Where was the environment?

This is a slightly modified version of an article I wrote for the magazine of Leith Community Crops in Pots. Apart from where explicitly stated otherwise, I do not claim that this represents the views of the board of this organisation or, indeed, anyone associated with it. It is my personal opinion.

Environment not an election issue?

When I first drafted this, the dust had not yet settled after the Labour leadership contest. To the extent that the media mentioned policies at all (as opposed to Corbyn’s dress sense or singing proclivities), it was disappointing that the contenders’ views on the environment were not mentioned, as far as I know. Similarly, during the general election it seems that this fundamental issue was neglected.

Economic growth was apparently one point on which all the major parties and the media agreed – that it is unambiguously a good thing and so must be promoted, the only question being how to do this. There is huge evidence, however, that economic growth, per se, does not necessarily lead to a better quality of life for most people. (Indeed, when it is coupled to widening inequality, quite the opposite.) Furthermore, economic growth (as measured by GDP) has long been correlated with increased consumption of material goods and energy, and this increased consumption of goods and energy is related to the depletion of non-renewable resources and the destruction of the ‘ecosystem services’ on which we all depend.


Natural Capital… or another corporate carve-up?

Not apart but a part

To address this, there are those who argue for the marketisation – the trading, or buying and selling – of ecosystems and their ‘services’. The buzzword here (or buzzphrase) is ‘natural capital’. This is madness. The market has shown itself to be a volatile and dangerous entity, focused on the short term and wide open to manipulation by the selfish and greedy. The very use of the term ‘services’ is arguably both a symptom and a cause (part of a vicious circle, then) of our alienation from nature and the environment. We may think that we are apart from nature, when really we are a part of it, and a mere intellectual understanding of ‘ecosystem services’ (full knowledge of which is impossible anyway) is not enough to make a meaningful difference to how people (and corporations) behave. To put things bluntly, multinational corporations, legally obliged to seek short-term ‘profit’ for their shareholders, and governments, subserviently doing these corporations’ bidding and mindlessly chasing economic growth, constitute a cancer on planet earth. Fortunately there are many organisations and individuals wise to the folly of going down the ‘natural capital’ route, and there is an open letter against the World Forum on Natural Capital.

Monoculture-deserts and profit-sucking supermarkets

Food is a major element in this cancer and this alienation, and therefore of the global environmental and wellbeing crisis in which we find ourselves. Industrial agriculture depends on very few people but vast quantities of agrochemicals, fossil fuels and, in some places, scarce water, and converts thousands of hectares of nature into monoculture-deserts with sterile and impoverished soils. More energy is used in growing this kind of food than is produced from it, and much of what is grown, although edible by people, is then fed to animals for meat production – an extremely inefficient way of feeding people. Add to this the fact that between a third and a half of all the food produced is wasted – not least by profit-sucking supermarkets, which, by the way, destroy jobs rather than create them. (Walmart, Asda’s parent company, destroys three jobs for every two it creates, according to Breaking the Set.)


Cuba leads the way in sustainable food production

Cure for global ills

It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, things absolutely have to change, so that food becomes a major part of the cure for global ills, rather than a cause. The production of food must cease to be merely a massive industrial occupation, or a despised, low-status scrabble for existence (in the developing world, where the poor face massive competition for land and resources from the ruthless multinationals your pensions may be invested in). Neither should it be just a hobby for a few privileged middle-class people with spare money and time, and their own garden or allotment. This is entirely feasible. Cuba has already shown the way.

Shaky foundations in carbon-depleted soil

Growing food should be a part of all of our lives, at least at some point between cradle and grave, because it is both good for us and for the environment. No child should grow up not knowing where food comes from. Indeed, no child should grow up without having eaten food that she or he has grown. No child should grow up without having plunged his hands into good, rich soil, full of wriggling earthworms. It’s not smartphones or tablet computers which keep us alive. Our edifice of superficially sophisticated technology is, if only we could see it, tottering on very shaky foundations in carbon-depleted soil.

Hideously misguided politicians and ecocidal, monocropping juggernauts

Politicians rabbit on about the importance of ‘IT skills’, of ‘employability’, of being educated for the ‘jobs market’ in an ‘increasingly competitive world’. To emphasise and prioritise these things is hideously misguided short-termism, because no matter how adept little fingers are at ‘swiping’ tablet computers, they can do no ‘coding’, no ‘serving the marketplace’ on a devastated planet. Our society is incredibly fragile. We are a few days away from starvation and riots, should industrial agriculture, with its massive fossil-fuel dependency, its extended distribution systems and its increasingly narrow genetic base, break down and, with the climate change it contributes to, this is increasingly likely. The genetic base of our major food plants is, of course, getting narrower as traditional farmers, custodians of the wide gene pool from which many modern crops were developed, are ridiculed and displaced by ecocidal, monocropping juggernauts. They are even trying to make it illegal to save seeds. (Sorry, but that is far more important an issue than whether little Jenny is a whizz at Minecraft. And little Jenny should know it!)

