Chief scientist attacks health reporting by Today and Daily Mail
Rejection of GM crops costs billions, adviser says
Falling MMR uptake could cost lives of 100 children
James Randerson, science correspondent The Guardian, December 6 2007
The government's chief scientific adviser criticised the BBC's Today programme and the Daily Mail yesterday over what he called their 'campaigns' against GM food and the MMR vaccine. Sir David King said Britain's failure to adopt GM crops had cost the economy between GBP2bn and GBP4bn and that falling measles vaccination rates as a result of negative publicity about MMR would lead to between 50 and 100 child deaths.
He singled out Today's lead presenter, John Humphrys, over the current affairs programme's editorial line on GM, saying: 'What a massive shot in the foot that was for the UK economy.' Humphrys is known for his enthusiasm for organic farming.
King, who was speaking to MPs on the innovation, universities and skills select committee about his role, also criticised the Department of Health for part of its response to a select committee report on abortion, which he described as 'embarrassing'. His tenure finishes at the end of the year, when he will make way for John Beddington, a biologist at Imperial College London.
King said the Daily Mail had waged a 'brilliant campaign' on GM food. 'The use of the word 'Frankenfood' by the Daily Mail I would have to say was a piece of brilliant journalism. It brought through all of the fears, these gut fears, about tinkering with the genetic code and these mad scientists in their laboratories.'
But, he said, GM technology offered the possibility of a third agricultural revolution, which would allow humanity to feed itself despite changes to the climate.
King criticised both news outlets again for their coverage of safety fears surrounding the MMR vaccine and autism. 'My charge there is that your highly successful campaign has potentially led to a situation where we could have 50 or 100 children dying of measles in the UK,' he said. Because uptake of MMR has fallen, vaccine coverage in some areas is low enough to allow measles to spread.
'We could still see a significant fatality rate amongst children,' he said, adding that all the evidence now shows that MMR does not cause autism.
'That's the basic message that every parent needs to get and I would love the Daily Mail to put a headline in the paper tomorrow admitting that.' King said he had had a private conversation with the Mail's editor, Paul Dacre, about its coverage. The Daily Mail declined to comment.
The Today programme said: 'We don't recognise that description of our coverage.'
King was also critical of the Department of Health. In its response to the now defunct parliamentary science and technology select committee's report into abortion it dismissed the committee's concern that the need for two doctors' signatures was causing delays in access to abortion services. The government response cited evidence that 68% of abortions take place within 10 weeks and 89% within 13 weeks.
King called this answer a 'non sequitur' because the numbers having early abortions could be even higher if one doctor could authorise the procedure. 'I would have to say that's thoroughly embarrassing,' he said, 'It's quite unacceptable.'
The department came in for further criticism over its decision to allow homeopathic remedies to be licensed by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, the public body that licenses drugs.
'How can you have homeopathic medicines labelled by a department which is driven by science?' said King. 'There is not one jot of evidence supporting the notion that homeopathic medicines are of any assistance whatsoever.'
Genetically modified foods were introduced into UK supermarkets in 1996 and from the start were met with scepticism from parts of the media. Despite backing for the industry from the prime minister, consumers became increasingly doubtful amid fears about the effect it would have on health and the environment. Opposition prompted the government's farm-scale trials into three crops' effects on biodiversity and the GM Nation debate, which surveyed more than 8,000 people. Both culminated in 2003. Yesterday Sir David King was scathing, saying: 'What we learned from the GM Nation debate was how not to conduct debates of that kind.' The Daily Mail used the phrase Frankenstein foods in a headline in February 1998, but its first use is credited to a letter in the New York Times on June 16 1992.