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Motherhood in Western Europe

Insights from Western European Mothers

The changing face of motherhood — Western Europe

The accompanying reports combine a review of existing literature with an analysis of original quantitative data derived from a poll of 9,582 mothers from 12 countries in Western Europe, making it one of the largest studies of this kind ever conducted

Child Obesity and Health

An analysis of the latest available data from the Health Survey for England (HSE)

Child Obesity and Health — download the full report in pdf format

In this ‘National Childhood Obesity Week’, the SIRC report, Children, obesity and heath: Recent trends, holds up a true mirror, accurately reflecting the trend towards slimmer, healthier children. more

The Future of Freemasonry

An examination of the role of Freemasonry in the 21st century

Freemasonry

This report is, as far as we know, an account of the first ever study that has been commissioned by Freemasons from a non-Masonic body. None of the SIRC members involved in the project are Freemasons, a fact that evoked surprise and welcome in equal measure from the Lodge members we met. more

The Changing Face of Motherhood

Insights from three generations of mothers

Motherhood

The report seeks to answer some specific questions about the changing face of motherhood and determine the extent to which modern ‘solutions’ to motherhood are more or less beneficial than the solutions of the past. more

Organic is 'good', even when the GM version is better: acid test.

© Matt Ridley, Daily Telegraph, November 21, 2000

Earlier this month, scientists in Atlanta were cited as announcing that a pesticide called Rotenone, which is used by organic farmers and gardeners, can cause the equivalent of Parkinson's disease in rats. That organic farmers use pesticides at all might surprise some people. But how exactly is organic food defined?

Lord Vinson of Roddam Dene, after several parliamentary questions, has elicited the fact that the Government delegates the responsibility of verifying that food is "organic" almost entirely to the private sector – chiefly the Soil Association, which "certifies" producers as organic according to whether they obey certain rules.

But even the Soil Association admits that there is no test yet devised that can distinguish organic from inorganic food – or identify where inorganic produce has been substituted for organic food. The presence of pesticide residues means nothing, because, as the Soil Association spokesman puts it, pesticide residues are found everywhere, even in the Arctic. Moreover, organic food contains natural pesticides, either applied by the farmer (like Rotenone) or produced by plants themselves in response to pest attack. These can be just as toxic as synthetic pesticides. Otherwise, there simply are no measurable biochemical differences between organic and ordinary food.

Of course, the "purity" and health benefits of organic crops are not the only reason why people buy them or grow them. Just as important are the supposed environmental benefits. The story says that organic food is grown without artificial fertiliser or synthetic pesticides, which implies that it has less impact on weeds, insects and birds. The Soil Association defended the use of Rotenone, for example, on the grounds that it breaks down on contact with the soil and cannot have a long-lasting impact on wildlife other than the pest. But so does Roundup, an inorganic herbicide: that is its unique selling point.

The truth is that the boundary between organic and conventional production is blurring. Organic farmers face the same challenges from weeds, insects and diseases that all farmers do. They struggle manfully to defeat these by old-fashioned means such as weeding, but increasingly they find they can turn to "natural" chemicals. One of the most popular such natural chemicals is Bt, produced by a naturally occurring bacterium that is toxic to insects. But there is now a cheaper and subtler new way to apply Bt, which ensures that it is produced inside the plant itself and does not have to be sprayed on. This reduces collateral damage to harmless insects.

You would expect the organic movement to embrace it, but, because it involves genetic modification, the Soil Association would automatically refuse to certify as "organic" any grower who uses it. In the furore a few years ago about monarch butterflies poisoned by eating Bt maize, almost nobody noticed that a butterfly would get a far higher dose from a field sprayed with Bt by an organic farmer than it ever could from GM maize pollen. Bt cotton is now being tested all over the world with dramatic results.

Because the Bt is produced inside the plant, it reaches a pest called the bollworm far more effectively than a spray ever could, and does not reach other insects. In China, 200,000 hectares were planted with Bt cotton this year; an eightfold decrease in the use of pesticides and a noticeable increase in wildlife was the result.

The hasty decision of the Soil Association, which holds a near-monopoly in certifying organic production, to take a dogmatic line against genetic engineering looks increasingly odd. If its concern is to reduce synthetic pesticides that reach the consumer and reduce the damage to the environment without using more land or money, then genetic engineering may well be the best innovation for years. This will not be true in every case: some GM crops may need more sprays. But there is nothing to stop the certifiers allowing some GM crops and not others. Otherwise, one is left with the suspicion that the belief in the superiority of organic food is more theological than scientific.

© Matt Ridley, Daily Telegraph, November 21, 2000