Spin-off benefits and emotional connection

Furthermore (and perhaps most importantly), just as with languages, arts and culture, the spin-off benefits of engagement with nature and gardening are enormous. It’s not an either-or issue: if you want your children to do well academically – and be ‘competitive in the jobs market’! – then they need to be happy, healthy and balanced. And, I would argue, for the sake of the environment on which we all depend, they need to develop a profound emotional connection with nature as children if they are to care about it as adults, and no amount of classroom lessons or wildlife documentaries can provide this. They need to climb trees, build dens, collect tadpoles and get their hands dirty. (You’ll find more information on this on Leith Community Crops in Pots’ website.)

The organisation I work for – Leith Community Crops in Pots – exists for all these reasons. And it’s probably safe to say that I speak for most of the Crops in Pots community when I state that we would love it if children could identify more invertebrates, plants and animals than company logos. We have arguably failed them, and the future of mankind, if they can’t. With apologies to the Greens, it’s high time that politicians started to talk about such things – my 2016 Holyrood vote is yours to win!

Let me conclude by recommending a wonderful introduction to an alternative way of producing food, the BBC’s ‘Farm for the Future’ documentary on YouTube. I think you’ll enjoy it.


Since finishing this essay, the Paris attacks have further raised the profile of the Syrian conflict. How disappointing that relatively little coverage has been given to the role of climate change in its genesis. See these articles for more on this:

Frankie Boyle on the fallout from Paris: ‘This is the worst time for society to go on psychopathic autopilot’

‘…It’s not an insult to the dead to wonder why France, a $2tn economy, couldn’t make a better offer to its disenfranchised youth than a bunch of sick bullies grooming them on the internet. It’s not apologism to try to understand why something happened. When Syria’s drought kicked in, 25% of the population became unemployed. The vast majority of the country’s livestock has died over the past decade. A lot of Isis are farmers with nowhere to go, their entire industry destroyed – you’d think they’d have more sympathy for journalists. Those who think radicalising a youngster has nothing to do with climate – have you seen Tatooine?’

Trying to follow what is going on in Syria and why? This comic will get you there in 5 minutes.

Posted in Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Pro-GM = anti-science.

Bella Caledonia exposes the people behind Sense About Science and the letter criticising the Scottish Government's position on GM crops. Click on the image to read it.

Bella Caledonia exposes the people behind Sense About Science and the letter criticising the Scottish Government’s position on GM crops. Click on the image to read it.

UPDATE: Bella Caledonia article exposes Sense About Science!

Since I wrote the article below, criticising Sense About Science’s unevidenced pro-GM rants, Bella Caledonia has exposed the individuals on the extreme libertarian right who are behind this murky organisation. The BBC utterly failed in its duty to investigate and question this organisation and its motives.

Yawn – the BBC champions GM yet again

This morning I was once again infuriated by the BBC’s blatant championing of GM. I was listening to BBC Radio Scotland (Good Morning Scotland) when they wheeled out two supposed representatives of the scientific community who laid into the Scottish Government for its recent ban on GM crops.

None of that famed BBC ‘balance’

The BBC failed, of course, to offer a platform to a scientist opposed to GM, leaving the naive listener under the impression that scientists overwhelmingly support GM and that it is anti-scientific to oppose it.  In reality, I maintain that the more extreme pro-GMers represent the worst aspects of science – thin-end-of-nothingers, who know nothing beyond the vanishingly small confines of their specialism, far less anything about food sovereignty, ecology or health, and whose main concern is their next sourcc of funding, which invariably comes from a multinational corporation concerned solely with making money from agro-industry. It’s hard not see such people as little more than conscienceless hirelings, willing to turn a blind eye as long as the cheque is big enough.

Rather than stop with these unsubstantiated allegations, however, I present below a detailed rebuttal of the rantings of two scientists explicitly representing ‘the view of science’ on a website by the name of Sense About Science (an Orwellian title if ever there were one). For multiple reasons, the statements on the website appear to fall short of what might be expected from an organisation purporting to ‘promote general understanding of scientific evidence, such as use of statistics [and] the process of peer review’.

Here are two questions on GM, supposedly submitted by the public for an expert scientific response, together with the answers by the so-called experts (I dissect their responses below):

(A) In a recent response piece to a news article in the BMJ detailing a new diet policy, it was claimed that organic farmers are “pioneers for health and ecology”. Does organic food really benefit human health?

