Category Archives: GMO

fracking is just one symptom of our diseased democracies: how do we find a cure?

Of all the many troubles we face, from the huge repercussions of giving free rein to a criminal and insolvent financial services ‘industry’, to the rapid installment of a super-Orwellian grid for mass surveillance thanks to the NSA and GCHQ (and it’s hard to draw a clear division between the two agencies since evidently they share so much of our data and metadata), there is one that fills me with a more imminent sense of foreboding. That singular issue, fracking, my personal bugbear (at least for the present), somehow encapsulating everything that is so diabolically wrong with our democracies.

A branch-line of arguably the most ruthless and disreputable of all corporate sectors – takes some doing, but the hydrocarbon industry would at the very least be nominated for such an award, and that’s to say nothing of fracking pioneers Halliburton – first puts out its totally ludicrous lie that fracking has never caused any significant damage either to the environment or to human health. Notwithstanding such scandalous denials, the spokesmen of this same industry then lie again in efforts to allay our fears, making contradictory assertions that fracking in the UK will be completely, absolutely, and categorically different to more lax fracking practices carried out in other places. Perhaps even more flabbergasting, however, is that anyone outside of the industry gives credence to any of these corporate refutations and guarantees, yet predictably, it seems, some do… which amply illustrates the efficacy of a deviously clever and exceedingly well-funded public relations campaign.

Nevertheless, as trial drilling began in Britain, protesters gathered in huge numbers – just as anti-fracking protesters have gathered in huge numbers throughout the world. They came out to remind our contemptible Con-Dem government that this is not simply an environmental issue (as vitally important as this is), but that without proper consultation with local communities, any permission granted to frack under our neighbourhoods means yet another stab into the heart of (what we laughably still call) our democracy.

So back in early July, shortly after government plans for widespread fracking in Britain had been revealed, I decided to contact local constituency Labour MP Paul Blomfield in order to express my alarm. At the time I didn’t know if Blomfield felt similarly concerned about fracking nor the Labour Party’s official position. But I dashed off a quick email as follows:

Dear Paul,

The most pressing environmental issue facing this area of the world right now is fracking. Please stand up and challenge these plans to begin destroying our beautiful countryside and poisoning the precious ground water.

Best wishes,

James Boswell

Not the best email I’ve ever written, and after a month without reply I imagined it had found its contents emptied into Paul Blomfield’s recycle bin. But no, come mid August [14th] and to my surprise, Blomfield had put together an extended reply that was waiting in my own inbox:

Dear James

Thank you for your e-mail concerning fracking.

It must be a top priority to decarbonise our power supply as a matter of urgency if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. This is why the Labour party has said this will be in our manifesto at the General Election. Indeed I challenged David Cameron on a decarbonisation target for the power sector at Prime Minister’s Questions in February and pressed the issue with the Energy Secretary Ed Davey in June. I feel strongly about these issues, am a member of Sheffield Renewables and recently, working with Green Alliance UK, organised a city-wide conference on the potential of community energy schemes.

However I would not completely rule out any role for shale gas within the UK’s energy mix, if it is accompanied by an expansion of renewable energy capacity and investment in carbon capture and storage. But it makes no sense at all for the Government to announce tax breaks and industry incentives before we know how much shale gas is actually recoverable, or before anyone even has a licence to extract it. This money should instead have been used to kick-start a major national retrofit scheme, which would reduce carbon emissions and bills and create thousands green-collar jobs. The UK has among the best renewable resources / technology in the world and we should be seizing this great opportunity, including research in to carbon capture and storage.

Finally, it is vital that we fully address the wider environmental concerns associated with fracking. It is therefore crucial that Parliament is able to properly scrutinise the Government’s proposals and to ensure that key environmental safeguards are met and that there is robust regulation and comprehensive monitoring in place.

The Labour Party has consistently called for a new regulatory regime for fracking, recognising that the current system is outdated and unworkable. We haven’t jumped on the “dash-for-gas” bandwagon and have instead set out six conditions that need to be met before fracking should be allowed:

1. Mandated disclosure of chemicals used in fracking and assessment by regulator of their potential environmental impact and only non-hazardous chemicals to be used in fracking mix.

2. Must be a full assessment of the well integrity to ensure casing and borehole not susceptible to leaking; this must meet current industry standards for other types of drilling.

3. Micro-seismic monitoring of the area prior to any drilling to determine what the potential impact would be on local area.

4. Full assessment of impact of water use on local community, including assessment of how much of the water will be reused or recycled.

5. An assessment of groundwater methane levels prior to fracking.

6. There should be at least a full year’s monitoring of all of the above before any drilling can proceed.

Labour’s Shadow Minister for energy has set out more on our position here: http://centrallobby.politicshome.com/latestnews/article-detail/newsarticle/tom-greatrex-osborne-should-listen-to-obama-on-shale/

Thank you once again for writing to me and sharing your views.

Best wishes,

Paul

Grateful for receiving a genuine response, I was also dismayed. Apparently the Labour Party too – our only major party not in government! – also has big plans for natural gas fracking. Picking between the lines I read “The Labour Party has consistently called for a new regulatory regime for fracking” with Blomfield’s personal position being “I would not completely rule out any role for shale gas within the UK’s energy mix”. In other words, we’ll do fracking too although we’ll be careful to avoid any of that nasty old Tory fracking. New Labour – new fracking! I suppose I shouldn’t have expected anything different, but it was depressing nonetheless. I wrote back forthwith:

Dear Paul,

I am grateful to you for replying to my letter but feel that I must disagree with you on a number of important points. To keep this simple, I will try to respond with reference to the points as enumerated.

1. I fail to see how fracking can be done at all without the use of hazardous chemicals. Can you provide examples of fracking carried out anywhere else in the world that uses an environmentally benign mixture of chemicals?

When selling the scheme in Poland the industry also claimed that only non-hazardous chemicals would be used but this turned out to be an outright and deliberate lie.

2. Well casings fail time and time again, I forget the exact percentage but any claim that well casings can be made absolutely secure from leaking is simply another industry lie.

4. Fracking requires enormous quantities of fresh water which will put an immediate strain on our reserves in areas where it is carried out. Much of this water never returns to the surface, which is surely worrying enough, the rest is then polluted not only with the chemicals added but also with any heavy metals and radioactive isotopes dissolved from the shale. Since this contaminated water is costly to dispose of the industry has been caught many times simply spreading it on roads or fields or wherever else happens to be convenient.

5. An assessment of methane levels prior to fracking is better than nothing but it only serves to help in the case of claims for compensation after the damage is done and when people discover their property has become uninhabitable. This has again happened over and over again but the industry regularly uses bribes, threats and non-disclosure agreements to cover up the fact.

6. One year’s monitoring is nothing. Why the big rush? If fracking offers such a potential boon then surely any government should first convince a concerned public by having a proper public debate on the issue.

Additionally, I cannot understand how dislodging large amounts of methane from shale can in anyway help to decarbonise the country. Methane itself is a far more effective greenhouse gas than CO2 and when it is burned again it simply produces CO2.

I am a physicist by training and in truth I am dismayed by the complete lack of imagination and investment when it comes to finding and developing alternative sources of energy. At the beginning of the twenty-first century surely we must find better and cleaner solutions for securing our long term energy needs. We live on a small island surrounded by ocean, so whatever happened to plans for wave and tidal power for instance? Fracking is a short-sighted, short term solution that pollutes land and water and endangers human populations. It is being promoted by the same people who brought us Deep Water Horizon (quite literally in the case of Lord Browne who is the man behind Cuadrilla) and yet for some reason we are now being asked to trust them.

Finally, I would like to draw your attention to the case of Jessica Ernst who is a Canadian environmental scientist in the process of suing the energy company Encana for the damage done by fracking in Alberta. She points out that although Canada has the highest environmental standards and tightest regulations in the world, when it came to fracking the industry managed to run roughshod over all of that. Here is a link where you can access the relevant documents: http://www.ernstversusencana.ca/

Thanks again for replying to my previous letter. Hopefully, I have now more clearly outlined my objections to plans for widespread fracking of our beautiful island. I look forward to hearing from you.

