Permaculture and Agroecology

Fascinating post by Andrew Kniss on Redefining Agroecology:

In the agroecology program at the University of Wyoming, we teach that proper use of technology is an indispensable part of achieving sustainability. After all, if technology in crop production was shunned, we’d have succumbed to the Malthusian catastrophe many generations ago. Technological innovations, in many cases, can help us maintain or increase production while minimizing the negative impacts of agriculture. This doesn’t mean that technological solutions should replace important traditional agricultural practices (like crop rotation, manure, appropriate tillage etc.). Technology is most certainly not a substitute for good agronomy. By studying agroecology, we can determine how to best use technology to increase the sustainability of agroecosystems. It also allows us to maximize the benefit of traditional agricultural practices and minimize their negative impact.

The point is that agroecology has lost its origins as a science and become co-opted by the “alternative farming” movement which not surprisingly annoys Kniss:

And this, I think, is why I get a little defensive when the term agroecology is used in conjunction with “utterly unrealistic solutions” and “bogus challenges.” Most frustrating to me, is when agroecology is used in this context:

“We don’t need [insert technology here], because we have agroecology!“

In the comments, Karl Haro von Mogel suggests in order to reclaim agroecology as a science that embraces technology, another term should be found to encompass the political movement.

I think I know what that term might be: Permaculture. After all, in response to my critique of permaculture, some have claimed I ignore the close association with agroecology.

But while Kniss shows that agroecology is really a science that holds no ideological commitment- as a science it merely investigates the ecological interactions in the context of agriculture, with the purpose of benefiting both- permaculture has never been a science and is nothing if not an ideological movement.

Permaculture is not just agriculture ofcourse, and has a heavy focus on urban farms and gardens and small-holdings; and has spread far beyond this to embrace advocacy on everything from sustainable housing to renewable energy to Deep Ecology and airy-fairy “People Care” ; but its origins would seem to be almost identical to what has become the agroecological movement, closely associated with the Food Sovereignty movement (pdf) and the Organics movement, albeit the latter with a narrower and more clearly defined focus.

All of these movements subscribe to the idea that modern agriculture is unsustainable, largely driven by the quest for corporate profit, and heading rapidly over a cliff like demented lemmings;
and they promote their own cause as a simple no-brainer one-size-fits-all Answer to the issues of feeding the world.
They ignore the fact that industrial agriculture has been spectacularly successful in feeding modern populations, and in equal measure ignore the short-comings of the proposed alternatives, including less efficient land-use.
The biggest problem though is their rejection of technologies such as GMOs which can make farming more efficient, precisely because they are ideological movements and not science.

Can we reclaim the word agroecology as a science? Probably not, but it is worth thinking about replacing it with the word permaculture when you see it used as a movement, if only because it helps spotlight permaculture for what it really is.


Rachel Carson, DDT and the Greens

At the end of 2010 Channel 4 broadcast a fascinating documentary called What the Greens Got Wrong.

There was a lively studio debate afterwards featuring Stewart Brand, Mark Lynas and George Monbiot, with GMOs and nuclear power were the main topics under discussion. Another controversy, perhaps even more fundamental to the canon of Green thinking was also scrutinized, and lead to a somewhat acrimonious exchange between Stewart Brand and George Monbiot: Rachel Carson and DDT.

In his book Whole Earth Discipline Brand writes of the legacy of Rachel Carson and the subsequent *restrictions* on DDT use to combat malaria:

Environmentalists were right to be inspired by marine biologist Rachel Carson’s book on pesticides, Silent Spring, but wrong to place DDT in the category of Absolute Evil (which she did not) … In an excess of zeal that Carson did not live to moderate, DDT was banned worldwide, and malaria took off in Africa. Quoted in a 2007 National Geographic article, Robert Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health said: ‘The ban on DDT may have killed 20m children.’

and rightly, Monbiot asks for sources for this claim: are the Greens really to blame for 20million deaths? This is a serious charge and demands suitably verifiable references.

