Last week, the Sunday Independent published a curious article about a new water technology that purported to be the “greatest breakthrough in agriculture since the plough”. This alone set my baloney detector into overdrive, and I quickly tweeted about it on our Cork Skeptics account. The story quickly went viral, catching the attention of the sceptical community in the UK and Ireland, appearing on various blogs, forums and news aggregators and getting some media attention too.

The article outlines a “groundbreaking technology” that, when applied to plants, increases their size and output, making them largely disease resistant too. What is this technology, you might ask? Water. Or more specifically, water energised by radio waves. Like, who’d have thought of that?

The article fails to convince on a number of levels. First of all, there are the exaggerated claims. Not only does the writer refer to the technology as the greatest thing since the plough, but he mentions huge savings in fertilisers, believes it can combat global warming and alludes to gigantic chickens and sheep. Then, there are the swipes at the standard bête noirs of the alternative community: pesticides and GM foods. Then there’s the muddled science that adds radio waves to water to create a miracle substance: as if nobody has tried that one before. In addition, there were the appeals to authority – the “foremost agricultural specialist”, the Kew references, the University of Limerick and Indian Government associations.

Overall, it was a badly written article that read like a rushed press-release.  It all sounded too good, too amazing, too miraculous, to be true.

I took a quick look at Vi-Aqua’s website and immediately I came across another red-flag: its lack of any side-effects. Vi-Aqua was quickly looking more like the agricultural equivalent of Homeopathy, the long discredited alternative medical treatment that has no side effects precisely because it doesn’t actually do anything. And what did I find in the “Full Scientific Proof” Report on Page 8? Yep. “Magnetic Water Memory”. In other words, Homeopathy.

Then, on Page 8: “To date no supporting scientific papers have been published”. Then why make such outlandish claims in the national newspapers? It seemed to me that we were seeing another Steorn, another Cold Fusion, another Arsenic Life, where the normal peer review process was being bypassed in order to generate media interest.

Andrew Jackson of TCD got on the case. He had a few commentaries to add: the paper cast a wide net in order to identify apparent statistical correlations, it referred to pig studies that were unblinded and inadequately controlled. None of the studies adequately supported the wild claims the article was making. picked it up. In the comments there was a link to a “Gallery of Water Related Pseudo-science”, in which Vi-Aqua got a mention. We also learned that the technology had been around since 2004. There was also a Reddit link with a commenter claiming that they had tested this stuff in 2007 with no discernible effect.

Then there was the Kew connection. The Sunday Independent article said the following:

In recognition of the groundbreaking technology, the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, London, recently took the hitherto unheard-of step of granting Professor Austin Darragh and his team the right to use their official centuries-old coat of arms on the new technology – the first time ever that Kew Gardens has afforded anyone such an honour.

A friend contacted Kew Gardens, and although initially the response was that they endorsed Vi-Aqua, I received a tweet later which said “Thank you your interest. Kew has not endorsed these products since 2006. The article in the Irish Independent was inaccurate.”

Screen Shot 2013-08-31 at 01.28.57

This pretty much brings us up to date. It would be good to hear more from Kew Gardens and from the Warrenstown people, with a review of their controls from a scientific perspective. It would also be interesting how comfortable the University of Limerick is about this, given that they appear to be associated with these claims.

Many thanks to Donncha (for alerting me to the story in the first place) and Andrew, John & Christian for the further insights.

Also worth a read is my previous blog entry on Austin Darragh, where, on national radio, he associated Chronic Fatigue Syndrome to antibiotics.