James

Three months (to the day) have since passed and I am yet to receive any further reply from Paul Blomfield.

More recently I came across yet another documentary investigating environmental and health issues associated with fracking, this time focussing attention on the rush for gas in Britain and, in particular, plans for extensive drilling throughout the Mendips as well as the immediate effects of the test drilling already carried out in Lancashire.

The Truth Behind the Dash For Gas takes a detailed look at the contamination of land and drinking water, seismic effects, as well as other less immediately toxic or hazardous strains that fracking puts on local communities. It starts out, however, by simply making the more straightforward assertion that the UK government has been deeply infiltrated by industry insiders. As evidence for this, it offers a summarised breakdown of appointments to government courtesy of Lord Browne of Cuadrilla (formerly of BP), who had himself been appointed as the government’s “lead non-executive director” in 2010:

He will be the government’s “lead non-executive director”, working with cabinet ministers to appoint people to improve efficiency in each department.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said Lord Browne’s experience would be of “real benefit”.

The appointment comes as Whitehall is being asked to make spending cuts averaging 25% over five years.

Lord Browne will sit on the Cabinet Office board, chaired by Mr Maude. This will look to take on non-executive directors for all government departments.1

Click here to read the full BBC news report.

Another article published more recently in July of this year by The Independent going on to point out that:

There are more than 60 “non-executives” (Neds) who sit across Whitehall departments, largely drawn from Britain’s most impressive corporate talent. Their job is to help ministries be run in a more business-like manner, and Lord Browne is the overall lead for this group.

Lord Browne sits within the Cabinet Office. The Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude’s constituency includes Balcombe in West Sussex, another area where Cuadrilla is drilling. On his website, Mr Maude acknowledges that fracking “understandably rang alarm bells” after the tremors in Lancashire, but argues that “shale gas could help significantly by contributing both to improving our security and independence and to keeping prices down”.

Mr Laidlaw has been the lead non-executive at the Department for Transport. Centrica, which owns British Gas, recently bought a one-quarter stake in Cuadrilla’s most promising licence, which is the one in Lancashire.

Baroness Hogg sits in the Treasury, but she is also a non-executive director at BG Group, which has extensive shale gas interests in the US.2

Incidentally, you can find a list of these non-executive directors in Whitehall departments here.

So if it wasn’t bad enough that our politicians are quite openly bought off by lobbyists, the appointments of non-executive directors means that corporations are now also granted an unelected but direct foothold throughout government. As the bloated corporatocracy becomes ever more bloated, our remaining elected representatives presumably wondering who they more profitably serve. They say they work for us, but aside from the website theyworkforyou.com where’s the evidence? Returning to the issue at hand, are the electorate jumping up and down and demanding to be fracked? I certainly don’t hear them. The corporate ‘Neds’ on the other hand…!

George Monbiot expounds the same point in his latest Guardian article entitled “It’s business that really rules us now” and captioned “Lobbying is the least of it: corporate interests have captured the entire democratic process.” His article begins:

It’s the reason for the collapse of democratic choice. It’s the source of our growing disillusionment with politics. It’s the great unmentionable. Corporate power. The media will scarcely whisper its name. It is howlingly absent from parliamentary debates. Until we name it and confront it, politics is a waste of time.

The political role of business corporations is generally interpreted as that of lobbyists, seeking to influence government policy. In reality they belong on the inside. They are part of the nexus of power that creates policy. They face no significant resistance, from either government or opposition, as their interests have now been woven into the fabric of all three main political parties in Britain.

After supplying a range of pertinent examples, Monbiot continues:

The role of the self-hating state is to deliver itself to big business. In doing so it creates a tollbooth economy: a system of corporate turnpikes, operated by companies with effective monopolies.

It’s hardly surprising that the lobbying bill – now stalled by the House of Lords – offered almost no checks on the power of corporate lobbyists, while hog-tying the charities who criticise them. But it’s not just that ministers are not discouraged from hobnobbing with corporate executives: they are now obliged to do so.

Thanks to an initiative by Lord Green, large companies have ministerial “buddies”, who have to meet them when the companies request it. There were 698 of these meetings during the first 18 months of the scheme, called by corporations these ministers are supposed be regulating. Lord Green, by the way, is currently a government trade minister. Before that he was chairman of HSBC, presiding over the bank while it laundered vast amounts of money stashed by Mexican drugs barons. Ministers, lobbyists – can you tell them apart?3

Click here to read the complete article published in the Guardian.

But unfortunately, it’s even worse than that. The corporatocracy already transcending national boundaries and thanks to behind closed-doors “free trade agreements”, quickly reaching a point where corporations will not merely be embedded with governments but enjoying equal status with nation states:

The United States and European Union (EU) are in closed-door negotiations to establish a Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) that would elevate individual corporations to equal status with nation states. Seriously.

The pact is slated to include a foreign investor privileges scheme that would empower foreign corporations to bypass domestic laws and courts and demand taxpayer compensation for government actions or policies to safeguard clean air, safe food and stable banks.

This “investor-state” enforcement system would grant foreign firms the power to drag the U.S. and EU governments before extrajudicial tribunals — comprised of three private attorneys — that would be authorized to order unlimited taxpayer compensation for domestic health, financial, environmental and other public interest policies the corporations claim undermine their “expected future profits.” And, there would be no outside appeal.4

So writes Lori Wallach , someone who has testified on NAFTA, WTO, and other globalisation issues before thirty U.S. congressional committees and is currently Director of Public Citizen‘s Global Trade Watch.

Click here to read Lori Wallach’s complete article on Huffington Post.

Around the time that negotiations started on this US-EU free trade deal back in July, claims that it would lead to “an economic bonanza” also came under close scrutiny in the Guardian. Dean Baker, who is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (not to be confused with the unrelated Centre for Economic Policy Research in the UK) , pointing out that:

As growth policy, this trade deal doesn’t pass the laugh test, but that doesn’t mean that it may not be very important to a number of special interests and, for this reason, bad news for most of the public. Since conventional barriers to trade between the US and EU are already very low, the focus of the deal will be on non-conventional barriers, meaning various regulatory practices.

Each industry group has a list of regulations that it finds troublesome, which it has been unable to eliminate or weaken at the national or sub-national level. An EU-US trade agreement provides these industry groups with an opportunity to do an end-run around such regulation.

For example, several countries in Europe and many state and county governments in the United States impose restrictions that make fracking difficult or impossible. In their dream agreement, the oil and gas industries will have a set of minimal restrictions on fracking. The deal will then define anything more stringent as a restraint on trade subject to penalties.

Yes, it’s a deal that once again helps to open the way to that old devil called fracking, but not just fracking… it will loosen regulations for big agra, big pharma, and the financial services ‘industry’. It may even permit tightening of controls that limit the freedom of the internet and without any need for bills like PIPA and SOPA to be passed into law:

There are likely to be similar effects on food regulation. Europe has far more restrictions on genetically modified foods and crops than the United States. Since it is not possible, given current European politics, for the industry to get these restrictions eliminated, it will be looking to include provisions in a trade deal that define limits on genetically modified foods and crops as trade barriers.

Millions of people took part in the efforts last year to defeat Sopa and Pipa, two bills that would require individuals and internet intermediaries to proactively work to stop the transmission of unauthorized reproductions of copyrighted material. The entertainment industry would very much like to include comparable provisions in a trade agreement, so that it can avoid having to have another fight over this issue in Congress.

The financial industry will also be at the table trying to include language that limits the ability of governments to impose regulations. It is likely that it will try to include wording that would make it impossible to enforce a financial transactions tax like the one now being considered by the European Union. Although the industry may not be able to sway enough votes in European parliaments to prevent them from supporting a tax, they can use an EU-US trade deal to make that fact irrelevant.5

Click here to read Dean Baker’s complete Guardian article

Monbiot says “I don’t blame people for giving up on politics” by which he means, I suppose, giving up on our current party political system. However, there are myriad alternative ways in which people remain very actively engaged in politics, and arguably, there have been few times in history when more people have been politically engaged (or perhaps I better mean enraged!) than during recent years.