Brand just refers him back to Robert Gwadz, a source Monbiot apparently has no interest in pursuing, instead over-playing his hand against Brand, as Keith Kloor noted at the time:

Well, to my eyes, Monbiot is swinging wildly with the charge of Brand being little more than a corporate shill. It’s too bad, too, because Monbiot was clearly winning on points with all the tight jabs that did hit their mark in his latest post.

Roll forward three-and-a-half years to yesterday’s World Malaria Day and Monbiot has post discussing his recent interview with another prominent Green Heretic James Lovelock concerning his new book A Rough Ride to the Future in which Lovelock repeats the same claims as Brand, apparently also without references:

Neither Rachel Carson, nor the green movement – nor the US government seemed aware of the dire human consequence of banning the manufacture of DDT and its lookalikes before substitutes were available … In 1963 malaria was about to become effectively controlled. The insecticide ban led to a rise in malaria deaths to 2 million yearly, plus over 100 million disabled by the disease.

Monbiot tells the same story that he told in 2010: there was no worldwide ban; DDT was no longer effective for malaria vector control due to over-use in agriculture; the Stockholm convention which regulates pesticide use permits DDT use for disease vector control; the whole story about DDT bans and millions of deaths is just a trumped up slur against the noble green movement and the honorable legacy of Rachel Carson by right-wing think tanks in the pay of Big Tobacco.

Not so fast. It seems to me there is rather more to this story than Monbiot and other Green apologists would like us to believe.

For a start, with reference to the Tobacco industries’ conspiracy and Monbiot’s claim of “paid astro-turfers” it turns out that things are not so simple. Fascinatingly according to Matt Ridley, Rachel Carson’s mentor William Heuper fully supported her views on DDT and other agrochemical carcinogens, and believed himself that the targeting tobacco as a cause of cancer- which was only really taking off in the 1960s and ’70s- was a plot to detract attention away from agrochemicals.

So obsessed was Hueper with his notion that pesticides and other synthetic chemicals were causing an epidemic of cancer and that industry was covering this up, that he bitterly opposed the suggestion that smoking take any blame – as an industry plot.

Elsewhere, the tobacco industry has also seen its interests threatened by the continuing use of DDT, thus indirectly finding common cause with environmentalists:

Yet British American Tobacco, in a coalition with many other corporations in Uganda, has called for a delay to the spraying program, warning that the use of DDT could threaten lucrative exports of tobacco, coffee, cut flowers and other agricultural products.

It seems to me that Monbiot resorts to paranoid conspiracy theories because he cannot substantiate his claims either. On Twitter yesterday I asked George whether he was 100% sure that environmental campaigns against DDT might not have contributed to the post-mid-1960s resurgence of malaria, sighting this paper on malaria in India:

In 1947, when India became independent, 75 million malaria cases in a population of 330 million were estimated.7 During the eradication era in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a spectacular achievement was witnessed on the malaria eradication front because malaria cases significantly declined to just 100,000 in 1964. However, reversal was experienced, and malaria staged a comeback. By 1976, malaria cases had touched the 6.4 million mark. A continued rise in P. falci-parum was witnessed, and its proportion has gradually risen to nearly 50% in recent years

Monbiot responded tersely:

-but in fact this is quite wrong: drug resistance is a separate issue that made treating malaria much harder, while no mention is made of DDT resistance. The Monbiot refused to correct himself on this, his rude and defensive tone betraying his desperate need to defend the Greens from any historical wrong-doing at all costs:

Instead, he could have simply referenced the Wikipaedia article on DDT which provides a good summary and confirms that DDT resistance was becoming a growing problem in the 1960s threatening to roll back many of the gains made in the previous couple of decades. However, it is NOT clear that this is what lead to the dramatic come-back made by the disease in the late-1960s:

In 1955, the World Health Organization commenced a program to eradicate malaria worldwide, relying largely on DDT. The program was initially highly successful, eliminating the disease in “Taiwan, much of the Caribbean, the Balkans, parts of northern Africa, the northern region of Australia, and a large swath of the South Pacific”[26] and dramatically reducing mortality in Sri Lanka and India.[27] However widespread agricultural use led to resistant insect populations. In many areas, early victories partially or completely reversed and, in some cases, rates of transmission even increased.[28] The program was successful in eliminating malaria only in areas with “high socio-economic status, well-organized healthcare systems, and relatively less intensive or seasonal malaria transmission”.