Matt Audley:

Hugh Mann’s comment on a report detailing the failure of a UK government food and health policy suggests he believes organic food is the mystical answer to all our public health problems. Indeed, we “owe a special debt of gratitude” to organic farmers which is collected at the till when we purchase their produce.

In fact there is little evidence that organically grown produce is compositionally any different to conventionally produced food nor is it any safer. There have actually been incidences of contaminated organic crops causing serious public health issues.

Similarly, the absence of biotechnology from organic produce is of no relevance to public nutrition policy. There is overwhelming evidence attesting to the absence of a risk to human health resulting from the process of genetic engineering. Although organic food consumers avoid exposure to residues of modern, highly tested and regulated synthetic pesticides they may be unaware that organic systems are permitted to use old ones such as pyrethrum, the highly toxic compound copper sulphate and Bt toxin, amongst others.

Buying organic food at local markets is a luxury of a comfortable lifestyle far out of reach of those most in need of access to cheaper, healthier options.

(B) “I’ve read the claim that “No GM crops have been bred that consistently yield more”. Is there any context to add to this or is it simply the case that GM crops don’t produce higher yields?”

Professor Kevin Folta:

The literature clearly shows that yields are approximately the same between GM and non-GM equivalents, often more because of the GM insect protection, sometimes a little less. However, no GM crop contains genes that specifically target yield. They ensure the same yield at a lower cost and less environmental impact.

There are genes that do significantly impact yields, but those have not been commercialized, mostly because of high regulatory barriers.

(A) Matt Audley’s comments on organic farming

Extract from ‘Sense About Science’ website Comment
Matt Audley Who is Matt Audley?  As far as I can ascertain he is a PhD student who writes a stridently pro-GM blog. It would be interesting to know who is funding his studentship and whether he has any background in ecology or the health sciences. These questions, far from ad hominem attacks, are relevant to his credibility, as should become clear from the rest of this.
Hugh Mann’s comment on a report detailing the failure of a UK government food and health policy suggests he believes organic food is the mystical answer to all our public health problems. This is a subjective and pejorative interpretation, surprising for a website that purports to represent science. Rather than discrediting Hugh Mann, it reveals the prejudices of the author.
Indeed, we “owe a special debt of gratitude” to organic farmers which is collected at the till when we purchase their produce. Facile insult. Sarcasm of this nature is out of place on a website that claims to represent science. Again, no evidence is provided.
In fact there is little evidence that organically grown produce is compositionally any different to conventionally produced food. Unevidenced assertion. Below are extracts from just two (of many) relevant articles and papers. The first, citing peer-reviewed literature, argues inter alia that the concept of ‘substantial equivalence’ is meaningless in itself, i.e. that compositional analysis may be misleading and irrelevant (in other words, a red herring) when it comes to health and safety. The second article, which is itself peer-reviewed, demonstrates that, in any case, compositional differences do exist.

1)      ‘The preferred approach of the industry has been to use compositional comparisons between GM and non-GM crops. When they are not significantly different the two are regarded as “substantially equivalent”, and therefore the GM food crop is regarded as safe as its conventional counterpart. This ensures that GM crops can be patented without animal testing. However, substantial equivalence is an unscientific concept that has never been properly defined and there are no legally binding rules on how to establish it.’ (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-2)

2)      Chemical Analysis of BT corn…


There have actually been incidences of contaminated organic crops causing serious public health issues. A blatant red herring. Of course, all crops can become contaminated. Organic crops are not peculiarly susceptible. If one looks at this issue in more depth it becomes apparent that food waste (including through contamination) is a major global issue and that a considerable part of this is due to inadequate storage, which leaves food open to contamination with such things as Aspergillus flavus and A. parasiticus. GM technology does not address this kind of hazard. Indeed, it could be argued that it diverts resources away from such easily addressed and highly significant threats to the global food supply.

Furthermore, most GM crops are inherently contaminated with pesticides:

·         So-called ‘Roundup-Ready’ (RR), or glyphosate-resistant crops, are exposed to high levels of this herbicide (and therefore contain residues of it), which was recently described as a probable human carcinogen by the World Health Organisation (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-4). France subsequently moved to restrict retail sales (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-5).

·         ‘Bt’ crops have been genetically engineered to produce Bacillus thuringiensis insecticidal protein, and so contain it.