With our governments already captured by special interests, it is just two years since many hundreds of thousands took to the streets to camp out in protest. Los Indignados leading the way, followed by Occupy Wall Street and then the wider Occupy movement. Those millions failed, but since their dissent was representative of even greater numbers who stayed at home, their valiant stand remains as a political marker. And since Occupy packed up their tents and retreated, the numbers of disaffected have only continued to rise, even if our cries of distress and anger are that much harder to hear. Irrefutably there is indeed a burgeoning interest in politics and a growing desire for a new political direction.

In the long run, protests will only get any movement so far, in any case, and so serious engagement with the democratic remnants of the extant political system is actually the only practical and realistic way forward. Credible and detailed programmes for real change, a basic requirement. Our new policies in turn requiring electable representatives to carry them forward. To take our democracies back we simply have to make use of the ballot box.

In the shorter term, however, protests do indeed help to bring about important, if generally, more local victories. And for once, the documentary I have featured above actually ends on a positive note. Since in spite of the Australian government’s keenness to give fracking the go-ahead, public hostility and the resulting anti-fracking campaign known as Lock the Gate has quickly gathered momentum to become an immense obstacle to further drilling. The campaigners driving the industry away from region after region, and real grassroots democracy for once beating back corporate greed.

The lesson, if we needed it, is that direct action really works – so (and certainly when it comes to fracking) why not follow Australia’s fine example? Meanwhile, letters to your MP cost nothing, and at the very least may help to sow a few seeds of doubt in the minds of our supposed representatives. To reap fuller rewards, however, we need first to retake ownership of territory other than the immediate landscape outside our doors, as vital as that is. We must aim instead to recapture the political heartland itself. Occupying not the streets outside Whitehall, but the corridors of power within. Following this, we may finally be able to start the lengthy treatment needed to cure the main disease, which is corporatocracy – the worst of its symptoms, such as fracking, will then, in turn, abate.

*

Update:

Yesterday [Nov 13th] wikileaks released a 95-page draft of a chapter relating to a different behind closed doors ‘free trade’ agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The agreement, which is being negotiated between the United States and twelve Pacific Rim nations, could also have wide-reaching implications for internet freedom, civil liberties, publishing rights and medicine accessibility with changes to laws on intellectual property rights, product safety and environmental regulations. Today’s Democracy Now! hosted a debate between Bill Watson, who is an analyst at the Cato Institute, and Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch:

 

Here is a brief overview of the debate:

LORI WALLACH: Well, free trade is a pretty theory, but as yesterday’s WikiLeaks showed, the TPP has very little to do with free trade. So, only five of the 29 chapters of the agreement even have to do with trade at all. What’s in that intellectual property chapter? What the Cato Institute would call rent seeking—governments being lobbied by special interests to set up special rules that give them monopolies to charge higher prices. What does that mean for you and me? In that agreement, we now can see the United States is pushing for longer monopoly patents for medicines that would increase the prices here. They’re looking for patenting things like surgical procedures, making even higher medical costs. They’re looking to patent life forms and seeds. And with respect to copyright, the U.S. positions are actually even undermining U.S. law. So, for Internet freedom, if you didn’t like SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, the domestic law that Congress and amazing citizen activism killed last year when it was attempted to be pushed here domestically, huge chunks of SOPA are pushed through the backdoor of this intellectual property chapter.

Now, what the heck is that doing in a free trade agreement? I would imagine the Cato Institute is also wondering: Are Adam Smith and David Ricardo, the free trade philosophers, rolling in their graves? Because that is protectionism. This is patent monopolies. This is copyright extensions. This is actually exactly what Bill just talked about, which is powerful special interests—Big Pharma, Disney and the other big-content guys—undermining us as consumers—our access to the Internet, our access to affordable medicine—and they’re using their power to put that into an agreement that they’ve got misbranded as “free trade.”

BILL WATSON: This is a rare occasion where I do agree with Lori Wallach. I agree that what’s going on in the IP chapter is a special-interest free-for-all, a grab bag, that U.S. companies are pushing to get what they want in these agreements. And the problem, really, with that is that intellectual property is not a trade issue, and it shouldn’t be in the agreement. Originally, adding intellectual property into the agreement was a way to bring on more political support, to be able to bring in U.S. companies to counter other U.S. companies that would oppose the agreement. At this point, I think we’ve gotten to where the intellectual property chapters are so expansive that what you’re seeing is a domestic constituency, people concerned about copyright and patent reform, who are opposing the TPP, not because of anything having to do with trade, but just because it’s going to reform U.S. copyright and patent laws. […]

You know, I’m certainly glad that WikiLeaks published this report. Personally, I like to be able to read it. It’s very interesting. I wish that they would publish the rest of it, to show us the rest of the draft text. I don’t think that it would be, at this point, particularly harmful to the agreement to let us know something about the countries’ negotiating positions.

But I really—I really disagree that the TPP negotiations are especially secret. There’s a lot that goes on in Congress that the public doesn’t know about. When Congress writes a law, we don’t know in advance what it’s going to be before it gets proposed. So, they’re still trying to figure out what the contents of the agreement will be. They don’t know yet; they’re working on it.

LORI WALLACH: Well, first of all, this is extraordinarily secret. I’ve followed these negotiations since 1991 with NAFTA. And during NAFTA, any member of Congress could see any text. In fact, the whole agreement between negotiating rounds was put in the Capitol, accessible for them to look at. In 2001, the Bush administration published the entire Free Trade Area of the Americas text, when it was even in an earlier stage than TPP is right now, on government websites. They’ve even excluded members of Congress from observing the negotiations. I mean, this is extraordinary. […]

I mean, these agreements, once they’re implemented, you can’t change a comma unless all the other countries agree. It locks into place, super-glues, cements into place one vision of law that, as we’ve seen, has very little to do with trade. It’s about domestic food safety. Do we have to import food that doesn’t meet U.S. safety standards? It’s about setting up international tribunals—can’t imagine the Cato Institute likes that, global governance and all—where U.S. government could be sued and our Treasury raided by foreign corporations, who are rent seeking, compensation for not having to meet our own laws that our domestic companies have to meet. […]

The bottom line of all of this is we need a new procedure to replace fast track that gives the public the role and Congress the role to make sure what will be binding, permanent, global laws do not undermine either our democratic process of making policies at home—that we need—or that lock us into retrograde policies that the current 600 corporate trade advisers are writing to impose on us. So, we need a new way to make trade agreements to get different kinds of agreements. And the bottom line with TPP, as this WikiLeak just showed, it’s very dangerous. It’s not about trade. You’ve got to find out about it. And you’ve got to make sure your member of Congress maintains their constitutional authority. Democracy is messy. But I, myself, more trust the American public, the press and this Congress rather than 600 corporate advisers. We need to make sure what’s in that trade agreement suits us, and you all are going to be the difference in doing that.

Click here to read the full transcript or watch the debate on the Democracy Now! website.

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1 From an article entitled “Ex-BP boss Lord Browne to lead Whitehall reform” published by BBC news on June 30, 2010. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10467532

2 From an article entitled “Revealed: Fracking industry bosses at heart of coalition” published by The Independent on July 14, 2013. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/revealed-fracking-industry-bosses-at-heart-of-coalition-8707589.html

3 From an article entitled “It’s business that really rules us now” written by George Monbiot, published in the Guardian on November 11, 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/11/business-rules-lobbying-corporate-interests

4 From an article entitled “’Trade’ Deal Would elevate Corporations to Equal Status With Nation States” written by Lori Wallach (Director, Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch) published by Huffington Post on October 22, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lori-wallach/trade-deal-would-elevate_b_4143626.html

5 From an article entitled “The US-EU trade deal: don’t buy the hype” written by Dean Baker, published in the Guardian on July 15, 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jul/15/us-trade-deal-with-europe-hype

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Filed under analysis & opinion, Australia, Britain, Europe, fracking (shale & coal seam gas), global warming, GMO, USA

time for an open debate about the ‘green technologies’

Let’s imagine you have a virus on your computer. You didn’t know you had it until someone phoned you up out of the blue. However, it turns out that this isn’t a prelude to the usual scam: – no, on this occasion your computer really has contracted a virus. The person on the other end of the phone going on to explain how they have ample evidence to prove their case because, after all, they created the virus in question. Adding that they have phoned you to demand legitimate compensation. Compensation…?