So, yes, it is indeed true that DDT resistance contributed to a resurgence of malaria in some countries- those without the means for a more comprehensive campaign relying not only on DDT but also including other environmental controls and public health measures; but this does not entirely let the Greens off the hook

A couple of things do not add up in the environmentalists’ defence since we are told repeatedly that DDT was never banned for vector control. The question is, which Monbiot (nor Quiggin and Lambert, who he references) does not address, instead deflecting the attention away with paranoid ramblings about paid astro-turf groups) is whether the 1972 US domestic ban for agricultural use made it hard to get for health workers in the field- this after all was the original claim made by Gwadz:

Exceptions were made for malaria control, but DDT became nearly impossible to procure. “The ban on DDT,” says Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health, “may have killed 20 million children.”

(emphases added.)

Wiki states:

Spraying programs (especially using DDT) were curtailed due to concerns over safety and environmental effects, as well as problems in administrative, managerial and financial implementation, but mostly because mosquitoes were developing resistance to DDT

So the availability of DDT may be a mute point if it had been found to be ineffective anyway and was no longer being used.

There was indeed an environmental camapaign against DDT in the late-60s post- Silent Spring:

DDT became a prime target of the growing anti-chemical and anti-pesticide movements, and in 1967 a group of scientists and lawyers founded the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) with the specific goal of winning a ban on DDT.

Why was this necessary, one wonders, if DDT was already falling into disuse due to resistance?
According to this statement by the WHO in 2006

Nearly thirty years after phasing out the widespread use of indoor spraying with DDT and other insecticides to control malaria, the World Health Organization (WHO) today announced that this intervention will once again play a major role in its efforts to fight the disease.

-suggesting that DDT for vector control used in IRS (Indoor Residual Spraying) WAS severely curtailed, contradicting somewhat complacent claims by Monbiot that there was no restriction on its use for this purpose.

Wiki cites other reasons for the return of malaria apart from insect resistance:

WHO’s anti-malaria campaign of the 1950s and 1960s relied heavily on DDT and the results were promising, though temporary. Experts tie the resurgence of malaria to multiple factors, including poor leadership, management and funding of malaria control programs; poverty; civil unrest; and increased irrigation.

while countries who stopped using DDT experienced an increase in malaria:

According to DDT advocate Donald Roberts, malaria cases increased in South America after countries in that continent stopped using DDT. Research data shows a significantly strong negative relationship between DDT residual house sprayings and malaria rates. In a research from 1993 to 1995, Ecuador increased its use of DDT and resulted in a 61% reduction in malaria rates, while each of the other countries that gradually decreased its DDT use had large increase in malaria rates.

The reports are mixed: banning DDT for agricultural use may have saved lives by slowing the development of resistance; on the other hand, why was it still permitted- or used- in vector control if resistance had been such a problem? How long after the agricultural ban does resistance stop being a problem? The patterns of resistance and use in agriculture vis-a-vis vector control seem to be complex and vary considerably from country to country.

It has also been alleged that donor governments and agencies have refused to fund DDT spraying, or made aid contingent upon not using DDT. According to a report in the British Medical Journal, use of DDT in Mozambique “was stopped several decades ago, because 80% of the country’s health budget came from donor funds, and donors refused to allow the use of DDT.”[130] Roger Bate asserts, “many countries have been coming under pressure from international health and environment agencies to give up DDT or face losing aid grants: Belize and Bolivia are on record admitting they gave in to pressure on this issue from [USAID].”

