Defra embraces the new eugenics (30/11/2003)

The UK ministry Defra's brutal stupidity in murdering a perfectly healthy ram on the grounds that he lacked a gene they believe to confer resistance to the sheep disease scrapie is the thin end of the wedge of new eugenics. There is, of course, no credible evidence that the gene in question does confer resistance to scrapie, nor is there any proven connection between scrapie and BSE, the mad cow disease Defra hopes to eliminate with its half-baked new policy.

This is a prime example of the discredited genetic determinism that blames diseases on faulty genes, when the best evidence suggests that only 2% of diseases can be linked to a single gene. Genetic determinism conveniently ignores social and environmental factors known to affect human and animal health, such as nutrition, stress, overcrowding, excessive drug use and unhealthy living conditions. Defra has worked to silence researchers like Mark Purdey who believe that environmental factors play a part in BSE and the human brain disease it's believed to cause, vCJD.

To the limited extent that the genetic determinists are correct in assuming that genes govern health, this is also an argument to keep Defra from meddling in genetics. Like all apologists for eugenics in animal husbandry, Defra would protest that it's just an extension of the selective breeding that's been practised over centuries. But they appear ignorant of the fact that even selective breeding has resulted in increased animal suffering and disease through genetically related diseases. Anyone without experience of farming need only look at certain pedigree breeds of domestic dogs, whose gene pool has become so narrowed by selective breeding that they suffer disproportionately from such disorders as displaced hips (German Shepherds) and breathing problems (Pekes and bulldogs).

Previous to the foot and mouth epidemic, Defra was banned by law from killing healthy animals. But in the wake of their illegal slaughter of millions of such healthy animals during the foot and mouth epidemic in the notorious "contiguous cull", the government passed a law enabling Defra officials to come onto anyone's land and kill animals at will. Killing animals on the basis that they don't have the currently fashionable gene or have a gene labelled faulty is an extremely dangerous development. Not only will it fail to improve animals' health status (because it's based on an incorrect assumption of genetic determinism) but it will damage it by unnecessarily restricting the gene pool.

We can only hope that the world's governments are disabused of their scientific illiteracy before they develop renewed enthusiasm for applying eugenics to humans - an idea that largely went underground post-Nazis but which has never truly been eradicated.

Its effects still reverberate today. Within the last few years there have been reports, for example, of 15,000 forced sterilisations in France. Another report exposed an experiment in which thousands of South American indians were deliberately infected with measles by a US scientific team of genetic researchers, killing hundreds. This scientific atrocity took a decade to uncover.

The UK has also been far from free of such influences, as anyone can see by checking out the membership of the British Eugenics Society and seeing just some of the formal badge wearers among the many scientists and others influenced by this fashion.

Among the list of the Society's many eminent members is to be found RM Acheson, former Prof. of Community Medicine at Cambridge University and a member of the General Medical Council's Executive Committee. Prof Acheson is also the brother of the UK's former Chief Medical Officer, Sir Donald Acheson.

For more on the troubled past and present danger of human genetics:
Private Eye no. 1094
28 Nov-11 Dec 2003

PHYLLIDA BARSTOWE is not only an admired novelist and married to the journalist Duff Hart-Davis, but a professional breeder of Wiltshire Horn sheep on their Gloucestershire farm. Until recently her flock roamed happily over the meadows round a fine young pure-bred ram. Then, on 1 September, she was visited by the department for the elimination of farming and rural affairs (Defra), to test her sheep under the EUsponsored "National Scrapie Plan".

To understand what happened next some background is relevant. Defra, it may be remembered has spent millions of pounds trying to establish a link between scrapie, a brain disease affecting a tiny minority of sheep, and BSE, a brain disease affecting a tiny minority of cattle. No link has been found (although readers may recall the famous episode when they tested thousands of sheep brains for two years only to discover they had been looking at the brains of cows).

The reason for such excitement, of course, is that Defra still believes there may be a link between BSE and vCJD, a brain disease affecting a tiny minority of humans. So, if they can prove a link between scrapie and BSE, this would be a tremendous breakthrough, because it would show there may be a link between eating sheep and CJD. They also believe that a tiny minority of sheep are genetically susceptible to scrapie. They have therefore taken this as justification, on EU orders, to test pedigree sheep. Any which do not have the "scrapie-resistant genes", they can then order to be slaughtered or castrated.

Every step of Defra's tortuous logic is in fact based on a hypothesis for which there is no proof. There is no definite proven link between eating cattle infected with BSE and CJD. There is no evidence that any sheep has ever naturally become infected with BSE. There is no evidence that scrapie has ever infected humans. Even the theory about scrapie-resistant genes has been rubbished by one of the top independent scientists in the field, Dr Alan Dickenson. The whole of the EU's scrapie eradication programme thus rests on a cardhouse of unproven hypotheses.

When Defra tested the brains of 54,000 sheep from abattoirs, they did find 56 infected with scrapie. But no fewer than eight of these also possessed their so-called "scrapie resistant genotype". Since this made total nonsense of their theory, they then carried out another test, which luckily came out with thc result they were after: ie that only 28 of the sheep were infected with scrapie, none of which had the resistant gene. "At present it is not known if the cause of these findings," said Defra, "is a flaw in the methodology." But, flawed methodology or not, the great thing was they still had the excuse they needed to kill any animal they could find without that "resistant gene".

All of which brings us back to Mrs Hart-Davis's Wiltshire Horn ram. Of course it turned out to be the one animal in her flock without the resistant gene. So, although it was a perfectly healthy young sheep, offto the slaughterhouse under EU rules it had to go on the basis of four different hypotheses piled on top of each other, for not one of which there is any proof a genuine scientist could accept. Mrs Hart-Davis was none too pleased.


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