Well, after all, you have stolen their proprietary software, haven’t you? Software that they had personally spent years developing in order to make computers run faster and more efficiently, or so they say. Obviously you protest your innocence. You didn’t ask for their software and in any case you haven’t noticed any improvement. In fact, you feel like the victim, since your computer had been rather less reliable and more sluggish, if anything. But it’s to no avail. They are intent on suing for patent infringement, and that’s that. Such a case would never stand up in court, of course…

Unless…, unless the product in question belonged perhaps to a huge multinational corporation. An organisation that has highly paid legal teams, and armed with the political clout to change patent laws altogether. And say it wasn’t software that was being spread this way, but something altogether more fundamental to your existence. The viral code having been embedded not in computers, but in the food supply, and the question becoming why you didn’t sign a licence needed to grow their invasive but patented crops.

Now obviously the seed from these patented crops might have accidentally drifted into many unlicensed fields. Whilst, on top of this, there is nothing to prevent the patented varieties from pollinating other crops, thereby reproducing further patented hybrids in turn. So if this corporation were to have its own teams of inspectors with powers to search, then it would be more than profitable to send them off to scout the whole land looking for patent violations. How could the farmers prove their innocence? With the patented crops now growing all across their land, they are caught red-handed.

Such an aggressive modus operandi sounds like a product itself of an overly fertile and altogether deranged imagination, yet sadly the scenario I have sketched is literally the product of an increasingly deranged world:

Percy Schmeiser, a canola breeder and grower in Bruno, Saskatchewan, first discovered Roundup-resistant canola in his crops in 1997.[4] He had used Roundup herbicide to clear weeds around power poles and in ditches adjacent to a public road running beside one of his fields, and noticed that some of the canola which had been sprayed had survived. […]

At the time, Roundup Ready canola was in use by several farmers in the area. Schmeiser claimed that he did not plant the initial Roundup Ready canola in 1997, and that his field of custom-bred canola had been accidentally contaminated. While the origin of the plants on Schmeiser’s farm in 1997 remains unclear, the trial judge found that with respect to the 1998 crop, “none of the suggested sources [proposed by Schmeiser] could reasonably explain the concentration or extent of Roundup Ready canola of a commercial quality” ultimately present in Schmeiser’s 1998 crop.[5]

This is taken directly from the wikipedia entry (with original references retained) about a Canadian court case between Monsanto (who else!) and a canola (or rapeseed) farmer called Percy Schmeiser. The same article continues:

In 1998, Monsanto learned that Schmeiser was growing a Roundup-resistant crop and approached him to sign a license agreement to their patents and to pay a license fee. Schmeiser refused, maintaining that the 1997 contamination was accidental and that he owned the seed he harvested, and he could use the harvested seed as he wished because it was his physical property. Monsanto then sued Schmeiser for patent infringement. Patents being in federal jurisdiction, the case went to federal court.

In 2009, Percy Schmeiser featured in a documentary film based around the case and entitled David Versus Monsanto:

Note that I will come back to review some of the later verdicts in the long-running Monsanto v. Schmeiser case at the end of the article.

*

The issues surrounding the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are many and complex, but it is perfectly clear that new developments in genetics, like those in nuclear physics more than half a century ago, have automatically opened the door to some quite extraordinary possibilities. Possibilities that will most assuredly impact our future no less dramatically than the advent of atomic reactors and the hydrogen bomb impacted our very recent past – and still continue to affect us today.

The need for a proper debate is long overdue but, hardly surprisingly, the huge bio-tech corporations prefer to keep the debate closed down. Monsanto, for instance, who say that it is perfectly safe to release their GMOs directly into our environment, are also in the habit of claiming that their herbicide Roundup is so harmless you can drink it!1 But then why on earth would anyone (or at least anyone not in their pocket) trust such self-interested and deliberately compromised low risk assessments? The quick answer being that the precautionary principle has once again been overridden by money and influence.

This great debate about the use of genetic modification needs to be both open and public: a forum for discussion amongst leading experts (and especially those not associated with the powerful bio-tech firms); scientists from other fields, who though ignorant on specifics, might bring a detached expertise by virtue of familiarity with scientific procedures; alongside representatives from other interested parties such as ‘consumers’ (that’s the rest of us by the way – we all consume, and though I hate the word too, it at least offers a little better perspective on our role without the current system, since this is how the system itself defines us).

It also needs to be fully inclusive, welcoming all intelligent opinion, whether concordant or dissenting. No reasoned objections from any quarters being summarily dismissed as unscientific or anti-scientific, as is so often the case, because we must never leave it for technicians alone to decide on issues that so directly affect our common future. Relying on highly specialised experts alone – even when those experts are fully independent (as they so rarely are these days) – being as unwise as it is anti-democratic.

Genetic manipulation is already upon us. It is already helping in the prevention and treatment of diseases, and in the production of medicines such as insulin (although even here serious questions are arising with regards to the potentially harmful side-effects of using a genetically modified product). More controversial again is the development of pest- and drought-resistant strains of crops (such as the Roundup Ready canola that contaminated Schmeiser’s fields), developments that are claimed by their producers to have alleviated a great deal of human suffering already, but which seem to have brought misery of new kinds – I will come back to this later.

And then we come to the development of Genetic Use Restriction Technology (Gurt), better known as ‘suicide’ or ‘Terminator’ (to use the industry term) seeds, which are promoted by the industry as a ‘biosafety’ solution. Engineered sterility being a clever way of preventing their own genetically modified plants from causing unwanted genetic contamination – which we might think of as a new form of pollution. The argument goes that if modified genes (whether pharmaceutical, herbicide resistance or ‘Terminator’ genes) from a ‘Terminator’ crop get transferred to related plants via cross-pollination, the seed produced from such pollination will be sterile. End of problem.

But this is merely an excuse, of course, and if used in this way, the new technology will ultimately prevent over a billion of the poorest people in the world from continuing in their age-old practice of saving seeds for resowing, which will, as a consequence, make these same farmers totally dependent on a few multinational bio-tech companies. An excellent means for monopolising the world’s food, and a satisfactory solution only for the owners of companies like Monsanto.2

In any case, do we really wish to allow patents on specific genes, opening the door to the corporate ownership of the building blocks to life itself? The world renowned physicist and futurist visionary Freeman Dyson draws a direct comparison to earlier forms of slavery:

“The institution of slavery was based on the legal right of slave-owners to buy and sell their property in a free market. Only in the nineteenth century did the abolitionist movement, with Quakers and other religious believers in the lead, succeed in establishing the principle that the free market does not extend to human bodies. The human body is God’s temple and not a commercial commodity. And now in the twenty-first century, for the sake of equity and human brotherhood, we must maintain the principle that the free market does not extend to human genes.”3

Nor, I would quickly add, should it extend to the ownership of genes of other higher species of animal or plant life. Moreover, I personally have no wish whatsoever for apples, tomatoes, potatoes (or even tobacco) that provides the RDA of all my nutritional needs, or any other supposed improvement on the original designs – preferring to trust to apples, tomatoes and potatoes that evolved alongside my own human digestive system. Which is not merely a preference, but a human right. Since we all have the right not to eat GMO just as we have the right to be vegan (not that I’m a vegan, by the way).

Beyond this, we also need to consider the many perfectly serious and inescapable ethical issues that arise once you are tinkering with the primary source code of life itself. Take cloning as an interesting example.

Identical twins are essentially clones, having both developed from the same fertilised egg, and thus sharing the same DNA. But then nature sometimes goes one step further again:

A form of virgin birth has been found in wild vertebrates for the first time.

Researchers in the US caught pregnant females from two snake species and genetically analysed the litters.

That proved the North American pit vipers reproduced without a male, a phenomenon called facultative parthenogenesis that has previously been found only in captive species.4

Taken from a BBC article I accidentally came across only yesterday.