More weight to the claim that environmental campaigns hindered the availability of DDT in some countries where it was badly needed comes from this letter to The Lancet in 2000, quoted in the comments under Monbiot’s Guardian article yesterday:

Since the early 1970s, DDT has been banned in
industrialised countries and the interdiction was gradually
extended to malarious countries. The bans occurred in
response to continuous international and national
pressures to eliminate DDT because of environmental
concerns…..Despite objections by notable malariologists, the move away from spraying houses was progressively
strengthened by WHO’s malaria control strategies of 1969,
1979, and 1992. These strategies were adopted even
though published WHO documents and committee reports
have consistently and accurately characterised DDT sprayed
houses as the most cost effective and safe approach
to malaria control…..Other mechanisms also have been used by
environmental advocates to stop use of DDT for malaria
control. A recent example is the agreement of the North
American Commission for Environmental Cooperation
(CEC) that forced Mexico to stop producing and using
DDT for malaria control. This agreement also eliminated
a rare source of DDT for malaria control in other countries
in South America…….Numerous epidemics have occurred in many countries,
after suspension of DDT house treatments, such as
Swaziland (1984) and Madagascar (1986–88), where
malaria killed more than 100 000 people….Today, few countries still use DDT and most have no way to even buy this insecticide…The position of
many scientists concerned about increasing malaria was
described in an open letter that was subsequently signed
by over 380 scientists, including three Nobel laureates in
medicine, representing 57 countries. The letter supports
continued use of DDT and residual spraying of houses for
malaria control.

This letter was covered by the Guardian at the time:

“While it is true that we don’t know every last risk of using DDT, we know very well what the risk of malaria is – and on balance malaria is far, far more deadly than the worst that one could imagine about DDT,” said Amir Attaran, director of the Malaria Project in Washington. He and the Malaria Foundation International organised the open letter.

In 2001, Greenpeace were campaigning to “close down the only major DDT production facility in the world, located in Cochin, India.”

Others who could claim to have some personal experience in malaria-torn countries and the use of DDT in both agriculture and disease control who finger the Greens include
Norman Borlaug (though he makes no reference to the possibility that resistance had become a problem); and
Anthony Trewavas in a letter to Nature (which I do not have access to);

According to an editorial in The Economist in 2000

In the early 1990s, for example, the United States Agency for International Development stopped the governments of Bolivia and Belize from using DDT. In Madagascar, the United Nations Development Programme tried to persuade the government to replace DDT with Propoxur, a less effective pesticide. To its credit, Madagascar refused. In Mozambique, both NORAD, the Norwegian development agency, and SIDA, its Swedish counterpart, said that they could not support the use of DDT, as it was banned in their own countries. That the problems of a desperately poor malarial country in Africa might be somewhat different from those of wealthy, non-malarial Scandinavia seems not to have occurred to them.

Monbiot would have is believe that all of these opinions of experts- including Gwadz and Roberts who are experts in the field with decades of experience in malaria control, and the 380 scientists and malaria experts including three Nobel Laureates who signed the Washington Malaria Project Open Letter are just the lazy and ideological parrots of a conspiracy perpetrated by tobacco industry shills.

To accept this is to deny the wider legacy and ideological roots of the environmental movement. As Jon Entine expalains in his book Scared to Death- How Chemophobia Threatens Public Health the post- Silent Spring DDT debate took place in the context of a growing political environmentalism that was often misanthropic in nature:

The issue of restricting population growth played into the debate over DDT in a disconcerting way. The public was confronted with Ehrlich’s (erroneous) conviction that hundreds of millions of people would starve to death in coming decades because of overpopulation. The issue of withdrawing anti-malarial programs as a means of population control was broadly discussed and debated. In his book, Ehrlich himself appeared to “blame” DDT for saving lives, exacerbating the overpopulation problem: “The introduction of DDT in 1946 brought rapid control over the mosquitoes which carry malaria. As a result, the death rate on the island [of Ceylon] was halved in less than a decade. … Death control [DDT use] did not reach Colombia until after World War II. … Each child adds to the impossible burden of a family and to the despair of a mother.” (Ehrlich 1968)

