The fight over the euphemistically named Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which the US Congress successfully blocked over the last year, is about to be pushed forward in a higher gear now that the new EU Commission has made clear their eagerness to drive a deal through with the US over this next year. The previous Commission had already met with corporations and their lobbyists 119 times, according to FOI requests, compared with just 8 times with civil society groups. The argument is that TTIP will promote jobs and growth – the same argument that the US used to promote NAFTA, when it actually led to an export of jobs from the US and is only now supported by 15% of Americans. The other main argument is that it will remove regulation and red tape that gets in the way of trade. The talk is of ‘regulatory convergence’ which is likely to mean chasing the lowest common denominator in terms of labour, social and environmental standards. Read more “The new EU Commission has marked up a TTIP deal with US as a key objective” »
Owen Paterson, the right-wing Tory hawk at Defra, has just delivered another forlorn call to the EU to surrender its principles and embrace genetically modified foods. Why is he so opposed to the deeply entrenched view among the public in every EU country that they don’t want commercial interests messing about with their food unless there are clear, proven and overriding benefits in doing so? Paterson said nothing new, but merely repeated 4 claims that have been made repeatedly before, namely that (i) GM will increase yields, (ii) will lower the use of pesticides and other chemicals, (iii) is a more efficient technology to reduce the impact of weather and disease, and (iv) is needed to feed the world as global population rises. All of these claims are demonstrably false. Read more “Why GM when there are known risks but no proven benefits?” »
Government figures just released reveal startling evidence of the continued increase in the use of pesticides, despite their known toxic damage to the environment and probably to human health. In the past decade, the area of crops sprayed with pesticides in the UK has increased by a further million hectares. The use of pesticides has increased by more than 30% in the same period, even though the area of land under cultivation has decreased.
Public health warning: our leaders’ seduction by science is dangerous
This article originally apeared in The Times
We have reached an extraordinarily odd situation in the saga of genetic modification. The public continues to reject it, the supermarkets will not stock it, the industry itself has pulled out of GM cultivation, but the Government is still keen to go ahead. Why? Tony Blair said recently: “It is important for the whole debate (on GM) to be conducted on the basis of scientific evidence, not on the basis of prejudice.” But being mesmerised by science is at best short-sighted and at worst disingenuous.
Science quite often gets things wrong. Biologists initially refused to accept that power stations could kill fish or trees hundreds of miles away in Scandinavia; later the idea was universally accepted. Scientists did not originally agree that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were destroying the ozone layer; but when the industry — ICI and DuPont — abruptly changed sides in 1987, ministers and scientists soon lined up with them. The Lawther working party roundly rejected that health-damaging levels of lead in the blood came mainly from vehicle exhausts, only to find that blood-lead levels fell 70 per cent after lead-free petrol was introduced. The Southwood committee of BSE scientists insisted in 1989 that scrapie in cattle could not cross the species barrier, only to find by 1996 that it did just that.
Much more subtle, and more serious, is the manipulation of science for wider political or commercial purposes. Scientific conclusions don’t usually emerge innocently as an individual’s inspired discovery, but out of a process dependent on financial pressures.
This article first appeared in The Guardian.
Only a world environment court can curb capitalism’s excesses
Unseen by most, our world is being transformed at an exponential rate. It is a process driven by unfettered industrial exploitation, growing technological control, soaring population growth and now climate change, the effects of which open up an apocalyptic scenario for the human race.
Man’s ecological footprint is now outpacing many of the natural phenomena that govern our world. Indeed, we have almost become our own geophysical cycle. Our biological carbon productivity is now exceeded only by the krill in the oceans. Our civil engineering works shift more soil each year than all the world’s rivers bring to the seas. Our industrial emissions eclipse the total emissions from all the world’s volcanoes. We are bringing about species loss on a scale of some of the massive natural extinctions of palaeohistory. We are altering the nitrogen cycle. Even in the remotest parts of the world, contaminants like lead and DDT appear in the food chain.
The ravages are there for all to see. Some 420 million people live in countries that no longer have enough crop land to grow their own food. Half a billion people live in regions prone to chronic drought. By 2025 that number is likely to have increased fivefold. Deserts are likely to become hotter. Marine ecosystems are at risk, including salt-water marshes, mangroves, coastal wetlands and coral reefs. In 1998, the hottest year on record, large areas of forest burned down after prolonged drought. By 2050 it is projected that the Amazon will have died back.
Shifts away from equilibrium unlock other changes that interact with the original shifts and grossly magnify their effects until the whole process spirals out of control and makes our planet uninhabitable.
Six years ago when I was appointed Minister for the Environment, I had never heard of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Today it has come close to taking over my life and some argue has already cost me my job as Minister.
I first became interested in this as the sheer magnitude of what the GM project meant for the nation’s food supply gradually dawned on me. At first we were assured by officials in MAFF (before it became DEFRA as it now is) that this was an interesting and important new technology which would solve some of agriculture’s challenges by reducing the use of herbicides (chemical weedkillers) and helping to feed the world.
However, several problems began to emerge. First, when the issue started hitting the headlines in 1998, the public was clearly deeply sceptical, even hostile, and for very good reason. They remembered BSE. The Government, the scientists and officialdom all assured them in 1990 that it could never cross the species barrier and infect humans. Then in 1994 it was found that it had done exactly that, and several dozen people have now died very unpleasantly of new variant CJD. Before that there were other food scares too – salmonella and e-coli. And more recently of course we have been through the trauma of foot and mouth.
The net effect of all this was to leave the Government with a huge credibility problem, and I felt drawn to try to get to the bottom of what appeared to be an unfolding environmental crisis. Were GM foods a genuine breakthrough or a ‘frankenstein foods’ nightmare?