I have since learned that parthenogenesis (reproduction without fertilisation or “virgin birth”) is surprisingly common throughout the plant and animal kingdoms. Birds do it, bees do it… and even mammals have been induced to do it. So cloning is not inherently unnatural, and if carried out successfully (as it frequently is in nature), it may one day be no more harmful nor fraught with latent dangers to be a cloned individual than an individual produced by other forms of artificial reproduction. Furthermore, since we already know what human twins are like, then we already know what human clones will be like. Yet many ethical questions still hang.

Should anyone be allowed to clone themselves? Or more generally, who chooses which of us are to be cloned? Do we just leave it to the market to decide? And why would we ever want a world populated by identical (or rather, approximately identical – since no two twins are truly identical and there are sound biological reasons for believing clones will never be perfectly reproduced either) human beings? Such ethical questions are forced by the new biotechnologies. And there are many further reasons for why ordinary, intelligent public opinion needs to be included in the debate.

Here is Freeman Dyson again, summarising his own cautious optimism as we enter the age of the new ‘green technologies’:

“I see two tremendous goods coming from biotechnology in the next century, first the alleviation of human misery through progress in medicine, and second the transformation of the global economy through green technology spreading wealth more equitably around the world. The two great evils to be avoided are the use of biological weapons and the corruption of human nature by buying and selling genes. I see no scientific reason why we should not achieve the good and avoid the evil.

The obstacles to achieving the good are political rather than technical. Unfortunately a large number of people in many countries are strongly opposed to green technology, for reasons having little to do with the real dangers. It is important to treat the opponents with respect, to pay attention to their fears, to go gently into the new world of green technology so that neither human dignity nor religious conviction is violated. If we can go gently, we have a good chance of achieving within a hundred years the goals of ecological sustainability and social justice that green technology brings within our reach.”5

Dyson is being too optimistic no doubt. Many of the dangers of genetic modification are only now coming to light; more than a decade after Dyson uttered these words as part of his acceptance speech for the award of the Templeton Prize in 2000.

Meanwhile, last month, Greenpeace issued the following press release. It contains the summary of an open letter sent by nearly a hundred Indian scientists to the Supreme Court of India:

An official report submitted by the technical Expert committee set up by the Supreme Court of India comprising of India’s leading experts in molecular biology, toxicology and biodiversity – unanimously recommends a 10-year moratorium on all field trials of GM Bt [insecticide producing due to genes from Bacillus thuringiensis] food crops, due to serious safety concerns. The committee has also recommended a moratorium on field trials of herbicide tolerant crops until independent assessment of impact and suitability, and a ban on field trials of GM crops for which India is center of origin and diversity.

The report’s recommendations are expected put a stop to all field releases of GM food crops in India, including the controversial Bt eggplant, whose commercial release was put under an indefinite moratorium there last February 2010. Contrarily, the same Bt eggplant is currently being evaluated for approval in the Philippines.

“This official unanimous declaration on the risks of GMOs, by India’s leading biotech scientists is the latest nail on the coffin for GMOs around the world,” said Daniel M. Ocampo, Sustainable Agriculture Campaigner of Greenpeace Southeast Asia. “It is yet another proof that GMOs are bad for the health, bad for the environment, bad for farmers and bad for the economy.”

Click here to read the full Greenpeace press release.

For though it would be foolish to fail to recognise the enormous potential benefits of some of the new ‘green technologies’, underestimating the hazards is sheer recklessness. And this is really where my own opinion differs significantly from enthusiasts like Dyson. This science is just so brilliantly new, and so staggeringly complex. The dangers are very real and our concerns entirely justified: whether these are concerns over safety, over the political implications, or anxieties of a more purely ethical kind.

But allow me to finish for once on a more positive note. Against all the odds and at considerable cost, financially and in terms of personal trauma, Percy Schmeiser, with the support of his wife Louise, eventually succeeded in their long-running legal battle against Monsanto. Beginning with the Federal Court judgement in March 2001:

Justice Andrew McKay upheld the validity of Monsanto’s patented gene which it inserts into canola varieties to make them resistant to their herbicide Round Up.

McKay dismissed Schmeiser’s challenge to the patent based on the claim Monsanto could not control how the gene was dispersed through the countryside.

In a key part of the ruling, the judge agreed a farmer can generally own the seeds or plants grown on his land if they blow in or are carried there by pollen — but the judge says this is not true in the case of genetically modified seed.

It was that part of the ruling that most upsets Percy Schmeiser. The implications are wide ranging and Schmeiser has launched an appeal that was heard on May 15 & 16, 2002 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The Federal Court of Appeal subsequently rejected Schmeiser’s appeal. Schmeiser then asked for leave from Canada’s Supreme Court to hear the case. Leave was granted in May 2003 and the case was heard on January 20, 2004.

The Supreme Court issued their decision in May 2004 and one can view the decision as a draw. The Court determined that Monsanto’s patent is valid, but Schmeiser is not forced to pay Monsanto anything as he did not profit from the presence of Roundup Ready canola in his fields. This issue started with Monsanto demanding Schmeiser pay the $15/acre technology fee and in the end, Schmeiser did not have to pay. The Schmeiser family and supporters are pleased with this decision, however disappointed that the other areas of appeal were not overturned.

And then, seven years on:

In an out of court settlement finalized on March 19, 2008, Percy Schmeiser has settled his lawsuit with Monsanto. Monsanto has agreed to pay all the clean-up costs of the Roundup Ready canola that contaminated Schmeiser’s fields. Also part of the agreement was that there was no gag-order on the settlement and that Monsanto could be sued again if further contamination occurred. Schmeiser believes this precedent setting agreement ensures that farmers will be entitled to reimbursement when their fields become contaminated with unwanted Roundup Ready canola or any other unwanted GMO plants.

On this occasion then, David didn’t kill Goliath, and in spite of huge personal effort and sacrifice. But he has undoubtedly helped to rein him in a bit, and Percy Schmeiser is just one of many Davids battling against the same Goliath. Collective actions that are also helping to open up the long overdue debate about the ‘green technologies’ and the future of life on our planet.

Both extracts above are quoted from Percy Schmeiser’s own website where you can find out more about his continuing fight against Big Agro.

*

Update:

A more recent Bloomberg article from November 28th reveals how another agro-giant DuPont is now employing the same strategy used by Monsanto:

DuPont Co. (DD), the world’s second- biggest seed company, is sending dozens of former police officers across North America to prevent a practice generations of farmers once took for granted.

The provider of the best-selling genetically modified soybean seed is looking for evidence of farmers illegally saving them from harvests for replanting next season, which is not allowed under sales contracts. The Wilmington, Delaware-based company is inspecting Canadian fields and will begin in the U.S. next year, said Randy Schlatter, a DuPont senior manager.

DuPont is protecting its sales of Roundup Ready soybeans, so called because they tolerate being sprayed by Monsanto Co. (MON)’s Roundup herbicide. For years enforcement was done by Monsanto, which created Roundup Ready and dominates the $13.3 billion biotech seed industry, though it’s moving on to a new line of seeds now that patents are expiring. That leaves DuPont to play the bad guy, enforcing alternative patents so cheaper “illegal beans” don’t get planted.

Click here to read the full article written by Jack Kaskey and entitled “DuPont Sends in Former Cops to Enforce Seed Patents”.

1 In 1996, the New York Times reported that: “Dennis C. Vacco, the Attorney General of New York, ordered the company to pull ads that said Roundup was “safer than table salt” and “practically nontoxic” to mammals, birds and fish. The company withdrew the spots, but also said that the phrase in question was permissible under E.P.A. guidelines.”[237]

Extract taken from wikipedia with original reference retained. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monsanto#False_advertising

2 For further arguments against “Terminator Technology”, I recommend the following website: http://www.banterminator.org/content/view/full/233

3 From Freeman Dyson’s acceptance speech for the award of the Templeton Prize, delivered on May 16, 2000 at the Washington National Cathedral.

4 From an article entitled “Virgin births discovered in wild snakes” written by Jeremy Coles, published by BBC nature on September 12, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/19555550

5 Also taken from Freeman Dyson’s acceptance speech for the award of the Templeton Prize.

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how to change the world?

How to change the world?
Esther Vivas

How do we change the world? This is the question asked by thousands of people intent on changing things, the question that is often repeated in alternative social gatherings — a question that the French philosopher Daniel Bensaïd said has no answer: “Make no mistake, no one knows how to change the world.” We do not have an instruction manual but we do have some hints on how to do it and some working hypotheses.

