Archive for category Anonymous sources do not forgive

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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Dodgy foundations

James Delingpole, the only mainstream journalist to blame global warming on the Bilderberg Illuminati New World Order, has an urgent message: the foundations of Britain’s wind farms are about to collapse!

Where did he get this horrifying news? Well, an anonymous source emailed him a rumour heard from an another anonymous source. Apparently, it’s all extremely serious, which is why the mainstream media, which as we all know absolutely loves wind turbines and will defend them at any cost, is covering it up.* Still, as his source says, that’s what happens “when an industry builds bigger and bigger things without having built up a history of experience on the ones built earlier” since of course the “foundation” is a radical new technology and no-one ever built a tall steel structure before wind turbines came along.

Because even Delingpole admits a single unsourced email isn’t enough to base an entire column on, he also quotes, unchecked, Christopher Brooker’s assertion that nuclear power gives you 13 times as much as power per pound as offshore wind – in fact, it’s only about 1.5 times as much, according to yesterday’s linked Telegraph article, and nuclear power is actually 11% more expensive than onshore wind (and of course, the cost of offshore wind is expected to fall). Apparently his source is a trustworthy-sounding blog called “EU Referendum” (I’m not going to link it – if you want to read it, it’s linked from Delingpole’s article), which in fact claims that for the £1.2 billion that it will cost to run the new 300 MW Thanet windfarm for the next 20 years, you could build a 1 GW nuclear power plant (in itself a dubious claim – exact figures are hard to come by, but this report (PDF, p.32) on the new Hinkley Point C reactor suggests a cost of £4 billion for a 1.6 GW reactor, or about £2.5 billion per gigawatt, twice what Brooker suggests).

Comparing the 20 year running cost of a plant with the construction cost of another is quite obviously misleading. In fact, Thanet cost £900 million to build, which works out at about £3 billion per gigawatt; slightly more than nuclear power, but not much – certainly not 13 times as much. Taking load factors – the percentage of maximum output that the power station usually produces – into account will admittedly bump this up – using the statistics from Renewable UK** it looks like this load factor adjustment brings the cost of the power roughly in line with the findings of the UK Energy Research Centre report from yesterday.

* Delingpole’s claim that “blinkered” mainstream journalists are refusing to criticise wind farms in fact puts me in mind of the Daily Mail worrying that “you can’t talk about immigration“… while devoting acres of newsprint to immigration. Yep, no-one’s talking about the cost of wind power.

** Incidentally, it’s worth reading the Renewable UK site for another reason too – it explains why it’s not really a concern when the wind stops blowing. In a nutshell, other power sources are themselves unreliable – even coal and nuclear plants can break down, after all – and so we need to keep power stations running on “spinning reserve” anyway. These reserve power stations can absorb the slack when the wind isn’t at full strength without producing significantly more pollution.

Edit: Just noticed the picture Delingpole uses of a fallen turbine, with the caption “One down…”. From that, you might think that these mythical foundations have already started to crack… except that in fact that turbine quite clearly fell because the tower bent in high winds, and its collapse had nothing to do with the foundations (and it’s the only turbine to have collapsed so far in England – “one down” indeed).

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