Similarly, the absence of biotechnology from organic produce is of no relevance to public nutrition policy. There is overwhelming evidence attesting to the absence of a risk to human health resulting from the process of genetic engineering. Wrong. GM-related companies have fought tooth and nail to prevent human food containing GM products being labelled as such, thus hampering epidemiological studies on their effects on human health. In the first half of 2014 alone, these companies are estimated to have spent more than $27-million on anti-labelling campaigns (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-6). Why have they done this, if they are so confident that their products are safe?

Matt Audley mentions ‘overwhelming evidence’ of no risk to human health, but fails to cite a single paper. If he had done his homework he would have discovered a 2011 paper reviewing studies on the long-term health impacts of GM crops (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-a).

Despite the fact that most of these studies were carried out by the very biotechnology companies responsible for commercialising the GM plants (and so cannot be regarded as independent), the work of about half the research groups involved raised ‘serious concerns’ about GM crops.

This raises the question of what constitutes credible, overwhelming scientific evidence. There are several elements to this:

(1)    First of all, if no evidence for deleterious effects of X on health has been found this is not the same as saying that there is overwhelming evidence that such effects do not exist, particularly if the experiments or surveys that would find such effects have not been carried out. As pointed out above, GM companies scarcely put themselves out to facilitate such work with regard to GM crops, doing what they can to thwart, in particular, human epidemiological studies. Indeed, some contend that they have actively sought to destroy the reputations of scientists who have looked for health effects and those who seek to publicise their findings (see, for example, http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-b and http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-c).

(2)    On a related topic, note that the manufacturers of neonicotinoid insecticides argued that their products were safe. It took sophisticated experiments by independent researchers to reveal just how harmful these products are to pollinating insects (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-d).

To develop the point about independence further, while peer-reviewed literature is often described as ‘the gold standard’ for scientific evidence, of itself a peer-reviewed paper does not constitute overwhelming evidence. The case for something becomes stronger when the work is replicated by independent researchers. The reason a single peer-reviewed paper does not constitute overwhelming evidence is that science works on a probabilistic basis. In general, science considers that a resultant is significant if, in the absence of ‘a real effect’, the results obtained could only have been expected to occur less often than on one in twenty occasions.

To use a specific example, let us say that one is attempting to see if a GM crop has a higher yield than a non-GM one. One could conduct a trial, planting ten similar plots with each variety and comparing the results. If the GM crop had no effect on yield, then one would expect that a ‘significant effect’ would only show up on fewer than one in twenty occasions on which one ran such a trial. However, if one ran the trial often then one would, by chance, be highly likely to find one trial that yielded ‘significant’ results. One could then publish these results with no reference to the ‘unsuccessful’ trials, and claim that GM crops increased or decreased yields, depending on what one wished to demonstrate.  The selective publication of ‘successful’ trials, or the equally unprincipled suppression of ‘unsuccessful’ ones, is a recognised phenomenon in the pharmaceuticals industry (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-e). It would be strange indeed if similar corporations involved in the GM business did not also indulge in such behaviour from time to time.

For this reason, replication by truly independent scientists is the real ‘gold standard’ of scientific evidence. In the case of GM this would mean scientists who do not stand to benefit, directly or indirectly (think career progression, for example), from GM technology.

In this context, the 2011 review paper cited above, which found, despite the fact that most trials on the health effects of GM were carried out by research groups with interests in the field, that about half of the groups’ work raised ‘serious concerns’, is truly alarming.

Although organic food consumers avoid exposure to residues of modern, highly tested and regulated synthetic pesticides they may be unaware that organic systems are permitted to use old ones such as pyrethrum, the highly toxic compound copper sulphate and Bt toxin, amongst others. ‘…modern, highly tested and regulated’? Buzz About Bees (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-f) states:

‘The CRD, HSE and Defra have ignored the advice in the EU Directive (2009/128/EC) on the Sustainable Use of Pesticides about conducting research: “Research programmes aimed at determining the impacts of pesticide use on human health and the environment, including studies on high-risk groups, should be promoted.”’

Audley writes: ‘[O]rganic systems are permitted to use old [pesticides] such as pyrethrum, the highly toxic compound copper sulphate and Bt toxin, amongst others.’  This is a red herring. The risks associated with toxins depends on what their properties are and how they are used, and inappropriate use of toxins in one system of farming does not justify inappropriate use in others.

Note in particular that if Audley is concerned about the topical use of Bt toxin in organic farming (i.e. on the outside of crops, where it washes off) then he should be greatly disturbed by the use of Bacillus thuringiensis genes in GM crops, because the toxin is then present inside the plants.

Buying organic food at local markets is a luxury of a comfortable lifestyle far out of reach of those most in need of access to cheaper, healthier options. There is so much prejudice, misinformation and political ideology compressed into this sentence that it requires considerable unpacking.

