Sunday, May 11, 2008

Video games OK after all

This debate will go on forever. Elitist hatred of anything popular will ensure that

Boys who don't play videogames at all are at greater risk of getting into trouble than those who play violent games occasionally, according to two Harvard psychologists. The pair also said there was also no evidence to suggest violent games turn young people into criminals or violent people, despite some media reports.

"If you look at the violent crime in the US over the past 20 years among teenagers it's gone down, and gone down significantly, and if you look at videogame play, it's gone up," said Dr Lawrence Kutner and Dr Cheryl Olsen of Harvard Medical School in a recent interview. "The big concern that you hear the politicians and the pundits argue, that playing violent videogames will somehow turn your child into a criminal or a violent person, there's absolutely no evidence for that."

Dr Kutner and Dr Olson conducted a two-year study of 1250 children and 500 parents, funded by the US Department of Justice, to uncover links between games and children's behaviour. The pair found that while there was no direct link between games and violence, there was a correlation between adult-rated games and aggressive behaviour. Half of the boys who played adult-rated games had been in a fight in the past 12 months, compared to 28 per cent of boys who played games with a less mature rating. Among girls, 40 per cent who played adult-rated games had been in a fight recently compared to only 12 per cent of those who didn't.

However Dr Kutner and Dr Olsen said it was unclear if adult-rated games triggered aggressive behaviour, or if aggressive children were drawn to playing them. Dr Kutner and Dr Olsen said while it was normal for children to play games, there were certain "risk markers" that parents should watch out for that may indicate an increased chance of getting into trouble. "If you have, for example, a girl who plays 15 hours a week of exclusively violent videogames, I'd be very concerned because it's very unusual," Dr Kutner said. "But for boys (the danger sign) is not playing video games at all, because it looks like for this generation, videogames are a measure of social competence for boys."

In an interview with G4 TV's X-Play program, Dr Kutner said Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho had not played any games at college, according to his roommates. "That struck them as really odd, because everyone else did," he said. "That fell right into line with our research findings, that the kids who don't play (games) at all are actually at greater risk of getting into trouble."

Dr Kutner and Dr Olsen dismissed previous studies by "experimental psychologists" that attempted to measure links between games and aggression by using electric shocks and loud noises in laboratories. "There seems to be a core of experimental psychologists who've really grabbed the headlines on this topic," Dr Olsen told X-Play. "They tend to take college students in Psych 101 and they pay them a little bit or give them some course credit and they have them play a violent or a non-violent game for fifteen or twenty minutes. "Then they have them do something like blast an airhorn or give a little shock to someone they can't see in another room. "They try to say aggression in the real world is the same as aggression in the lab, where they're blasting an airhorn for a fraction of a second longer."

Dr Kutner and Dr Olson, who are married, are co-founders and directors of the Centre for Mental Health and Media at Massachusetts General Hospital. The results of their research into games and children's mental health were published last month in a book titled Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games.


The great organic myths: Why organic foods are an indulgence the world can't afford

They're not healthier or better for the environment - and they're packed with pesticides. In an age of climate change and shortages, these foods are an indugence the world can't afford, argues environmental expert Rob Johnston

Myth one: Organic farming is good for the environment

The study of Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) for the UK, sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, should concern anyone who buys organic. It shows that milk and dairy production is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). A litre of organic milk requires 80 per cent more land than conventional milk to produce, has 20 per cent greater global warming potential, releases 60 per cent more nutrients to water sources, and contributes 70 per cent more to acid rain.

Also, organically reared cows burp twice as much methane as conventionally reared cattle - and methane is 20 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2. Meat and poultry are the largest agricultural contributors to GHG emissions. LCA assessment counts the energy used to manufacture pesticide for growing cattle feed, but still shows that a kilo of organic beef releases 12 per cent more GHGs, causes twice as much nutrient pollution and more acid rain.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) relates food production to: energy required to manufacture artificial fertilisers and pesticides; fossil fuel burnt by farm equipment; nutrient pollution caused by nitrate and phosphate run-off into water courses; release of gases that cause acid rain; and the area of land farmed. A similar review by the University of Hohenheim, Germany, in 2000 reached the same conclusions (Hohenheim is a proponent of organic farming and quoted by the Soil Association).

Myth two: Organic farming is more sustainable

Organic potatoes use less energy in terms of fertiliser production, but need more fossil fuel for ploughing. A hectare of conventionally farmed land produces 2.5 times more potatoes than an organic one. Heated greenhouse tomatoes in Britain use up to 100 times more energy than those grown in fields in Africa. Organic yield is 75 per cent of conventional tomato crops but takes twice the energy - so the climate consequences of home-grown organic tomatoes exceed those of Kenyan imports.

Defra estimates organic tomato production in the UK releases almost three times the nutrient pollution and uses 25 per cent more water per kg of fruit than normal production. However, a kilogram of wheat takes 1,700 joules (J) of energy to produce, against 2,500J for the same amount of conventional wheat, although nutrient pollution is three times higher for organic.

Myth three: Organic farming doesn't use pesticides

Food scares are always good news for the organic food industry. The Soil Association and other organic farming trade groups say conventional food must be unhealthy because farmers use pesticides. Actually, organic farmers also use pesticides. The difference is that "organic" pesticides are so dangerous that they have been "grandfathered" with current regulations and do not have to pass stringent modern safety tests.

