Dear SNP Candidate, please give me a reason to vote for you.

Below you will find the text of an email I am sending to my local SNP constituency candidate. Should you share my concerns, feel free to use it as a model for a letter/email to your own SNP candidate. (The actual header I used for the email was: ‘Twelve issues. Please give me just one reason to vote for you.’)

Dear ___

Disillusion

I write to you as someone who has supported and worked for the SNP, who strongly believes in Scottish independence but is not a member of any political party. I struggle now to describe how I feel about the SNP and its candidates in the run-up to the forthcoming Scottish parliamentary elections, but adjectives such as disillusioned, frustrated, apathetic and depressed come to mind, and I know that several acquaintances feel the same.

The party

On the whole, I find the SNP’s current policies range from uninspiring, timid and fence-sitting, to outright socially and environmentally destructive. The party appears to have positioned itself as ‘neoliberalism lite’. This is an oxymoron, because neoliberalism, with its five core tenets (the rule of the market, cutting public expenditure for social services, deregulation, privatisation and eliminating the concept of ‘public good’ or ‘community’), is an all-or-nothing phenomenon, the only question being how quickly one reaches the bottom. Yes, the SNP pays lip-service to opposing some of these things, but handsome is as handsome does, and timidity amounts to complicity with the nihilistic, ideological tenets of neoliberalism.

These tenets are purely ideological, because they are not based on empirical evidence, but on the hermetically sealed, self-referent theories of neoclassical economics, which assume that people are fundamentally selfish and competing individual units or ‘consumers’. Alas, there is a tragic element of community-destroying, competitive, beggar-thy-neighbour self-fulfilment in this, but things absolutely do not need to be this way. Adam Smith, widely misunderstood and misquoted, would have been appalled by today’s subservience to the short-term interests of multinational companies. As an aside, any politician who talks about the interests of ‘consumers’ instantly loses me. I consider myself rather to be a responsible global citizen, and I am writing to you in that capacity.

A fundamental neoliberal myth is that the wealthy ‘create jobs’. Walmart (Asda’s parent company) destroys three jobs for every two it creates, and please see Nick Hanauer’s talk on this issue. What large companies and the wealthy do do, however, is concentrate wealth and power, and then they use this to suborn politicians, promote neoliberal policies and widen inequality. Fundamentally, I am asking you to take a stand against this.

‘Blandidates’?

Since the SNP became the dominant party in Scotland, I fear it has attracted careerist politicians, keen to do the bidding of the party hierarchy and not prepared to challenge it on anything, far less on matters of principle. I received your campaign leaflet and, sadly, I found nothing in it to suggest that you are other than one of these subservient ‘blandidates’. However, I am happy to give you the benefit of the doubt, and I hope that you will prove me wrong.

I really want to vote for you, but my conscience will not let me do this unless there is at least one issue on which you are prepared to stick your head above the parapet and challenge party policy. I would rather leave my constituency vote unused than vote for a blandidate who toes the ‘neoliberalism-lite’ party line on all issues. It is not good enough to be the least bad of a bad bunch of corporate lickspittles.

Below, I list twelve issues about which I feel strongly. Can you agree with me on any one of these, and would you be prepared to challenge your party’s official policy on it? If you can answer in the affirmative, my vote is in your bag. I am sure others I know will also feel more enthusiastic about supporting you. The SNP needs principled and courageous members.

1. Education

Your leaflet mentions your background in the teaching profession. As a former teacher, do you feel that the merging of colleges was the right thing to do, and well executed? My understanding is that college lecturers in the run-up to the mergers were put under intolerable pressure (that bullying occurred), that the mergers have significantly reduced the access of people from disadvantaged areas to courses that could have made a real difference to their lives, and that the ‘high heid yins’ benefited massively, either through grossly inflated pay-offs or highly paid new positions. Will you admit that the mergers were a mistake?

One of your fellow candidates is educating her children privately (and, incidentally, I understand she has also spoken out against progressive income tax). I can accept that you will not want to criticise an individual directly, but will you at least call for the charitable status of private schools to be revoked? I maintain that they are divisive and corrupting institutions, entrenching inequality and privilege.

Secret Trade Deals threaten to undermine democracy and allow corporations to sue governments for trying to protect their citizens.

Secret Trade Deals threaten to undermine democracy, allowing corporations to sue governments for trying to protect their citizens.

