October 23, 2017

Blind man’s buff

This article was published in the Ecologist Quarterly, Spring 1978. Edward Goldsmith argues that “Seek not, and ye shall not find” is the new mantra of the industrial – scientific research complex when it comes to the possibility of discovering inconvenient truths about the dangers of pesticides, food additives, agricultural antibiotics, radiation, and sugar.

We are constantly being assured by governments and their experts that everything is well and that all the fears expressed by ecologists are purely imaginary. These assurances are based on the fact that very often the scientific evidence to substantiate these fears is not available. Why not? The answer is no one has looked for it.

One of the reasons for this is that such knowledge might force scientists to question the notion that scientific knowledge, technological development and economic growth can be equated with progress and are the only means of improving human welfare. This, the central dogma of the world-view of industrialism is, also an essential part of the paradigm of modern science, and as Thomas Kuhn notes,

“Scientists unconsciously acquire a bias for choosing only those specific projects which they feel will not endanger the validity of the paradigm.”

Projects that might lead to the confirmation of the ecologists’ fears are thereby not chosen and the fears remain “scientifically unsubstantiated”.

Such projects would not, in any case, be ‘productive’ since, rather than give rise to new technology that would permit further economic growth, they might have the opposite effect that of leading people to contest the desirability of such growth. For this reason, even if scientists wanted to undertake such projects, they would be unlikely to obtain the necessary finance. Indeed, as Frank Graham writes,

“Too frequently, Congressmen appropriate funds only for those projects which will produce an immediate tangible result.”

Let us consider some of the consequences:


The advisory committee on pesticides and other toxic chemicals reported in 1969 that “although we were exposed to all sorts of different pesticides there was no evidence that they resulted in any adverse effects on man.” Though a vast amount of material exists to show that this statement is untrue. Strictly speaking the scientific evidence, as this term is understood today, may indeed not be available, and the Advisory Committee may be right. The reason of course is that the necessary scientific research has not been undertaken. During the 1950s, as Frank Graham points out,

“they thought research on pesticide effects worth only $52,000 a year. That sum has risen to $1.5 million a year, but it is still far too small, and might be slashed at any time. In other words, Congressmen will grant money for research directed at pests (for there lie agricultural profits) but not for research directed at the effects of pesticides.”

The result of course is that among other things, we do not know the possible synergic effects of pesticides, nor the exact nature of their break-down products. Significantly a friend of mine was doing research at a British university on the break-down products of DDT (which apparently we know very little about, in spite of the fact that one of them, DDD is largely responsible for the thinning of egg shells).

This research however was short-lived. It was soon decided to shift him to the study of chemical communication between foxes, a far more ‘productive’ piece of research, since it could lead to the development of cunning new methods for killing this pest and thereby reducing its depredations on livestock populations.

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Colin Allday, Managing Director of British Nuclear Fuels constantly states that there is no evidence that people’s health has been affected by working at Windscale. Several ex-workers have recently died of leukaemia and BNFL has accepted the responsibility for the death of one or two of them.

Nevertheless in general Colin Allday is right. The reason is that it is only two or three years ago that it was decided to keep track of ex-workers at the nuclear power complex to see what happened to their health. As cancers generally take 20 or 30 years to appear after exposure to a carcinogenic agent such as ionising radiation, no evidence one way or another is indeed yet available.

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Agricultural antibiotics

Earl Butz, when still Secretary of State for Agriculture, stated that “there is no hard proof that a human health hazard exists because of the use of antibiotics in feeds.” The FDA task force, chaired by C. D. Van Hoewerling also concluded that “there was no conclusive evidence a hazard to human health had appeared.”

Van Hoewerling is again probably correct. The reason though, is that our scientists only seem interested in the rate of growth and the effectiveness of the feeds using these antibiotics. But as Ross Hume Hall observes, “it would indeed be strange if these were the only effects that occurred in the animals.”

On the other hand, as he points out, “any other effects are not assessed.” Americans go on consuming low doses of antibiotics in their meat and we in England probably do so as well as it is by no means certain that the laws passed as a result of the Swan Committee have had any really appreciable effect in reducing the total level of antibiotics that are administered to our livestock.

Dr. C. D. Van Hoewerling also assures us that Diethylstilbestrol (DES) “has been used for over 20 years as a growth promotant in animals with no indications of danger to humans.”

