The truth about animal testing

The use of animals in medical research is inevitable, but no one can deny that something needs to change.

Every summer, hundreds of thousands of women run the five-kilometre Race for Life to raise money for Cancer Research UK. They probably don’t like to think about it, but some of that money is spent on procuring animals for use in experiments.

The use of animals in medical research is inevitable. Every drug licensed for treatment has to be tested on animals. It’s not just a legal issue. Many of the cures we celebrate – and let’s remember that cancer is now more survivable than ever – were developed only because researchers were able to carry out experiments on animals.

In the 1990s, deaths from breast cancer dropped by nearly a third. Much of that success was due to the introduction of tamoxifen, a treatment that helps prevent breast cancer among those with a family history of the disease. The drug’s development involved research on rats and mice that explored how hormonal changes induce tumours.

Since its introduction, tamoxifen has been cited as part of the solution to animal experimentation: tests show that it kills human tumours grown in Petri dishes, demonstrating that such cell cultures are a good model for what happens in real patients.

Alternatives to animal testing are welcomed by all involved; this is not a zero-sum game. When the Home Office recently reported that the total number of animal testing procedures increased by 2 per cent in 2011, the campaigning group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) called it “another broken promise” from a government that had committed to reducing the numbers. In some ways, Peta is right. It would be a better world if alternatives to animal testing could be found sooner; we should applaud Peta for donating more than half a million pounds to labs trying to pioneer non-animal tests. But scientists are just as eager to get there.

Contrary to Hollywood stereotypes, scientists aren’t monsters. If you have ever received treatment for an ectopic pregnancy, some of the procedures involved were tested on rabbits in labs run by Robert Winston. Those rabbits, Winston says, were petted and stroked every day. Much of last year’s 2 per cent rise can be ascribed to a general increase in the levels of scientific research going on.

And not all of the reportable procedures are detrimental to animals’ well-being. Just putting an animal into any form of isolation – on its own in a cage – is classed as a “procedure” that must be reported. Breeding a genetically modified animal is also a procedure, whether or not the modification causes distress (most don’t).

There has been a rapid rise in the number of such breeding procedures because knocking out certain genes gives us an idea of how to find cures for diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

In plain sight

That is not to say there aren’t unpleasant things going on. Yet “substantial” procedures account for only 2 per cent of the reported experiments. This is why all sides are keen to see a review of Section 24 of the Animals Act. Currently, no one can find out anything about what kinds of experiments are going on without making a Freedom of Information request. This understandably makes animal rights advocates angry and it makes scientists look sinister.

Take the case of cats. The number of cat “procedures” rose by 26 per cent over the past decade. That seems shocking, but most of the increase was due to studies on nutrition – testing claims of pet food manufacturers, for instance. When the secrecy surrounding that kind of work can lead to bombs under your car and death threats routinely dropping through your letter box, no one can dispute that something needs to change.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99)

 

A lab worker displays a bald mouse used in medical research. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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Miners against coal: the pit where former Welsh miners are protesting alongside climate change activists

The Merthyr Tydfil miners’ long history of struggle is spurring them on to a whole new form of action.

The retired miners and factory workers at the working men's club in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil are no strangers to hard times. Our second son was born during the 1984 strike and we had nothing for 12 months, one member tells me. The town continues to struggle with unemployment – last year the rate for men was nearly double that of the UK as a whole – over three decades on from the miners’ strike. But these days the atmosphere at the club is more resigned than radical. A singer croons his way through “Only the Lonely”, while talk at the bar is of better times: days when work was plentiful, days when, “you went down the mine a boy and came up a man”.

When the deep pits closed in the 1980s, Merthyr became a dumping ground – quite literally. Not only is the nearby landfill one of Europe's biggest, the valley is now home to the largest opencast (open-pit) mining operation in the UK. Its towering spoil tips throw a Mordor-esque shadow over the community below, coating homes and lungs alike in dust. 

Even former miners lament the small number of poorly-regulated jobs the Ffos-Y-Fran pit currently provides. Opencast is lorry driving, not mining, is a sentiment I hear repeated across the town, from the club bar to chip shops to the office of the miners’ union itself.