Audley sets up the straw-doll image of consumers of organic food as well-off but ignorant people who exclusively purchase this apparently expensive but inferior sustenance at local markets, largely because (we infer from his previous remarks) they misguidedly believe such food is healthier, and perhaps also because that it is a marker of status (suggested by his use of the loaded word ‘lifestyle’). He further appears to take as a given the merit of ‘cheap’ food (as opposed to affordable food within a fairer, more equal society) and he attempts (by further implication) to present agro-industry as the champion of the common people. Indeed, it is hard not to see this sentence as the cynical stoking (or, at least, manipulation) of class prejudice.

Audley implies that food other than organic is ‘healthier’, without defining his terms or citing any evidence to justify such a blanket statement. (His previous statements certainly do not contain such evidence.) This, in the context of its appearance as official opinion on a website purporting to represent science, is surely enough on its own to justify the charge that the website is bringing science into disrepute.

Notable by its absence from what Audley says is the topic of the environmental costs of food production systems, their relative productivity (for example, with regard to the ratio of fossil fuel energy used to grow, harvest, process, package and transport food to the energy derived from it) and, therefore, their sustainability.  Such considerations are, of course, regarded as irrelevancies (‘externalities’) by many economists. When such costs are factored in (even if one neglects the issue of the health impact of diets driven by the marketing skills and short-term profit-seeking of multinational corporations) then there is no such thing as the ‘cheap’ food Audley endorses.

Agro-industry (of which GM-related companies such as Syngenta, Monsanto and Bayer constitute a considerable part) is concentrating wealth and power, increasing inequality as it puts ever more resources into fewer hands. These resources include both plant varieties and land, with indigenous peoples displaced (from their often highly productive and ecologically appropriate farming) by vast monoculture-based enterprises (dependent on the massive use of fossil fuels), and invaluable genetic resources (heritage crop varieties) destroyed and/or controlled.  See Global Justice Now’s briefing on food sovereignty for a concise overview:  http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-g.

I work for one of many organisations (many are members of Nourish) that believe that everyone should have access to environmentally sound and pesticide-free food. We see this as a right, not a luxury reserved for Audley’s straw dolls. Furthermore, far from insisting that people should only buy such food from farmers’ markets, we encourage and help them to grow their own (an activity good for mental and physical health in its own right, cf. the application of pesticides to hectares of industrial monoculture), and we are also considering other intiatives to help the less advantaged enjoy good and environmentally sound food.

As a final point in relation to Audley’s championing of (superficially) ‘cheap’ food, note that simply by not wasting food the average UK household would have £470 more to spend on it per year (£700 for a family with children) (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-h). (Reducing food waste, and so both reducing environmental impact and freeing up income, is another of the areas of concern of the organisation for which I work.)

(B) Professor Kevin Folta’s comments on the yield, cost and environmental impact of GM crops

Extract from ‘Sense About Science’ website  



Professor Kevin Folta Who is Kevin Folta? Kevin Folta is a well-known pro-GM activist. He has no background in ecology or health matters, as far as I can determine. According to GM Watch (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-i):

‘Folta is a molecular biologist with no known health background. On GMOanswers, a website run by the GMO industry, it says, “Kevin Folta is a professor in and chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, Gainesville. He got his PhD in Molecular Biology from University of Illinois at Chicago in 1998, and he has worked at University of Wisconsin before settling in at University of Florida. Dr Folta researches the functional genomics of small fruit crops, the plant transformation, the genetic basis of flavors, and studies at photomorphogenesis and flowering. He has also written many publications and edited books, most recently was the 2011 Genetics, Genomics, and Breeding of Berries. Dr Folta received the NSF CAREER Award, an HHMI Mentoring Award and was recognized as “University of Florida Foundation Research Professor” in 2010.’

‘If you want to know about the genetic basis of flavours or the functional genomics of small fruit crops, Folta is your man. But how likely is it that Folta, a professor in the horticultural sciences department, will know and understand the impact of diet on human health? Is he a doctor, dietitian or nutritionist? Nope. Does he have a master’s degree in public health or PhD in a related field? Nope. Does he understand how we determine if something is safe for humans? Nope. The bottom line is that he does not have the qualifications to weigh in on diet and human health. But does he? Yes, all the time.’

I would point out that similar arguments can be used with reference to his comments about the environmental impact of GM crops – he does not have the qualifications to weigh in on this topic either. But does he weigh in on it? Yes, as he has done on the ‘Sense About Science’ website.

What motivates Folta? The GM Watch article cited above goes on to say:

Folta says that people often accuse him of working for or being funded by Monsanto. But he replies, “I have never received any financial compensation for my time,” implying that he does not have a conflict of interest with regards to his work around GMOs. However, he works for a university that receives funding from the GMO industry. So he stands to benefit if GMOs do well and could potentially lose his job if funding for GMO research wanes.’