DES has been shown to be carcinogenic in some animals inducing mammary tumours in certain strains of mice. Taken orally for therapeutic purposes it has also given rise to second generation vaginal cancer. Nevertheless Van Hoewerling is on the whole right, for the scientific research deemed necessary to determine the effect of very low doses on human beings does not seem to have been undertaken. As a result a large proportion of the population of the US, and of Britain too, is fed on low doses of this highly dangerous substance.

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Organic food

On countless occasions, our experts have assured us that there is no evidence to suppose that organically produced food is healthier than that produced with the aid of artificial fertilizers. Those who maintain the opposite are referred to mockingly as ‘food-faddists’. Again if this evidence is not available, it is because no one has looked for it. In fact McKeown, of the McCarrison Society, as Ross Hume Hall points out,

“is the first and virtually only research worker to have carried out tests on laboratory animals in order to determine the health difference between compost grown produce and minerally fertilized produce.”

It is in fact scandalous that these tests should never have been carried out, since to eat food produced with the aid of artificial fertilizers is in terms of our evolutionary history, a totally new experience, yet this experiment whose safety has never been verified, is being carried out on a global scale.

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The British Sugar Bureau in its recent publication Questions and Answers on Sugar, assures us that there is no evidence that this substance can in any way be incriminated in the current incidence of ischaemic heart disease, diabetes, tooth caries etc. though we have every reason to suppose that the opposite is true.

Again if we apply the ‘scientific’ criteria that are insisted on today, then the British Sugar Bureau may be right. Though it is our very vulnerable children who consume the greatest amount of refined sugar, yet, as Ross Hume Hall points out, “there have been no scientific studies showing the long term effects of feeding children sweets, lollipops, crisps and refined carbohydrate foods.” So our teeth are condemned to go on rotting in ever greater numbers and the incidence of the various other ‘diseases of civilization’ goes on increasing.

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Food additives

The British Nutrition Foundation’s disgraceful publication Why Additives? assures us that there is no evidence that food additives do us any harm. We know that this is untrue, in fact it is considered by some authorities that perhaps as many as 50 per cent of cancer cases are caused by chemicals in the food we eat, which would mean that food additives were killing hundreds of thousands of people every year.

Nevertheless there is no ‘scientific’ evidence that this is so. Indeed, as Ross Hume Hall points out, “practically nothing is known about the metabolic fate of most food additives.” So the number of other food additives introduced into our food during processing goes on increasing. There are at present several thousand. The average American is said to consume 5 lbs a year of them. Their use is, on the whole allowed, if they do not have any obvious toxicological effects, that is to say if people are not immediately poisoned.

Of possible long-term effects, such as cancer, there seems to be little concern. Since between a quarter to a third of the population of an industrial society will die from this disease, of which 80-90 per cent of the cases are known to be induced by exposure to the chemicals in our environment, one would have thought that there was a pressing need to carry out the necessary research on the biological effects at least of those that are purposely added to our food.

Why has this not been done? The answer is because we don’t want to know the results and what is more there is a good excuse. The cost of applying all the requisite tests on a new chemical in the US is already about $500,000. If we wished to determine its long-term effects on its own, as well as in combination with all the other additives introduced into our food, then the cost would be orders of magnitude higher. No companies could afford such tests and yet if we persist in regarding them as the only means of providing ‘scientific’ evidence and if they are not carried out, the cancer rate will continue to increase as it is doing today until it becomes generalised among the population of industrial countries, a prospect that is not far off.

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Regulation by co-incidence

What helps to confirm this thesis is that it is often more by chance than by design that the harmful effects of a new chemical tend to be discovered. As Ross Hume Hall points out “chance observation not systematic investigation revealed the effects of DDT.” Also it was only found out that DES caused second generation vaginal cancer when an endocrinologist and a gynaecologist happened to get stuck in a lift together. They had time to compare notes and the discovery was made.

It must be one of the most serious condemnations of our scientific establishment and of its political sponsors that we must count on pure hazards of this sort to obtain any protection from the poisonous substances that they are causing to be released, in ever greater quantities into our environment, and to which we cannot avoid being exposed from the moment we are conceived to the moment we die. It is, of course, an even more serious condemnation that even when these discoveries are made the substances concerned are still not effectively removed from the market – but that is another question.

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  • Ross Hume Hall, Food for Nought, Vintage Books, 1974.
  • Samuel Epstein, “The Politics of Cancer”, Technology Review July/August 1976.
  • Frank Graham Jr., Since Silent Spring, Hamish Hamilton, London 1970.
  • British Nutrition Foundation, Why Additives? 1977.
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