Saturday, June 23, 2012

Weekend Post - the organic food deception

Why do people seem to think that things that are “natural” are somehow better than things seen as “unnatural”? Why is “organic” food so highly prized? Why do people object to “unnatural” additives in their foods, medicines and even their clothing?

Anyway, what does “natural” even mean?

Of course many natural products are perfectly wonderful. Oxygen is natural. Water is natural. Vitamin A, otherwise known as retinol, is natural. But all of these things, if taken to excess, will kill you. Arsenic, cyanides and many bacteria are all perfectly natural but they too will kill you stone dead. Lions and hippos are natural, as are mosquitos.

Unnatural products like anti-retroviral drugs, plastics and semiconductors have improved the quality of our lives almost immeasurably. Hospital operating theatres, telephone exchanges and refrigerators are all completely unnatural.

It’s not as simple as natural is good, unnatural is bad. That’s the “naturalistic fallacy”.

A very good example of the exaggeration of the benefits of so-called natural products is the organic food industry. Again we have to play with words a bit. All foods are organic, they’ve all come from some other form of life, whether animal or vegetable. Organic foods are no more “organic” than conventionally produced foods. So-called organic food is actually just conventional food that’s been grown, processed and delivered according to certain agreed standards. It’s similar to the production of Haalal meat. Fundamentally there’s no noticeable difference between an organic potato and a conventional one, just like there’s no observable difference between a Halaal chick burger and a conventional one. It’s just the production method that’s different.

Organic foods are produced largely without modern farming products like pesticides, veterinary products like antibiotics and modern fertilizers. That’s the main reason why organic foods are so expensive. In a store I visited recently they offered conventional spaghetti and organic spaghetti for exactly three times the price. Given that there’s no noticeable difference in taste, texture or quality I happily bought the cheaper version.

Perhaps the biggest argument for organic food, and the reason that many people are willing to spend three times as much for certain items is that they think it’s somehow healthier. The inconvenient truth for the followers of the organic movement is that there appears to be no evidence for this whatsoever. None.

In fact some of the fertilizers used in organic farming are really rather scary. Although the chemicals often used are “natural” that doesn’t mean they don’t cause cancer, Parkinson’s disease or food-poisoning. Unfortunately the organic food movement has resurrected an old farming practice that industry had begun to eradicate: spreading excrement over growing crops.

Here’s a simple science lesson. Excrement, faeces, poo, whatever you want to call it, is bad for you. Why do you think we spend so much time disposing of it hygienically? Why do you think we’ve evolved over millennia to find it revolting? It’s because given the slightest chance it will kill us, that’s why.

One of the tragedies in science is how little certain scientists are known. Most educated people can think of Einstein, Newton, Curie and Pasteur. Others can perhaps name Fleming, Lister and Watson and Crick. But how many know of true greats, absolute heroes like Norman Borlaug? As well as winning a huge variety of international awards, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his contributions to the world food supply. It’s impossible to prove but it’s been said that Borlaug and his work in agriculture saved perhaps a billion human lives by drastically increasing crop production.

Like many great breakthroughs Borlaug’s achievements sound very simple. He made maximum use of seasons, used multiple genetic lines of crops to provide disease resistance, planted stronger, dwarf strains of crops that were much sturdier and, just as importantly, made liberal use of inorganic fertilizers. He encountered enormous resistance from well-meaning but ignorant objectors to this approach and some of the most aggressive objections came from the so-called “environmental lobby”, probably the very same people who can afford to pay silly prices for organic foods. Borlaug’s reaction was damning:
"Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."
Organic food advocates should think hard about this. If they want to spend three times as much on food that’s absolutely identical to normal food, offers no real health benefits and doesn’t help the environment even a tiny bit then they’re welcome to. Just leave the rest of us out of it please?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Weekend Post - the problem with chiropractic

Most so-called “alternative” health treatments are fundamentally harmless. Reflexologists, acupuncturists and the purveyors of nonsense like Reiki, energy medicine and QXCI are highly unlikely to harm you, let alone kill you. That’s because none of these “therapies” actually DO anything. Of course there IS the risk that someone will use these fake treatments instead of real medicine and suffer as a result. A friend of mine is a doctor who I once saw deeply upset because a patient who’s life he had improved dramatically, whose life he’d probably saved, ended up dead because he’d dabbled with nonsensical “traditional” medicine.

There are, however, alternatives that CAN do harm, that CAN hurt you. Chiropractic is a good example of this.

Chiropractic is, like most “alternative” therapies, based on a ridiculously simplistic view of the human body. Energy medicine practitioners will tell you that it’s all about balancing energies, reflexologists invent pathways between the soles of your feet and the rest of your body and the QXCI “therapists” don’t have any idea what they’re doing. Chiropractors will tell you that many disorders are due to “misalignments” in your spine that are somehow interfering with nerve signals from your brain. They claim that manipulating the spine can free these nerve signals and improve the victim’s health.

Let’s start with the facts. This is all utter nonsense. Even chiropractors admit this. The UK General Chiropractic Council admits on its web site that the basic idea behind their profession:
“is not supported by any clinical research evidence that would allow claims to be made that it is the cause of disease or health concerns”
If even the governing bodies admit that it’s nonsense, why do individual chiropractors think we should trust them?