Just as the town's fortunes rose with coal, so they have plummeted as the industry has declined. While the fuel still accounts for around 10 per cent of UK electricity generation on any given day, last year generation fell to its lowest level since the 1950s. The need to decarbonise also looks set to reduce demand further. The effects of last December's Paris climate agreement – and its aim to limit warming below 2C  are already being felt in Wales: the Aberthaw power station is a key destination for Welsh coal, but recently announced plans to reduce its output.

The club's secretary can only think of one member who still works in the mine. Others I encounter chase shifts at the local meat-packing factory, or have to travel for over an hour outside the town. Support for jobs unsurprisingly usually trumps support for climate change deals: “If it brings in work, we don’t have a problem with it,” is the general consensus inside the club. If someone tells you they're against the mine, they're probably from England, not Wales, says a resident of the nearby village of Fochriw. 

The people of Merthyr, however, are also no strangers to fighting perceived injustice. In the early nineteenth century, Merthyr's thriving ironworks made it the largest town in Wales. But when depression hit in 1831, low wages and sudden dismissals drove many to despair. By the start of June that year, thousands gathered to march against the iron masters and coal barons. And for the very first time, the red flag of revolution was raised on British soil.

185 years later, while club members sipped their drinks, others are writing Merthyr's history afresh. Up on the hills above the town  beyond the litter-strewn fields and the “Danger: No trespass” signs  around 300 campaigners from across the UK gathered to call for an end to coal.

Led by the climate activist group Reclaim the Power, many of the camp’s young attendees work for Westminster MPs and NGOs. A litter-pick was followed by the rapid erection of communal kitchens and sustainable loos. There were safe spaces, legal training, and warnings not to disturb the nearby nesting birds.

On Tuesday morning, the activists occupied and (temporarily) shut down operations at the mine – tying themselves to machinery and lying across access roads in an attempt to symbolise the red line that carbon emissions must not cross. Their action is the first in a fortnight of global anti-fossil fuel protests  from plans for train heists in Albany, to protesting in kayaks in Vancouver. And while global reach counts for little without local support, the climate campaigners at Ffos-Y-Fran are not alone.

Since 2007, members of the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG), a group of local residents and ex-miners, have also fought the mine's planned expansion into the nextdoor valley. On Tuesday, many joined with the activists to blockade the entrance to the mine's headquarters. One member, 56-year-old Phil Duggan, has worked in the pits from the age of 16. And while he is “no tree-hugger”, he is tired of accepting jobs at any cost.

I don't want my children to suffer the ill health I have,” he says. “To some extent we [ex-miners] have been able to claim compensation. But the way things are going now you're not going to be able to claim anything. The deregulation of employment is making people desperate  we're going back to an era that our fore-fathers unionised to put right.”

In a strange twist of fate, it’s these Merthyr miners history of struggle – their long fight to protect their livelihoods and communities  which now spurs them to action against new mines.


Phil Duggan entered the pits aged 16. Photos: India Bourke

Wayne Thomas at the National Union of Mineworkers says he recognises that, unless carbon capture technology can develop apace, the Paris agreement looks set to speed up  coal's decline. But he also believes that British coal has its place in responsibly managing the transition to renewables – a place that includes reducing foreign imports, cleaning up the dirty acts of private mining companies, and putting control back in the hands of local communities. If you're going to phase out an industry, you've got to put something in place to limit the damage.

For evidence, he need point no further than the co-operatively run mine at Tower colliery, where an independently-managed fund ensures that, when the time comes, the opencast site will be carefully regenerated. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the privately-owned operation at Ffos-Y-Fran for certain.

Last year, the Welsh Assembly voted in favour of a moratorium on opencast mining. The government has yet to act, but this may change depending on how the balance of power falls after Thursday's elections. Assembly candidates from both the Green party and Liberal Democrats voiced their support for the UVAG campaigners at a meeting in one of the villages effected by the new pit proposals.

Utlimately, the decline of some of Welsh coal's main customers  the steel works at Port Talbot and the power station at Aberthaw  is likely do more to undermine UK coal than the red lines campaigners draw. But, along the way, new alliances between climate idealists and unions could breathe new life into both movements. In the words of Merthyr Tydfil’s ancient motto: “Nid cadarn ond brodyrdde”  Only brotherhood is strong.


Chris and Alyson, founders of United Valleys Action Group.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.