1.30pm Bangkok time, 31 October 2014
The theme of this conference is ‘Rice for the World’. A few years ago the UN had an entire year dedicated to the theme ‘Rice is Life’. There can be no doubting the importance of rice in the world’s food supply, or in the cultural and national identities of dozens of countries, most especially here in Asia.
Here in Thailand, as we heard from the minister of agriculture, half the country’s farmland is devoted to growing rice. In Bangladesh, a country where I have spent a lot of time recently, rice paddies are everywhere – you get the sense that other crops are just filling in space between the rice. Rice provides staple food for 3 billion people worldwide. Along with wheat, it is probably the world’s most important source of food calories.
So I got an email this afternoon with the intriguing subject line: ‘All the troglodytes in one place’. I won’t reveal the sender, but it turned out to be a surprisingly accurate description of an event to be held in New York in two days’ time, grandly titled: “Techno-Utopianism & the Fate of the Earth: Why Technology Will Not Save The World”.
I invite you to read the, er, PDF. There is a rambling pre-amble, but the real meat is in the sessions – all of them dedicated to promoting various naturalistic fallacies, backward-looking reactions to modernism and globalisation, and other kinds of outdated green fantasising. Humanity’s “unquenchable thirst” for knowledge is lamented; as is the loss of an imagined past where “we once lived in contact with wild Nature, and in-close human community; connected, embedded”. (Hence the rapid progress of various plagues…)
It’s all dressed up in environmentalist language, but it’s a peculiarly Leftish dystopian discourse: “With the planet depleted, overbuilt and poisoned, wild nature and its great gifts are disappearing… For corporations, innovation solves the problem: Ignore the mess, create saleable ‘green’ false solutions, and build and market ‘substitute nature’ for uninterrupted product development and growth”. This sounds like a pseudo-religious narrative – capitalism is seen as humanity’s Sodom and Gomorrah, drowning us in consumerist excess that can only end with an apocalyptic Fall.
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Anyone reading my blog will know that I’m no knee-jerk supporter of Greenpeace, though I think they do some great work on climate, forests, overfishing and other areas. However, in today’s extended Radio 4 Today Programme interview the UK’s former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson severely overstates his case in attacking Greenpeace for blocking golden rice and thereby killing thousands of people every day who die from vitamin A deficiency.
It is not disputed that Greenpeace has campaigned against Golden Rice in the past (see this 2010 report) and continues to be critical today. Nor is it disputed that Vitamin A deficiency is a severe problem, which according to the World Health Organisation leads to the preventable deaths of thousands (mainly young children) per day.
However, it is not correct or fair to attribute these ongoing deaths solely or even mainly to Greenpeace’s actions. If you listen to Paterson’s statement (reported here in the Telegraph, or listen to the audio link here, starting at 1:39:28), Paterson accuses Greenpeace of being morally responsible for a proportion of “6,000 people” who have “died from vitamin A deficiency… since yesterday”.
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Latest: exclusive video interviews and footage with 5 farmers in Rangpur (filmed on my phone!):
9 May, 12.00hrs – see updates at end of post…
Once again media reports have emerged claiming that genetically modified pest-resistant Bt brinjal (eggplant) has failed in the field and that farmers in Bangladesh are regretting that they have begun to grow it. (An earlier example was dealt with here.) The stakes are admittedly high here: this is South Asia’s first GMO food crop, and has been developed in the public sector for distribution to resource-poor smallholder farmers. The powerful anti-GMO lobby knows that if Bangladeshi farmers successfully adopt this new crop, other GMO crops in the pipeline such as Golden Rice (also being developed in Bangladesh) will be advantaged and their cause of banning the technology permanently will be harmed.
The latest media report appeared in New Age, a Bangladeshi newspaper, and was titled ‘Bt brinjal farming ruins Gazipur farmers’. It is online here. The report is very specific, quoting farmer Mansur Sarkar, who is supposedly furious at the non-performance of his Bt brinjal crop. Sarkar is one of 20 farmers in 4 regions of Bangladesh who are growing the first generation of Bt brinjal. The rationale for the new variety is very simple – it is resistant to the endemic pest called fruit and shoot borer by carrying the Bt gene, and therefore requires drastically less pesticide than is conventionally applied by farmers to brinjal.
Here is a particular allegation from the New Age:
During a spot visit on Monday at four Bt brinjal fields in Gazipur, New Age found that Bt brinjal plants faced several troubles – they did not grow up and came under attack of different pests including shoot borers.
The article also alleges that Sarkar and another farmer were furious and demanding compensation for being “guinea pigs” and for loss of livelihood. International media is already interested in this story, and Twitter has come alive with retweets from anti-GM activists with the New Age article.
However, it is entirely false. I myself, along with various scientists and others from Cornell University and the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute, visited the same farm a day earlier and found the crop in good health and the farmer happy. Here are the photos to prove it:
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Guest posting by Robert Stone
Not too long ago, most environmentalists assumed that the world was rapidly running out of fossil fuels. This certain fact, we believed, would lead to a steady and steep rise in energy prices that in turn would encourage and facilitate the inevitable transition towards a renewable energy future. We were wrong.
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