2. STDs

The Scottish Government is sitting on the fence when it comes to what I call the new STDs: the Secret Trade Deals, such as CETA and TTIP. A perusal of the facts should leave you in no doubt that it is entirely insufficient to merely call for guarantees that they will not undermine the NHS. The ISDS (Investor-State Dispute Settlement) mechanism would allow companies to sue governments for policies protecting their environments and citizens, if these policies harmed company profits.

Big claims are made for the number of jobs that will be created, etc., but the precedent of the disastrous US-Korea Free Trade Deal is good evidence that the opposite is more likely. Scottish independence, in the shackles of such STDs, would be all but meaningless.

Will you oppose STDs outright?

3. Fossil fuels

The SNP rightly proclaims the virtues of the Scottish Government’s ‘world-beating greenhouse gas targets’. Yes there has been some progress, but the Scottish Government has consistently failed to meet the targets. Furthermore, the SNP/SG called for the UK Government to reduce taxes on the oil industry and supports a reduction in air passenger duty. This is environmental lunacy, and calls into question the sincerity of the greenhouse gas targets. To make matters worse, the SNP has accepted money from a drilling company and the SG is sitting on the fence regarding fracking. The moratorium is ostensibly to allow time for a full inquiry into the environmental and other impacts of fracking. The very fact that the SNP is not outright banning this nasty process implies that it believes that exploiting yet another fossil fuel can somehow not be bad for the biosphere!

I would like you to declare that fossil fuels should be considered to be stranded assets, and that massive investment should instead be made into green energy, public transport, etc., if necessary financed by borrowing. The history of successful businesses suggests that government support and investment is crucial in their early stages. (For evidence on this, and incidentally also on many of the myths spun by proponents of neoliberalism, see Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. I recommend that all politicians read this book, which is not ideological in tone.) By failing to move decisively and courageously now, the Scottish Government is missing a massive opportunity, and is setting up huge problems for the future.

Will you call for air passenger duty to be increased? Will you call for the money received from the drilling company to be returned? Will you unambiguously oppose fracking? Will you call for the oil industry to be phased out as soon as possible and for it to be supplanted by a truly world-leading green energy sector, massive investment in insulation and for all public bodies to source their energy suppliers on the basis of their environmental credentials? And what about supporting the public ownership of utilities companies while doing more to support community ownership of local renewable energy schemes?

4. Land reform

The SNP’s timidity on this important issue is extremely disappointing. It is shameful that so few people own so much of Scotland, and that much of this ownership is both foreign and obscure (tax havens…). Will you support a detailed register of land ownership, restrictions on foreign ownership of land, giving tenant farmers the right to buy, and a land value tax? (Please see Andy Wightman’s blog for further information.)

5. Rewilding

Far from supporting rewilding, the SNP shamefully allowed Donald Trump to destroy part of an irreplaceable SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and is now, to the best of my knowledge, sitting on the fence regarding the reintroduction of beavers. In the meantime, farmers are shooting these animals, including those that have recently given birth or are pregnant, complaining that they damage trees and cause flooding in fields bordering streams and rivers.

However, beavers have been shown to reduce flooding downstream, as well as provide valuable wetland habitat. Rather than protecting farming in unsuitable floodplain areas, the Scottish Government should be looking at the broad picture and the long term. With rainfall predicted to increase in intensity as global warming continues, there are several good reasons for supporting the reintroduction of beavers. If necessary, a compensation or land buy-out scheme would, in my opinion, be well worthwhile.

How Wolves Change Rivers: this short video is an inspiring introduction to the topic of re-wilding, and the reintroduction of formerly native species.

This short video is an inspiring introduction to the topic of rewilding, especially the reintroduction of formerly native species.

The Scottish Government is also less than enthusiastic about the reintroduction of other species, such as lynx, wolves and bears. These species would greatly reduce deer numbers and foster the recovery of forests across Scotland, with huge benefits for biodiversity and carbon sequestration (i.e. the combating of climate change), not to mention eco-tourism.

The impact on those with interests in current environmentally damaging and subsidy-dependent farming systems, and the grouse-shooting industry (which maintains vast swathes of the country in a low state of biodiversity and ecological succession), would be small in proportion to the benefits, and it is surely not beyond the wit of the Scottish Government and its advisers to come up with an equitable compensation scheme, if this is deemed necessary.