Here are two other illuminating references to Folta:

·         AN OPEN LETTER TO PROFESSOR KEVIN FOLTA ON FOIA REQUESTS (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-j)

·         Sowing Seeds of Misinformation: Let’s Set the Record Straight on GMO Crops and foods! (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-k)

The literature clearly shows that yields are approximately the same between GM and non-GM equivalents, often more because of the GM insect protection, sometimes a little less. However, no GM crop contains genes that specifically target yield. They ensure the same yield at a lower cost and less environmental impact. The key assertions here are that GM crops ensure the same yield ‘at lower cost’ and ‘less environmental impact’. I am astounded by what Folta writes. Under what circumstances can GM crops produce yields equivalent to those of non-GM crops at the same cost and with less environmental impact? Is he, perchance, only comparing one form of monoculture-based, pesticide- and fossil fuel-dependent agro-industry with another?  Even then, I contend he would have to be highly selective in what evidence he used to back such assertions. (Of course, he provides no data at all.)

There is abundant evidence that GM crops are expensive and have a high environmental impact and that the absolute yields from much more environmentally benign and cheaper forms of agriculture (for example, those described by such not-necessarily-exclusive terms as ‘eco-agriculture’, ‘organic farming’, ‘permaculture’, ‘agroforestry’ and ‘analog forestry’) are at least comparable, if not higher, particularly in conditions found in the developing world. Of course the yields of the latter, in relative terms (relative to cost or fossil fuel input, for example) are hugely higher, and this is a far more important point.

Here are just a few references, of the many available in support of my comments:

·         GM Crops and Food Security (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-l)

·         GM Corn Farmers Lose Lands, Increase Debts Says New Research (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-m)

·         Loss of Biodiversity and Genetically Modified Crops


·         Can Organic Farming Feed Us All? (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-o)

·         Permaculture and the Myth of Scarcity (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-p)

As a footnote to this section, note that the question of yield, per se, is not a significant issue when it comes to global food security, because the world already produces far more food than is needed, wasting about a third of it. (See the FAO report, ‘Global food losses and food waste’, http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-q.) GM advocates often talk about the need to increase food production. At least Audley and Folta have not made this error in the comments addresed here.

There are genes that do significantly impact yields, but those have not been commercialized, mostly because of high regulatory barriers.  This is the typical ‘jam tomorrow’ argument, beloved of GM-advocates. The fact is that the only two major comercial innovations they have produced, despite massive investment over decades, are inserting the Bt gene and inserting genes conferring resistance to glyphosate. Both these damaging ‘advances’ are discussed above.

Of course they want lower ‘regulatory barriers’ – more profit and to hell with the risk! I prefer to call them ‘sensible regulatory safeguards’.

Yes, food supply is a global issue, but the problem is one of waste, lack of food sovereignty and huge inequality, and by and large the multinational agro-industrial companies behind GM are part of the problem, not the solution.

Here – and the irony is not lost on me – is a lovely BBC documentary which illustrates what most certainly is part of the solution:

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Refuse to be complicit in austerity and council budget cuts

I just sent the message below to all of my council representatives. Feel free to use it as a model for your own emails.

Dear ____

I am writing to you as one of my representatives to object in the strongest possible terms to Edinburgh Council’s cynical budget cuts consultation exercise.(https://www.edinburgh.gov.uk/budget).

    • I consider that if I participated I would become complicit in imposing further hardship on the poorest and most vulnerable in society who most rely on council services.
Owen Jones on tax avoidance

The wealthiest typically contribute proportionally less than others to the common good and have also benefited hugely from the neoliberal policies of recent years. This must cease. They should fund council budget shortfalls.

  • Instead,I call on you, as one of my elected representatives, to present us with alternative ways of raising funds from the wealthiest in society – those who have benefited greatly from neoliberal policies in recent decades. Examples would include raising council tax for properties in the highest ratings band, imposing a land-value tax, raising income tax on the wealthiest and imposing a tourism tax.
  • Where powers to make such changes do not lie with the local authority, you should demand that the Scottish Government enact the necessary legislation.
  • Where the Scottish Government lacks the necessary power, it should demand that Westminster enact the appropriate legislation.
  • I maintain that simply to accept the necessity of cuts at any level is to be complicit in them, and therefore I call on you to resign rather than participate in making the poor pay, yet again, for the policies of the rich.
  • The UK is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. It is entirely unacceptable to attack the poorest rather than ask the wealthiest to make a fair and entirely affordable contribution to the society from which they benefit.