Admittedly, a number of chiropractors have moved away from these ridiculous claims and now include more mainstream ideas in their thinking and treatments. However there is little evidence that anything the more modern ones do has any genuine effect either. The overwhelming body of evidence suggests that spinal manipulation for back and neck pain offers no greater benefits than massage or taking some painkillers.

Then there are the dangers. People have died as a result of chiropractic treatment. Just last week the BBC reported on a warning published in the British Medical Journal about the low-level risk posed by spinal manipulation. Describing the procedure as “unnecessary and inadvisable” they highlighted the risk of damage to the arteries in the neck that might result in a stroke. This risk isn’t just theoretical. There are many documented cases of people being permanently disabled and even being killed by their chiropractic treatment, by the chiropractors themselves.

Of course alternative therapists will say that this happens in conventional medicine as well and they have a point. People do sometimes suffer side effects of modern medicine but its very rarely the treatment itself that directly harms them. Having a chiropractor, who would be forced to admit that his therapy was not based on any science, fool around with your spinal cord is asking for trouble.

Some years ago the chiropractic industry in the UK suffered an enormous setback when the British Chiropractic Association tried to sue the science writer Simon Singh for defamation. He had criticized chiropractors’ claims that they could successfully treat children with asthma, ear infections, colic and sleeping problems. He said that the BCA “happily promotes bogus treatments” and they sued him.

The good news is after a lengthy court battle the BCA was forced to drop their case against him because they realized they were going to lose. What he’d said was true. Unfortunately, unlike here in Botswana, the British legal system has no “public interest defense” to allegations of defamation.

One effect of this case was a massive increase in the number of complaints against chiropractors for false advertising. One report suggested that 25% of all practitioners in the UK were under investigation for making false claims. The “profession” remains in crisis to this day, having brought public attention to itself by trying to bully a science writer for telling the truth about their treatments.

The irony is that it took a court case, not scientific evidence, to force chiropractors to face up to the truth about their bogus, pseudoscientific claims. Hopefully science can prevail in future without the support of the courts?

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Weekend Post - Stemming stem cell research?

One of the most controversial areas of scientific research in modern times is stem cell therapy. Actually, it’s only controversial because certain religiously motivated groups have decided it should be controversial, regardless of the scientific truth. In fact there’s no controversy at all if you look at the facts.

Some background would be useful. Everyone reading this was originally formed from a single human cell, an egg from your mother. Once fertilized by your father’s sperm that single cell divided into two, then four, eight and so on until your body consisted of tens of trillions of cells. Here’s the clever bit. That single original cell gave rise to an enormous range of different, specialized cells. Your body contains around 200 different types of cells that are each devoted to specific purposes. Some transmit messages in your brain, others help your heart pump blood, others exist in your liver solely to “detox” your system, others receive light in your eye. The variation is amazing but they all came from that single generic cell. They all “stem” from that single cell.

These stem cells have that amazing capability: to become other types of cells. Like that first cell from your mother that created you, they have the capacity to produce the specialist cells needed in specialized organs. One of the biggest hopes in modern medicine is to find a way of introducing stem cells into damaged or diseased tissue to grow new tissue to replace the damaged bits.

This would be revolutionary and might offer us an enormously powerful technique to help cure a range of conditions.

The controversy came from one of the original sources of stem cells for research: human embryos, either from aborted embryos or from spare embryos created during fertility treatments. I can understand how people would find this instinctivel a little distasteful but these embryos weren’t in any real sense human. They had developed no further than the blastocyst stage when the embryos consists of no more than about 100 cells. In real terms they were no more “human” than the fleshy inside bit of your tooth.

However, whether rightly or wrongly, there was considerable resistance to using embryonic stem cells in research. Former President George W Bush even banned their use in any federally funded research programs.

The good news is that it looks like we can avoid the need for embryonic stem cells entirely. Stem cells can be harvested instead from adults, avoiding any of the emotional complications arising from embryo use. In fact we’ve been using adult stem cells to treat disease for years, it was just never called that. Bone marrow transplants, most commonly used to treat leukemia, actually use the stems cells found in adult bone marrow.

Bizarrely one of the richest sources of adult stem cells is the dental pulp tissue found inside adult teeth. These stem cells could, in principle, be used to grow new heart and nerve tissue, muscle and bone. The potential is extraordinary.

It’s early days but there’s great reason to be optimistic. A recent study published in The Lancet used stem cells taken from the heart tissue of heart attack victims. The scientists cultured stem cells from this tissue and re-implanted them into the damaged heart. Four months after the procedure, those participants who had received the stem cells had a significant improvement in heart function compared to a group who had not been given stem cells. The improvement wasn’t complete, their hearts were still damaged, but every little improvement helps tremendously in heart attack patients and it shows the potential for the procedure.

A similar study in Israel, which involved introducing stem cells into the hearts of rats, confirmed that the stem cells were busy bonding with existing heart tissue. The lead researcher, Lior Gepstein from Rambam Medical Center commented to the BBC that “we have shown that it's possible to take skin cells from an elderly patient with advanced heart failure and end up with his own beating cells in a laboratory dish that are healthy and young - the equivalent to the stage of his heart cells when just born."

The potential for stem cell therapies is enormous, so long as ignorance isn’t allowed to get in the way.