible for a rise in allergies seems to be simply wrong.

* For the other major claim in Opposing View’s piece, about baby rats dying from eating GM soy, see this peer review of the paper, originally from Nature Biotechnology , which expresses grave concerns about the unusually high numbers of deaths in the control group – it looks like bad care killed the rats, not the soy)

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Mitochondria donation nonsense

A bunch of mitochondria just hanging out.

For various largely uninteresting reasons, I’ve not blogged lately. But then I came across this article on The Guardian website today, a for-and-against piece about mitochondria donation with an “against” argument from Peter Saunders that veers from irrelevant to flat out wrong. Let’s get started!

To begin with, this is not about finding a cure. It is about preventing people with mitrochondrial disease being born. These new technologies, even if they work, will do nothing for the thousands of people already suffering from these diseases, or for those who will be born with it in the future.

Now, here’s the first dodgy argument, one that I’m almost tempted to call a dog-whistle. Mitochondrial donations are not about “preventing people with mitrochondrial disease being born“, they’re about “preventing people being born with mitrochondrial disease”. Just look at how moving that phrase “being born” a few words to the right changed a factual statement about the procedure into a non-sequitur about abortion.

It’s of course true that unfortunately, this procedure will do nothing to help people that already have mitochondrial diseases – removing a mutation from the body is perhaps the most impossible thing in all of medicine – but that’s no argument against the procedure.

Also, Saunders claims that there is no need for the procedure when egg donation is already possible. Bear this in mind; it’ll come up again later.

Will it work? This technology uses similar “nuclear transfer” techniques to those used in “therapeutic cloning” for embryonic stem cells – which has thus far failed to deliver, and animal-human cytoplasmic hybrids (“cybrids”). [...] Yet cybrids are now a farcical footnote in history. They have not worked. Ironically, it was in that same act of parliament that provision for this new research was also made.

First of all, cybrids were legalised in 2008. 3-4 years is not that long a time in medical research, especially for research into slow-developing, long-term conditions like Alzheimers and Parkinsons. But I decided to have a look on Google Scholar, to see if cybrids were just a “farcical footnote”. Since 2008, there have been at least 362 papers about cytoplasmic hybrids, including 114 in the last year and a half or so. Some of these are papers exploring the ethics of the procedure, but an awful lot are detailing actual breakthroughs made using these cytoplasmic hybrids.

Embryonic stem cell research, being far more mature, is even more successful, with stem cells relieving paralysis in rats and the first clinical trials in humans showing promising results. Hardly a field that has “thus far failed to deliver”.

But even if he was telling the truth, and both fields had proved to be dead ends, this would still be irrelevant to mitochondrial donation. All it says is that mitochondrial donation uses one technique which is also used in stem cell research. As far as arguments go, this is up there with “vegetarians are evil because Hitler was a vegetarian”.

Is it safe? No. Each technique involves experimental reproductive cloning techniques and germline genetic engineering (that is, it affects the genes passed on to children) – both of which are highly controversial and potentially dangerous. Cloning by nuclear transfer has so far proved ineffective in humans and unsafe in other mammals with a large number of cloned individuals spontaneously aborting, and others suffering from physical abnormalities or limited lifespans.

Well, it’s good thing there’s no cloning involved with this technique, thus making that last sentence completely pointless scaremongering.

Also, as the Guardian noted last week, any changes, or unpredicted genetic problems (mutations) will be passed to future generations.

This is true, but the thing is: if a woman with a mitochondrial condition doesn’t use this technique and conceives a child naturally, there is a 100% guarantee that the mitochondrial defect will be passed to the future generation(s). The whole point of this method is to reduce the number of dangerous mutations being passed on.

Is it ethical? No. A large number of eggs will be needed, involving risky and invasive “harvesting” for women donors. How many debt-laden students or infertile women will be exploited by the offer of money, or free IVF treatment, in return for their eggs? How many embryos will be destroyed?

Ok, so, remember how earlier egg donation was a totally ethical alternative to mitochondrial donation? Well, with a deft sleight of hand Saunders is now claiming that egg donation is unethical!

There are concerns about paying people to donate body parts/fluids – it’s one of the most hotly discussed areas of bioethics – but in the UK, donors are not paid to donate eggs. They can have their travel and accommodation expenses paid (up to £750), but that’s it. There’s simply no room for the kind of exploitation Saunders worries about.

As far as I can tell, there is no difference to the egg donor between standard donation and mitochondria donation. The technique doesn’t necessarily require any extra eggs – though I suppose that depends on its success rate, which, since the technique is still experimental, no-one yet knows – and it doesn’t require any more embryo destruction that IVF or standard egg donation.

Then there are the issues of identity confusion for the children, who in effect will have three biological parents. Some mitochondrial diseases are much less serious than others. Once we have judged some affected babies not worthy of being conceived, where do we draw the line?

The mitochondria are, as the standard explanation goes, the little power stations that fuel each cell, and mitochondrial DNA has no effect on the wider body outside these power stations. A baby conceived by mitochondria donation is closer to having two parents than than a baby conceived by standard egg donation (since in mitochondria donation, all the DNA that affects what the baby actually looks like comes from the mother, not the donor), and if “identity confusion” is a concern, it’s odd that he’d endorse adoption either. And this technique does not mean any baby is “not worthy of being conceived” (unless he’s referring to the parents’ choice not to conceive naturally in the first place, in which case his argument is grosser and more unethical than I thought) – conception will still happen, it’s just that egg will be slightly modified first.

This debate is not being handled responsibly. The research scientists involved have financial and research-based vested interests, and getting the regulatory changes and research grants to continue and extend their work is dependent on them being able to sell their case to funders, the public and decision-makers.

I don’t think “I’m a research scientist and I want to continue my research” counts as a vested interest. It’s not like researchers are pretending their research isn’t dependent on this technique being allowed. I genuinely wonder how Saunders would prefer this debate be handled – he certainly never explains. Speaking of not handling debates responsibly, though neither Saunders nor The Guardian point this out, Saunders is the CEO of the Christian Medical Fellowship, a group that speaks out against a variety of medical techniques on religious grounds. As Mark Henderson said on Twitter, “Saunders makes many bad arguments vs mitochondrial transplants, omitting real reason he opposes: religion [...] Nothing wrong with opposing embryo research for religious reasons, but those who do should admit it, and that no evidence would convince them

Let’s concentrate on finding treatments and providing better support for affected individuals, rather than spending limited health resources on unethical, risky and highly uncertain hi-tech solutions that will most likely never deliver.

We already know that, no matter how difficult mitochondrial donation is, finding a cure for mitochondrial disorders is far far harder still – and perhaps impossible with our current knowledge of genetics. A human body contains billions of cells, each one containing at least one and often tens or hundreds of mitochondria. Replacing or fixing all of them would be far more difficult than replacing the mitochondria in a single cell; if you want an efficient way of spending limited health resources (really, limited research resources – the funding for this research would not be directly linked to the NHS), donation research is surely a better route to take.

(I intended to, for balance reasons, point out any inaccuracies in the response from the Nuffield bioethicist arguing for the procedure, but it already seems pretty sensible and fair. Quelle surprise…)

Edit: Also thanks to Mark Henderson for pointing out that the research is being carried out at Newcastle University and entirely publicly funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council – there are no vested business interests involved either.

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