Fighting in the streets and in social movements is the first premise, as there will not be spontaneous changes from above. Those in power today will not give up their privileges without this. Any process of change will depend on the consciousness of those below and the fight to take back our rights in the street, defying the powers that be. This is what history shows.

But it is also necessary to build political alternatives that go beyond social mobilization, since we can not just be a lobby of those who rule. It is necessary to formulate alternative policy options which have their centre of gravity in social struggles, antagonistic to today’s ruling class. We are well aware that the system cannot be changed from within the institutions but rather from the street, but we can not give up spaces that also belong to us.

Today institutions are hijacked by private interests and capital. A social minority, which is the one with economic power, is totally over-represented in these institutions and has the full support of the majority of those who hold elected office. The dynamics of “revolving doors”: those who are currently in the institutions and tomorrow on the advisory boards of major companies in the country, is a constant and a reality. We present here the socially dominant neoliberal ideology — and the fact that it is untrue. We think that anti-capitalist and anti-systemic voices would be useful in breaking the hegemonic political discourse of the institutions, proving that “other worlds” are viable and that “another political practice” is both possible and necessary.

We must move in both directions, subjecting the latter to the former, creating mechanisms for control from the bottom up and learning from past mistakes of both the political and social left. On the basis that no one knows the absolute truth, that the process of change will be collective or it will not happen, that we must learn from each other, that is necessary to work without sectarianism or tailendism and that labels more often separate than bind . Without however falling into relativism or ideological resignation. Surely these are the most difficult lessons: to break the moral and ideological domination of the capitalist and patriarchal system.

And how to change the world is not something that will happen in two days — it’s a long-haul task, which requires consistency, perseverance and “slow impatience” as Daniel Bensaïd used to say. We have to go forward in our utopias starting from daily life in parallel with social mobilization against the current policies and in defense of alternative measures. We have to change the world in our own lives, demonstrating in practice that “another way of life” is both possible and desirable. Alternatives learning from the cooperative economy, self-management, critical consumption and agro-ecology, ethical finance, the alternative media — all these initiatives are essential to move towards a different model of society.

We have to be aware that these prefigurative models are not an end in themselves but a means to move forward without losing sight of the goal of more just and equitable society for everyone. Fighting for an economy based on solidarity in daily life and demanding a progressive tax policy, in which those who have more pay more, which will eliminate unit trusts, where tax evasion is prosecuted, which builds agroecological projects and works to ban GMOs, in favor of a public land bank, to have our savings in a credit union but to claim a public banking service from below. The way forward is shown by walking it and this cannot wait until tomorrow.

We should not forget that our model of social change requires the conscious mobilization of the majority of the population and a process of breaking the current institutional and economic framework. The emergence of the “revolution” in the political landscape again, following the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, despite their weaknesses and limits, was the great and unexpected news that 2011 has brought us.

We also need to understand our role in the world and the impact of our practices on the ecosystem. We live on a finite planet, but the capitalist system ensures that we often forget this. Our consumption has a direct impact where we live and if everyone consumed as we do here a single planet would not suffice. But we are also encouraged in unbridled, compulsive consumerism, with the promise that more consumption means happiness, though in the end the promise is never fulfilled. We must begin to ask whether we can “live better with less”.

Anyway, we want to hold responsible those who impose such practices. We are told we live in a consumer society because people like consumption, which is why we have industrial agriculture and genetically modified foods — lies. Our model of consumption is based on the logic of a capitalist system that produces goods on a large scale and needs someone to buy them to keep the model running.They want to make everyone accomplices of policies that benefit only themselves. Fortunately, this great myth has begun to crumble. The ecological crisis we live in has turned on the warning lights. And we know that the climate crisis is rooted in a system that is productivist and short-sighted.

Today, a wave of anger is sweeping across Europe and the world — breaking the scepticism and resignation that for years have prevailed in our society, and restoring confidence in collective action which is useful and necessary for changing the existing order of things. We have seen the Arab Spring, the movement against the debt in Europe, the Icelandic people, the popular uprising, general strike after strike in Greece and now Occupy Wall Street in the “belly of the beast” which says we are the 99% opposed to the 1%. The time is short and moving quickly. We know we can.

*Esther Vivas is a member of the Centre for Studies on Social Movements (CEMS) at Universitat Pompeu Fabra. She is also a member of the editorial board of Viento Sur.

I would like to thank Esther Vivas for allowing me to reproduce this article.

+info: http://esthervivas.wordpress.com/english

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from Monsanto with love… lessons on how to rule the world

The trouble with Bond villains is they are all lousy megalomaniacs. They hide out in volcanoes protected only by freakish goons and second-rate ninjas, and there fritter away all hopes of world domination on totally hare-brained schemes. Before attempting to irradiate all the gold in the vaults at Fort Knox or constructing the ultimate death ray or whatever it is, they ought to just take a few steps back and concentrate on what really matters. Just how might they maximise control with the least amount of effort or force? Well they might like to try a more viable and, as it happens, visible approach.

Indeed, they might very well look to some of our leading corporate players as role models. For instance, it has long seemed to me that Monsanto ought to have been cast as a Bond villain, except, of course, that Monsanto is far too villainous even for Bond to take on. But I have ofttimes imagined Monsanto, incarnate, back turned in a leather-upholstered chair, stroking his obligatory cat, and drooling over thoughts of the culmination of his latest and most fiendish scheme. Nothing less than a plan to take control of all of the food production on Earth:

“Have you ever heard of Gurt, Mr Bond? Genetic use restriction technology. Terminator technology. Suicide seeds. Artificial lifeforms that crave for their own extinction. We have broken the circle of life itself, Mr Bond. Want food…? Come to Papa. Beautiful, wouldn’t you agree, Mr Bond? Just a few regulations in our way. But that will change. When the people are ready, and they will be, we shall be ready too – with Terminator 2.1 ‘I’ll be back’, Mr Bond!”

Bond remains impassive. Surreptitiously, he wriggles his hands a little to loosen the shackles, as Monsanto continues to prowl his penthouse suite HQ (since he hardly needs to hide out in a bunker).

“Do you remember Agent Orange, Mr Bond? Half a million deaths and another half a million birth defeats. Vast tracts of Vietnam are still contaminated thanks to Agent Orange. One of mine, Mr Bond, one of mine… Oh yes, Mr Bond, so much already laid waste and yet so much that remains to be contaminated. Inside the borders of that miserable little green speck you are so proud to call home, you can even find my own inimical calling-card. Thousands of tons of the most deadly toxins but just a taste of what will soon come.2 For this game is now drawing to its inevitable conclusion, Mr Bond. Soon I will have the whole world dependent on my patented GMOs and the pesticides required to keep them healthy. Welcome to the vanguard of this gangrene revolution, Mr Bond. Just a pity you won’t be here to see the reign of darkness that is to come when we have complete control your beautiful planet.”

I could be mistaken, of course, casting Monsanto purely in the light of its wretched and deplorable environmental record, whilst judging longer term intent solely on the basis of its stealth monopolisation of worldwide seed production. Indeed, there are others who see Monsanto as a manufacturer of the means to banish famine, and of thus opening the way for a much fairer, less impoverished world. This is certainly what well-known mega-billionaire and nice guy philanthropist Bill Gates thinks, although he tends not to advertise the fact:

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is sponsoring the Guardian’s Global development site is being heavily criticised in Africa and the US for getting into bed not just with notorious GM company Monsanto, but also with agribusiness commodity giant Cargill.

Trouble began when a US financial website published the foundation’s annual investment portfolio, which showed it had bought 500,000 Monsanto shares worth around $23m. This was a substantial increase in the last six months and while it is just small change for Bill and Melinda, it has been enough to let loose their fiercest critics.3

The article written by John Vidal, and entitled “Why is the Gates foundation investing in GM giant Monsanto”, was posted more than a year ago on the Guardian‘s “povertymatters” blog, which is itself sponsored by none other than the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation!