To get an idea of just how positive and dramatic the re-wilding of Scotland could be, see, for example, this fascinating short video titled ‘How Wolves Change Rivers‘.

I urge you to speak out on this issue.

6. Agro-industry

Our food and agricultural system by and large serves neither people’s health nor is it environmentally sustainable. This is an issue which intersects with many others, and I could write pages on it. However, I would simply direct your attention to three items, which should give you a good idea of the main issues:

  1. PLENTY : Food, Farming and Health in a New Scotland
  2. FORCE-FED : Does the food system constrict healthy choices for typical British families?
  3. Meat consumption in Scotland: analysis from the Expenditure and Food Survey

Here are a few ideas for you:

  • Will you speak about the need to reduce the consumption of red and processed meat, for both health and environmental reasons?
  • Will you call for all public bodies in Scotland to be obliged to source only local and organic produce, as far as possible? (This could be phased in.)
  • Will you campaign for radical reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, in particular to end subsidies for large land-owners who ‘farm’ in environmentally destructive ways?
  • Will you campaign for changes to European Union legislation to permit countries to discriminate against imported food of lower environmental and welfare standards?
  • Will you make it obligatory for all Scottish schoolchildren to grow at least some of their own food and for them to have cookery classes? Food should be the core of the curriculum for excellence, and should be woven into all other subjects.
  • Will you place restrictions on the large supermarket chains’ monopoly of our food supply?
  • Will you campaign for legislation to favour small and environmentally sustainable producers and systems at the expense of large scale agro-industrial enterprises? (The latter are less productive in terms of food/area and hugely less productive in terms of food/fossil fuel consumption).
  • Will you campaign for restrictions on the use of that probable human carcinogen and scourge of biodiversity, glyphosate, leading to an eventual complete ban, and also campaign against the use of neonicotinoids and other nasty (and pollinator-destroying) pesticides supposedly required by unsustainable agro-industry?

7. Public sector pensions

It is surely appalling and ridiculous that members of the Scottish Parliament are ‘not allowed’ to have any influence on their pension scheme, which supports (or at least it did the last time I checked): the tobacco industry, GM crops (Monsanto), environment-wrecking mining companies (e.g. BHP Billiton), the oil industry and financial institutions which invest in and support the foregoing. This makes a mockery of many of the Scottish Parliament’s supposed policies, and hypocrites of MSPs.

Will you campaign for an inquiry into the pension schemes of public bodies in Scotland in general and for the right of individual public employees to direct where their pension investments go (at the very least)?

8. Survivors of childhood sexual abuse

I shall restrict myself to two points on this topic, although I could make more.

Scottish Government policy with regard to adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse has lately taken a sinister turn. The broker model for providing care and support to survivors (forcing them to go through a gatekeeper to find support, and repeat their very traumatic stories) is being implemented despite testimony from many who work in the field that it will be devastating for vulnerable people. See this letter from Dr Sarah Nelson for a cogent summary of some important points, such as this one:

I agree with the concerns expressed by Open Secret about the proposed change in model of care for in-care survivors, and I support the “ingredients” of their current model of care, which offers counselling, advocacy, informal support, group support and access to records, website and helpline. In particular, and as survivors have indicated in focus group consultations, it is very important and helpful that a group of people whose trust has been betrayed in so many ways as children have the opportunity to work consistently with one, or with a small number, of staff whom they can thoroughly get to know over time.

The response to my Freedom of Information request into the consultations behind this policy failed to convince that there has been any meaningful support for it from survivors or the organisations representing and supporting them.

Furthermore, despite repeated representations to the Scottish Government that most cases of childhood sexual abuse do not occur in institutions, the SG has restricted the current inquiry to institutional abuse, thus sidelining most survivors.

Would you be prepared at least to call for a rethink regarding the broker model?

9. NATO membership

The SNP now supports Scottish membership of this organisation, which is inextricably tied to the US-UK military-industrial complex and to nuclear weaponry. Under Article 5, we would be compelled to support any nation which considers that it has been attacked, regardless of our views on the conflict or the truth of the claim. I fail to understand how membership of this fundamentally immoral organisation does anything to make us safer. Rather, it makes us more likely to be a target of the sorts of terrorism against which it is largely powerless to protect us (and I also believe that its actions have served to provoke Russia rather than promote the cause of peace). If the argument is that it provides jobs, does the SNP have any moral limits when it comes to what sorts of jobs it will or will not defend? (See my remarks above about the oil industry.)