I look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely


You can find your Edinburgh Council representatives here: http://www.edinburgh.gov.uk/councillors/search .

Other Scottish Councils are doing similar things.  For example, here is Midlothian Council’s consultation exercise – http://www.midlothian.gov.uk/press/article/641/balance_our_books_with_new_budget_simulator – and you can identify your Midlothian Council representatives here: http://www.midlothian.gov.uk/councillors.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Letter to my MP: Please vote against the UK taking military action


Bombing will solve nothing. It will kill innocents and make the rich richer.

[Update:  See the excellent response I received from my MP in the comments section below.]

I just sent the following to my MP. If you wish to take similar action, you can find out how to contact him/her here: http://www.parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/mps/.

Dear ____

I urge you, as my MP, to vote against the UK taking military action against IS. I also urge you to read this MediaLens article on the issue: “The Purpose And The Pretence – Bombing Isis“.

There is no reason to believe that IS is any worse than other forces in the area and, in any case, it is highly unlikely that airstrikes would resolve anything. The only certain outcomes of the UK’s participation would be further civilian deaths and the transfer of public wealth into private hands (through the arms industry, at the very least). A likely outcome would be the generation of further so-called “terrorism”. (In reality, as I hope you will acknowledge, “terrorists” are simply our enemies du jour; to many we are the “terrorists”.

I would also suggest that you might like to refresh your memory of George Orwell’s 1984. The parallels with the present-day UK are striking. I shall not insult your intelligence by pointing them out for you.

Thak you for considering this. I look forward to your response.

Best wishes

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No-voters, read ‘1984’ as you smugly sip your Victory Gin and, Big Brother, we are watching you. #IndyRef


George Orwell’s ‘1984’ was supposed to be a warning, not a how-to guide.


I am saddened by the No-victory in the Scottish independence referendum. For many years I have been campaigning for a fairer society and world, trying to shake people from their states of complacency, obliviousness, apathy or hopelessness, and to alert them to the horror and ruthlessness of what is variously called neoliberalism, hypercapitalism or ‘free-market’ capitalism.

An opportunity missed

It seems my comrades and I failed to inform and motivate enough people to take advantage of an historic chink in neoliberalism’s armour and to vote Yes. While Scottish independence would not, in itself, have guaranteed escape from neoliberalism’s clutches, it would at least have been a first step to freedom, which is, of course, why all the forces of neoliberalism were ranged against us, using all the tricks at their disposal to bludgeon the masses into voting No.

Free markets?

Note the quotation marks I used around ‘free-market’. This is one of neoliberalism’s biggest lies – that the markets are free. As anyone who takes the trouble to look into it will discover, they are rigged, in favour of the super-rich and multinational companies. (Search, for example, ‘transfer pricing‘ or look at the World Development Movement’s interactive graphic, demonstrating the links between the UK government, financial institutions and the fossil fuel industry.)


‘Free-market’ is but one example of the deceitful terminology used by the proponents of neoliberalism to brainwash and control us, exactly as Newspeak was used by INGSOC to subjugate the people of Oceania in George Orwell’s 1984. Just as ‘free-market’ means the opposite of its superficial cuddly, sunshine-and-happiness connotation, so do the terms ‘defence’ (Ministry of Defence/defence force) and ‘together/togetherness’ (Better Together).

The oxymoronic nature of ‘defence force’ needs little explanation, what with the mass-murders perpetrated by the US-UK military-industrial complex in Iraq and Afghanistan and this complex’s unconditional support for child-murdering, ethnic-cleansing Israel. Since WWII how often have the UK and US ‘defence/defense’ forces been used to legitimately and unambiguously defend their respective countries against attack?

The Newspeak credentials of the phrase ‘Better Together’ are best understood with reference to the obscene increase in socio-economic inequality in recent decades (is one human being really worth billions of pounds more than another?) and the societal divisions this causes: the scapegoating of relatively powerless minorities, the breakdown in trust and the increased lack of empathy. (You’ll find plenty of evidence for this linked from my toolkit.) By Scotland staying ‘together’ with the neoliberal UK we are sustaining and financing this massive force for global division and conflict.

Big Brother is watching you.

No-voters, please read ‘1984’ as you sip your Victory Gin.