“The Foundation’s direct investment in Monsanto is problematic on two primary levels,” said Dr. Phil Bereano, University of Washington Professor Emeritus and recognized expert on genetic engineering. “First, Monsanto has a history of blatant disregard for the interests and well-being of small farmers around the world, as well as an appalling environmental track record. The strong connections to Monsanto cast serious doubt on the Foundation’s heavy funding of agricultural development in Africa and purported goal of alleviating poverty and hunger among small-scale farmers. Second, this investment represents an enormous conflict of interests.”4

From one of the reports cited in the same Guardian article, that was released in August 2010 by Seattle-based Agra Watch – a project of the Community Alliance for Global Justice.

Another report from the South Africa-based watchdog the African Centre for Biosafety uncovered how the Gates Foundation was also teaming up with Cargill in a $10m project to “develop the soya value chain” in Mozambique and elsewhere. Unfortunately the link from the article (copied above) is now dead, but not to worry here’s another report:

The Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) program was launched in 2008 with a $47 million grant from mega-rich philanthropists Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. The program is supposed to help farmers in several African countries increase their yields with drought- and heat-tolerant corn varieties, but a report released last month by the African Centre for Biosafety claims WEMA is threatening Africa’s food sovereignty and opening new markets for agribusiness giants like Monsanto.5

Vidal’s article continues:

The two incidents raise a host of questions for the foundation. Few people doubt that GM has a place in Africa, but is Gates being hopelessly naïve by backing two of the world’s most aggressive agri-giants? There is, after all, genuine concern at governmental and community level that the United State’s model of extensive hi-tech farming is inappropriate for most of Africa and should not be foist on the poorest farmers in the name of “feeding the world”.

The fact is that Cargill is a faceless agri-giant that controls most of the world’s food commodities and Monsanto has been blundering around poor Asian countries for a decade giving itself and the US a lousy name for corporate bullying. Does Gates know it is in danger of being caught up in their reputations, or does the foundation actually share their corporate vision of farming and intend to work with them more in future?

A year ago, the New York Times described the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as “the world’s principal private funder of agricultural research”6. Nothing so far as I’m aware has changed since, which, reading between the lines, means that it is difficult to draw any clear-cut distinction between the interests of the Gates Foundations and those of Big Agra.

Click here to read John Vidal’s full report.

Now, as I was in the middle of writing this, and wondering if I wasn’t coming down too hard on the saintly Bill Gates, I came across another piece of news [Feb 6th] about Bill Gates ambitions for bringing change to the world. It was also written by the excellent John Vidal:

A small group of leading climate scientists, financially supported by billionaires including Bill Gates, are lobbying governments and international bodies to back experiments into manipulating the climate on a global scale to avoid catastrophic climate change.

The scientists, who advocate geoengineering methods such as spraying millions of tonnes of reflective particles of sulphur dioxide 30 miles above earth, argue that a “plan B” for climate change will be needed if the UN and politicians cannot agree to making the necessary cuts in greenhouse gases, and say the US government and others should pay for a major programme of international research.

Solar geoengineering techniques are highly controversial: while some climate scientists believe they may prove a quick and relatively cheap way to slow global warming, others fear that when conducted in the upper atmosphere, they could irrevocably alter rainfall patterns and interfere with the earth’s climate.7

Click here to read John Vidal’s latest report on Bill Gates’ environmental lobbying.

Geoengineering. Such a grand sounding name for a subject. Engineering, however, is generally applied to very, very well understood systems – usually ones that we ourselves designed in fact. And it is a subject that always builds safety tolerances into its solutions. What weight does that beam need to withstand? Okay, let’s double it just in case. Why? Because in the real world of engineering, unlike the idealised worlds of pure science, you are expected to expect the unexpected.

So what of geoengineering, which is the preferred shorthand for schemes designed for ‘re-engineering the world’s climate’. Well firstly, the climate system is extremely complex. It involves the movement of two different fluids, air and water, around convoluted islands and basins, and the exchange of energy and material between them. Before ‘re-engineering’ it then, we need first to fully understand the movement of those fluids and at all levels: up to the high altitude jet streams and down to the deep ocean currents. We also need to understand how the composition of those fluids varies, the concentrations of salt in the ocean and of the gases (and, most importantly, of water vapour) in the atmosphere, not to mention the distribution and structures of clouds and even the reflectivity of the Earth’s surface (or its albedo).

Whilst all of this is happening on Earth, the energy available to drive these interconnected feedback systems arrives only from the Sun. So we must know how the output of the Sun varies, but not only in terms of radiative output (or ‘sunlight’), which is helpfully constant (at least over the short term) but in other ways that might influence the Earth’s climate. We need to understand how a constant stream of plasma called the solar wind interacts with the upper atmosphere, and what effects changes there might have at lower altitudes.8 To understand long term variations (such as ice ages), we also need to precisely factor all effects due to changes in the Earth’s position relative to the Sun. Steady changes in the orientation of the Earth’s orbit and spin axis, and more subtle changes in the shape of our orbit around the Sun9.

‘Extremely complex’ simply doesn’t do justice to the enormity of the task involved in fully understanding our climate systems, especially when we remind ourselves that beyond all the physics and chemistry, there is also biology to take into account. Life interacts with the atmosphere and the oceans, no less than sunlight and gravity. Hardly surprisingly, we are only now beginning to understand how all the cogs turn together. Sure there are models of climate behaviour, but these models simply ignore or approximate many of the influences on our weather and ocean systems. They go so far, but should very definitely not be mistaken as the sorts of ‘high fidelity’ models that exist, say, to test the performance of bridges or to predict the motion of the planets in our Solar System.

So Geoengineering is about intervening with something that is far from fully understood, yet at the same time very, very precious, and quite probably fragile (certainly from the point of view of securing continued human habitation). On top of that, it isn’t properly engineering at all, and ought to really to be called ‘geoexperimenting’: an experiment that some experts say “could irrevocably alter rainfall patterns and interfere with the earth’s climate.” Irrevocably being a very, very long time.

If you were worried about the switch on of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, then you really shouldn’t have been, because the fuss about black holes and so forth was really just a load of media hype – quite possibly cooked up by some of the scientists who knew better, of course, but perhaps thought it worthwhile to play the media circus for greater publicity. And for a few weeks, the media couldn’t get enough of the LHC. Everyone was talking about hadrons. Geoengineering, on the other hand, which, if ever implemented (and judging by the levels of investment, looks set to be coming), must be considered a genuine threat to our continuing existence on Earth, yet rarely gets a mention.

In June 2010, Democracy Now! hosted an interesting debate between Indian environmentalist and scientist, Vandana Shiva, and geopolitical analyst and columnist, Gwynne Dyer. Here are some of the carefully considered reasons Vandana Shiva gave for rejecting geoengineering solutions:

It’s an engineering paradigm that created the fossil fuel age, that gave us climate change. And Einstein warned us and said you can’t solve problems with the same mindset that created them. Geoengineering is trying to solve the problems with the same old mindset of controlling nature. And the phrase that was used, of cheating — let’s cheat — you can’t cheat nature. That’s something people should recognize by now. There is no cheating possible. Eventually, the laws of Gaia determine the final outcome. […]

I work on ecological agriculture. We need that sunlight for photosynthesis. The geoengineers don’t realize, sunshine is not a curse on the planet. The sun is not the problem. The problem is the mess of pollution we are creating. So, again, we can’t cheat.

Well, the first thing is, there’s never enough time, but you have to find the solutions. And to use the excuse of immediacy and urgency to take the wrong action is not a solution. In terms of time, we do organic farming, and again, in my book Soil Not Oil, we’ve shown that a localized ecological biodiverse system of farming could solve 40 percent of the climate problem, because 40 percent emissions are coming from food miles, nitrogen oxide emissions, cutting down the Amazon forest, all linked to a globalized industrialized food system. Tomorrow we can do that. In three years’ time, all of the world’s farming could be ecological, absorbing the carbon dioxide and putting fertility back in the soil. It’s not a fifty-year experiment. It’s an assured, guaranteed path that has been shown to work.

Click here to watch the video and read the full transcript on the Democracy Now! website.