Will you unambiguously oppose NATO membership and campaign within the party for another vote on this? On a related issue, the party agreed to adopt the Kampala definition of the crime of aggression into Scots law. Will you raise this issue and do what you can to hasten the process?

10. Merging of the police forces

The merging of Scotland’s police forces raises several questions. Can you name one other country that has concentrated so much power into a single police force? The question that concerns me most is about the sufficiency of the scrutiny of the combined force by the Scottish Police Authority. As the Hillsborough tragedy demonstrates, it is extremely important that police forces are subject to rigorous external scrutiny. Have you ever expressed any concern regarding this matter?

11. Council (tax) reform

The Scottish Government’s proposed reform of council tax is timid in the extreme. We need courageous action to institute a truly redistributive system, such as one with elements of local income tax or land value tax. The Scottish Government should not be serving the vested interests of the wealthy few at the expense of the many who do not have decent, affordable housing.

We also need an effective system of rent control and massive investment in affordable public housing. Furthermore, our local authorities are enormous by the standards of most European countries. This is harmful to democracy and accountability, and also results in excessive pay for those at the top of these unwieldy structures.

Will you at least call on the Scottish Government to go much further than its present unadventurous council tax proposals?

Or Ben-David Katz, like many other brave and principled Jewish youngsters, was put into prison when she refused to serve in the Israeli army.

Or Ben-David Katz, like many other brave Jewish youngsters, went to prison when she refused to serve in the Israeli army.

12. Israel and ‘anti-Semitism’

I have met several people who have directly observed and/or suffered Israeli human rights abuses. In fact, this is to downplay it, because there is arguably no greater abuse than the outright murder, witnessed by Theresa McDermott (whom I know). Several of my informants have been Jewish Israelis. They include the remarkable young woman, Or Ben-David Katz, who went to prison rather than serve in the Israeli army.

In the wake of the hysteria surrounding supposed anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, the SNP made some timid remarks condemning anti-Semitism. Of course most sensible people condemn racism. However, will you join the Jewish Socialists’ Group in condemning the deliberate conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism?

Criticism of Israeli government policy and Israeli state actions against the Palestinians is not antisemitism. Those who conflate criticism of Israeli policy with antisemitism, whether they are supporters or opponents of Israeli policy, are actually helping the antisemites. We reject any attempt, from whichever quarter, to place legitimate criticism of Israeli policy out of bounds.

[…]

The Jewish Socialists’ Group sees the current fearmongering about antisemitism in the Labour Party for what it is – a conscious and concerted effort by right-wing political forces to undermine the growing support among Jews and non-Jews alike for the Labour Party leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, and a measure of the desperation of his opponents.

We stand against antisemitism, against racism and fascism and in support of refugees. We stand for free speech and open debate on Israel, Palestine and Zionism.

Will you also join Jewish Voice for Peace in supporting a campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against the rogue state of Israel?

Jewish Voice for Peace supports a campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel.

Jewish Voice for Peace supports a campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel. Will you?

Thank you for considering this email. As I stated above, I really want to be able to vote for you with a clear conscience. A single reason will do. I look forward to your response.

Sincere regards

_______________

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Fanaticism and fantasy drive purported TPP ‘benefits’

I am reblogging this excellent piece on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which, along with CETA and TTIP, has very serious implications for human rights, health and wellbeing and the environment.

Systemic Disorder

So-called “free trade” agreements are continually advertised as creators of jobs, yet jobs are lost and wages decline once they go into effect. As representatives of the 12 countries participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership gather this week in New Zealand to begin their final push for it, the usual unsubstantiated claims are being put forth.

Why is this so? I mean beyond the obvious answer that such claims are propaganda in the service of corporate elites and financiers. Corporate-funded “think tanks” that pump out a steady barrage of papers making grandiose claims for “free trade” deals that are relied on by the political leaders who push these deals require some data, no matter how massaged. One organization prominent in this process is the Peterson Institute for International Economics, which has issued rosy reports in expectation of deals like the North America Free Trade Agreement — for example, it predicted 170,000…

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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

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.)

Cuban_farming

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.

Footnote

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.

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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…

(http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-3)

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  

 

Comment

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

(http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-n)

·         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

NOTE

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.

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

Bombing.

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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