The parallels with 1984 do not stop with Newspeak, of course. Here are some other examples:

  • WAR IS PEACE (We are constantly told that this war, that war and the other war are necessary to defend peace, ‘our values’ and ‘our way of life’. In reality, war is largely a means of expropriating natural resources and public goods for private benefit.)
  • The frequent flipflops between countries with which Oceania is at war/peace and the eradication of the memory/knowledge of this from popular consciousness (The Taliban, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi…)
  • The need for a hate figure. (No explanation required.)
  • FREEDOM IS SLAVERY (In fact, debt induced through, amongst other things, the instilled belief that we need and should have the ‘freedom’ to buy various consumer goods and material markers of status, traps most of us in economic servitude: our ‘freedom’, to buy essentially meaningless trinkets, traps us in slavery.)
  • IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH (Our ignorance is their strength.)
  • BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU (The monitoring of our internet use, emails and mobile phone communications, pervasive video camera surveillance.)
  • Pornosec ‘which turned out cheap pornography for distribution among the proles’. (No explanation required.)
  • The Lottery (No explanation required.)
  • The constant economy drives. (= austerity)

Victory GinAs you sip your Victory Gin…

Triumphant No-voters, as you smugly sip your Victory Gin, please read 1984 and compare it to the world we live in: the book was supposed to be a warning, not a how-to guide!

Then, if your conscience troubles you at all, join us, the broad movement of environmental and human rights activists (one example of which is the Radical Independence Campaign), in campaigning to make the world a better place. You will be welcomed, and possibly forgiven, by a diverse group of dedicated and imaginative people.

Remember that if your eyes have been opened by something we have written, said or done (and I include George Orwell as one of us), it is possible for you to open the eyes of others, and if enough of us can see clearly, we may yet win.


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Big money won it for No, but the moral victory is ours. #indyref

Indyref postcard

Her spirit shall live on

The side that spends the most…

With hindsight, we should have realised what was going to happen. All the evidence shows that in political campaigns the side that spends the most money wins (as Dr Rosslyn Fuller says).

David against an army of Goliaths

In the case of the Scottish independence referendum the No side (Project Fear) not only had significantly more direct funding (from its wealthy donors), but it also had virtually the entire neoliberal establishment behind it – practically all the mainstream media (with the honourable, if late, exception of the Sunday Herald), most of the super-rich, the majority of multinational companies, and the British state (= the US-UK military-industrial complex). Their input would have been valued at billions of pounds had it been paid-for advertising. There was therefore a difference in effective spending between the No campaign and the Yes campaign of not one but several orders of magnitude – a battle not so much between David and Goliath, but between David and an army of Goliaths.

Indyref postcard2

The struggle for equality and liberty is a long way from over.

Joie de vivre

Given the thickness of the resultant propaganda-cocoon that swaddled most of the population, the Yessers can take enormous pride in the very significant section of the population they managed to reach. This was due to the blood, sweat and tears of thousands of unpaid activists, their idealism, optimism, humour, creativity, camaraderie (old hatchets buried) and sheer joie de vivre. To do as well as we did amounts to an overwhelming moral victory.

The thousand butterflies

Let the thousand butterflies not be broken on the wheel of neoliberal ruthlessness, or driven by this death-cult into greed, callousness, apathy, fear and ignorance, as many No-voters undoubtedly were. (I may discuss the many ways the No camp’s strategy worked in another short essay, although Noam Chomsky has already said much that is relevant.) We can only hope that the accuracy of our interpretation of the British state will become obvious soon, and that there will be fertile ground for us, ground that can no longer be confiscated by the plutocracy, but which a peaceful revolution (that will blossom in ways we can not yet imagine, and of which the outcome will not be dependent on finance), will claim.

Our day will come

Stay strong, comrades. It has been an honour and a pleasure working alongside and getting to know so many of you. Our day will surely come.

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The Yes campaign is aggressive?

David Cameron and Israeli flag

The UK supports Israel, a nation that murders children with impunity. Yet passionate supporters of Scottish independence are accused of being aggressive when they point out the links between the UK and such atrocities.

I am so weary of us being accused of aggression. We are passionate, of course. We are passionate because we are campaigning for a fairer country and world. The ridiculousness of us being accused of aggression is startling.

We are aware of the links between the UK and global horrors – the UK’s role in directly and indirectly generating terrorism and suppressing democracy, in plundering resources and facilitating tax evasion, in increasing inequality and societal division, both locally and globally, and its planet-destroying pursuit of profit.

The UK supports Israel. The UK supported Pinochet and Suharto, both mass-murderers and torturers. The UK backed the Taliban. The UK brutally kicked the Chagas islanders off Diego Garcia, to clear it for a US military base.  Now we have an amazing opportunity to break up this aggressive entity, peacefully and legally.  Bearing in mind the words of Pastor Niemöller, we surely must take action. He said:

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

I think the least we can all do, to make the world a better place, is to avail ourselves of this unique opportunity and vote Yes.

And yes, I do think that those who fail to do so are to some extent complicit.

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