So just why would Bill Gates choose to blemish his reputation by getting so deeply involved in an enterprise as controversial as geoengineering? To save the planet from climate change? So he says, although it seems that he does have another incentive too – I wonder if you can guess:

As well as Gates, other wealthy individuals including Sir Richard Branson, tar sands magnate Murray Edwards and the co-founder of Skype, Niklas Zennström, have funded a series of official reports into future use of the technology. Branson, who has frequently called for geoengineering to combat climate change, helped fund the Royal Society’s inquiry into solar radiation management last year through his Carbon War Room charity. It is not known how much he contributed.

Professors David Keith, of Harvard University, and Ken Caldeira of Stanford, are the world’s two leading advocates of major research into geoengineering the upper atmosphere to provide earth with a reflective shield. They have so far received over $4.6m from Gates to run the Fund for Innovative Climate and Energy Research (Ficer). Nearly half Ficer’s money, which comes directly from Gates’s personal funds, has so far been used for their own research, but the rest is disbursed by them to fund the work of other advocates of large-scale interventions.

According to statements of financial interests, Keith receives an undisclosed sum from Bill Gates each year, and is the president and majority owner of the geoengineering company Carbon Engineering, in which both Gates and Edwards have major stakes – believed to be together worth over $10m.

Another Edwards company, Canadian Natural Resources, has plans to spend $25bn to turn the bitumen-bearing sand found in northern Alberta into barrels of crude oil. Caldeira says he receives $375,000 a year from Gates, holds a carbon capture patent and works for Intellectual Ventures, a private geoegineering research company part-owned by Gates and run by Nathan Myhrvold, former head of technology at Microsoft.

Click here for John Vidal’s full article (which reads like an almanack of conflicts of interest).

Here in Yorkshire, there is a saying that “where there’s muck there’s money”, and when it comes to geoengineering there is muck aplenty. Stuff like sulphur dioxide that we’ve been scrubbing from our industrial chimneys for many years, in efforts to prevent acid rain and to clean up the air quality of our cities. But here the idea is to spray sulphur dioxide and other muck directly into the high atmosphere in order to ‘provide earth with a reflective shield’.10 In other words, to block out the sun by increasing pollution, which is sufficiently hare-brained to have been dreamt up by Blofeld.

All of which now causes me to wonder who is the more dangerous: the more or less openly diabolical Monsanto or such ‘eco-friendly’ meddlers as Gates, Buffett and Branson to name but a few. Whatever the case, the lesson for those intent on world domination remains the same. And aspiring Bond villains will please take note – Forget about your mountain hideouts and armies of incompetents, what you really need is good publicity, and best of all, the backing of a respectable charitable foundation. Just knock it off with all of that “no, I expect you to die Mr Bond”, and try gently rattling a tin instead. “Welcome Mr Bond,” you might say, politely adding “have you ever considered making a small donation to save the planet?”

1 “The vast majority of the world’s 500m farmers still collect their best seeds each year and replant them. Preventing a process followed since farming began 10,000 years ago has been seen as endangering their way of life.

The problem for Monsanto and other companies is that in developing countries terminator has become synonymous with GM and a symbol of the increasing control of world agriculture by big foreign corporations.

In Monsanto’s version, seeds are soaked in the antibiotic tetracycline, which sets in motion a genetic chain reaction that ultimately instructs the plant to kill its own seeds.

Monsanto’s chief executive, Robert Shapiro, in a letter to the Rockefeller Foundation in New York which announced the terminator’s development, said the company intended to continue research into sophisticated “trait technologies”.

These have been dubbed “terminator 2”, or “gene-switchers”, and would allow a company to develop crops that grow only if sprayed with a regimen of chemicals that include its herbicides or insecticides.”

From an article entitled “World braced for terminator 2”, written by John Vidal, published in the Guardian on October 6, 1999. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/1999/oct/06/gm.food2

2 “Previously unseen Environment Agency documents from 2005 show that almost 30 years after being filled, Brofiscin [a quarry in South Wales where Monsanto dumped waste from its chemical works in Newport and elsewhere] is one of the most contaminated places in Britain. According to engineering company WS Atkins, in a report prepared for the agency and the local authority in 2005 but never made public, the site contains at least 67 toxic chemicals. Seven PCBs have been identified, along with vinyl chlorides and naphthalene.”

From an article entitled “The wasteland: how years of secret chemical dumping left a toxic legacy – Monsanto helped to create one of the most contaminated sites in Britain”, written by John Vidal, published in the Guardian on February 12, 2007. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/feb/12/uknews.pollution1

3 From an article entitled “Why is the Gates foundation investing in GM giant Monsanto? – The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s investments in Monsanto and Cargill have come under heavy criticism. Is it time for the foundation to come clean on its visions for argiculture in developing countries?” written by John Vidal, published by the Guardian on September 29, 2010. http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2010/sep/29/gates-foundation-gm-monsanto

4 From a report by the Community Alliance for Global Justice, posted on August 25, 2010. http://www.seattleglobaljustice.org/2010/08/for-immediate-release-gates-foundation-invests-in-monsanto/

5 From an article entitled “Monsanto and Gates Foundation Push GE Crops on Africa”, written by Mike Ludwig, published by Truthout on July 12, 2011. http://www.truth-out.org/second-green-revolutionaries-gates-foundation-and-monsanto-push-ge-crops-africa/1310411034

6 According to an article entitled “The Struggle for Daily Bread”, written by David Rieff, published by the New York Times on October 14, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/15/opinion/15iht-edrieff15.html

7 From an article entitled “Bill Gates backs climate scientists lobbying for large-scale geoengineering: Other wealthy individuals have also funded a series of reports into the future use of technologies to geoengineer the climate”, written by John Vidal, published in the Guardian on February 6, 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/feb/06/bill-gates-climate-scientists-geoengineering

8 Over the short term of a few decades, the output of solar radiation is nearly constant (varying by up to about 0.1%), but the Sun also produces a continuous stream of charged particles known as the solar wind, which is far from constant, varying considerably depending on solar activity. Although the stream is deflected by the Earth’s magnetic field, some of the particles do nevertheless interact with the Earth’s upper atmosphere, producing the wonderful aurora whilst also heating the ionosphere. In addition to this, the solar wind helps to reduce the influx of cosmic rays. Does any of this affect the climate at lower levels in the Earth’s atmosphere? The answer is that we simply don’t know precisely how processes in the upper atmosphere affect the climate below. There are theories that cosmic rays are important for cloud formation, whilst it could also be the case that changes in the ionosphere can shift the position of the high altitude jet streams. In both cases, the effects on the climate would be very significant.

9 To read more about the theory of how changes in the Earth’s movement and orientation affect climate see the wikipedia entry on Milankovitch cycles http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milankovitch_cycles.

10 Sulphur dioxide is noxious enough, but “potential types of particles for injection include sulfur dioxide, aluminum oxide dust or even designer self-levitating aerosols [which are one of David Keith’s ideas]…”. These would then need to be ‘replenished’ every year or two years. Replenished because it will all slowly but surely fall back to Earth. In this case of ‘aluminium oxide dust’ and the ‘designer aerosols’ this means clouds of nanoparticles that would then fall out over land and sea, building up in concentration in our rivers, our soil and our homes. Could these it toxic? Well, there is still much debate about the toxicity of aluminium oxide, but certainly reasons for concern, and especially given evidence of its adverse effects on the germination of seeds and growth of plants – something that Monsanto could no doubt help out with later.

Read more of these proposals in “Unilateral Geoengineering: Non-technical Briefing Notes for a Workshop at the Council on Foreign Relations”, published April 15, 2008. (Quote taken from p.4) https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:b1EPc92sD8UJ:www.cfr.org/content/thinktank/GeoEng_041209.pdf+geoengineering+aluminium+oxide&hl=en&gl=uk&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESih0YswcESwswvLvNdo4BdK-lBPke3qvH6bQ-N8ZxALTs8zbJnXtDkhkhUmE7k6QjjjR5F8ORJ8DHWPhCmm4DTMkdCNiBsz3DGx0ZsBMII7LssnM0bzX2RzLhZyehFzZWRfsA4X&sig=AHIEtbQvJBXXg09zivyqBcyDS52PneIFVw

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