For example, organic farmers can treat fungal diseases with copper solutions. Unlike modern, biodegradable, pesticides copper stays toxic in the soil for ever. The organic insecticide rotenone (in derris) is highly neurotoxic to humans - exposure can cause Parkinson's disease. But none of these "natural" chemicals is a reason not to buy organic food; nor are the man-made chemicals used in conventional farming.

Myth four: Pesticide levels in conventional food are dangerous

The proponents of organic food - particularly celebrities, such as Gwyneth Paltrow, who have jumped on the organic bandwagon - say there is a "cocktail effect" of pesticides. Some point to an "epidemic of cancer". In fact, there is no epidemic of cancer. When age-standardised, cancer rates are falling dramatically and have been doing so for 50 years.

If there is a "cocktail effect" it would first show up in farmers, but they have among the lowest cancer rates of any group. Carcinogenic effects of pesticides could show up as stomach cancer, but stomach cancer rates have fallen faster than any other. Sixty years ago, all Britain's food was organic; we lived only until our early sixties, malnutrition and food poisoning were rife. Now, modern agriculture (including the careful use of well-tested chemicals) makes food cheap and safe and we live into our eighties.

Myth five: Organic food is healthier

To quote Hohenheim University: "No clear conclusions about the quality of organic food can be reached using the results of present literature and research results." What research there is does not support the claims made for organic food. Large studies in Holland, Denmark and Austria found the food-poisoning bacterium Campylobacter in 100 per cent of organic chicken flocks but only a third of conventional flocks; equal rates of contamination with Salmonella (despite many organic flocks being vaccinated against it); and 72 per cent of organic chickens infected with parasites.

This high level of infection among organic chickens could cross-contaminate non-organic chickens processed on the same production lines. Organic farmers boast that their animals are not routinely treated with antibiotics or (for example) worming medicines. But, as a result, organic animals suffer more diseases. In 2006 an Austrian and Dutch study found that a quarter of organic pigs had pneumonia against 4 per cent of conventionally raised pigs; their piglets died twice as often. Disease is the major reason why organic animals are only half the weight of conventionally reared animals - so organic farming is not necessarily a boon to animal welfare.

Myth six: Organic food contains more nutrients

The Soil Association points to a few small studies that demonstrate slightly higher concentrations of some nutrients in organic produce - flavonoids in organic tomatoes and omega-3 fatty acids in organic milk, for example. The easiest way to increase the concentration of nutrients in food is to leave it in an airing cupboard for a few days. Dehydrated foods contain much higher concentrations of carbohydrates and nutrients than whole foods. But, just as in humans, dehydration is often a sign of disease.

The study that found higher flavonoid levels in organic tomatoes revealed them to be the result of stress from lack of nitrogen - the plants stopped making flesh and made defensive chemicals (such as flavonoids) instead.

Myth seven: The demand for organic food is booming

Less than 1 per cent of the food sold in Britain is organic, but you would never guess it from the media. The Soil Association positions itself as a charity that promotes good farming practices. Modestly, on its website, it claims: "... in many ways the Soil Association can claim to be the first organisation to promote and practice sustainable development." But the Soil Association is also, in effect, a trade group - and very successful lobbying organisation.

Every year, news outlets report the Soil Association's annual claim of a big increase in the size of the organic market. For 2006 (the latest available figures) it boasted sales of 1.937bn pounds. Mintel (a retail consultantcy hired by the Soil Association) estimated only 1.5bn pounds in organic food sales for 2006. The more reliable TNS Worldpanel, (tracking actual purchases) found just o1bn of organics sold - from a total food sector of o104bn. Sixty years ago all our food was organic so demand has actually gone down by 99 per cent. Despite the "boom" in organics, the amount of land being farmed organically has been decreasing since its height in 2003. Although the area of land being converted to organic usage is scheduled to rise, more farmers are going back to conventional farming.

The Soil Association invariably claims that anyone who questions the value of organic farming works for chemical manufacturers and agribusiness or is in league with some shady right-wing US free-market lobby group. Which is ironic, considering that a number of British fascists were involved in the founding of the Soil Association and its journal was edited by one of Oswald Mosley's blackshirts until the late 1960s.

All Britain's food is safer than ever before, In a serious age, we should talk about the future seriously and not use food scares and misinformation as a tactic to increase sales.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not sure if you have these in Australia yet, but every grocery store in Manhattan bigger than a corner deli has several varieties of "Vegetarian Eggs." I laugh, as if the world has gone crazy, but then realize that ground up gemstones in axle grease have been sold as magic cosmetics from the time of the ancients to the present day.

Do you know where the phrase "Don't let the bastards grind you down!" comes from? It's a bastardization of an old Roman political reform. The bastards were literally bastards: illegitimate children who were abandoned to orphanages. And they were fed lots of cheap food, namely bread. But the flour was ground with huge, low quality grindstones that left rock grit in the flour, so it turned out that over several years the poor kids' teeth would be literally ground down to stubs.

Stone ground bread? Sounds "organic" to me!