As with many other instances of over-zealous application of the Precautionary Principle, Entine explains:

The paradigmatic example of an overreaction is what happened to DDT, the insecticide targeted by Rachel Carson. DDT remains the totemic villain of the environmental movement, but it has saved more lives from malaria and other insect-borne diseases than any other chemical. In retrospect, the ban on DDT has proven to be a mistake of tragic proportion. In the early 1960s, several developing countries had nearly wiped out malaria. After they stopped using the insecticide, other control methods had only modest success and malaria came raging back. In one of many examples, in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), DDT spraying had reduced malaria cases from 2.8 million in 1948 to 17 by 1963.

Entine concludes that although most environmental NGOs now accept DDT use for vector control, they should not be let ignore the costs of past actions:

Given the state of the science at the time Carson wrote her book, one might generously make the case that her concerns about the potentially unknown effects of synthetic chemicals on human health were not unwarranted. Some key facts were unclear. But after four decades chasing the potential risks of DDT and certain other chemicals without measurably improving world health, and is some cases degrading it, her followers in the environmental movement bear the responsibility of wasting billions of dollars and destroying millions of lives.

Exaggerated environmental alarmism is liable to cause, and is responsible for, a great deal of human suffering, a current issue being the campaign by Greenpeace and the Organic movement against Golden Rice. This is an asymmetric story of wealthy westerners with idealistic environmental obsessions interfering with the much more immediate life-and-death concerns of the poor. The South African journalist Ivo Vegter points out in his book Extreme Environment: How environmental exaggeration harms emerging economies how convenient it was for the US to plan a ban on DDT use in 1971, just after the last developed nation had eradicated malaria from its own shores.

He sums up the DDT debate:

Both sides are wrong. Both sides are guilty of exaggeration. And neither side does the rest of us any favours by their shrill extremism.
Rachel Carson was not evil. She raised very real problems, which in the preceding years had several times made newspaper headlines across her native United States….

In particular, Carson did not advocate ignoring insect-born diseases merely because combating them might require chemical pesticides. What she actually said was ‘Practical advice should be “spray as little as you possibly can” rather than “Spray to the limit of your capacity”‘.

Monbiot is right to challenge the hyperbole of comparing Rachel Carson to Hitler and blaming her personally for tens of millions of deaths, but this does not exonerate the environmental movement which continues to try to ban useful and life-saving technology due to narcissistic fears more than any science, from GMOs to nuclear power to neonicotinoids.

And Monbiot is guilty of his own hyperbole when it suits him. He calls out Lovelock:

James repeats and embellishes an extraordinary and disgraceful myth, first circulated a few years ago by corporate-funded astroturfers, that green campaigners are responsible for the deaths of millions of people.

But is this really any worse than Monbiot himself making unsubstantiated hyperbolic claims such as this about climate change?

This is the great moral issue of the twenty-first century, and if we don’t deal with climate change, we condemn hundreds of millions of people to death.

Is not this accusation -that those who obstruct (a particular kind of) “action on climate” are “worse than Hitler” the origin of the word “denier” which Monbiot is happy to use himself in his rhetoric?

Stay tuned- this is a topic I hope to return to quite soon….

Permaculture and GMOs

UK’s leading Permaculture author Patrick Whitefield posted an interesting tweet the other day:

to which I replied:

It seems a strange argument- how does one define “need” in this case? A new technology that can save large losses from disease seems something certainly desirable- and ultimately we may well need it to make farming more efficient. Even if we do not currently “need” GE spuds, the technology has many other applications and developing countries where food security is not so, well, secure, really do need such improvements for their farmers.

One specific but quite different application of the technology is of course Vitamin-A enhanced Golden Rice. With hundreds of thousands of vitamin-A deficient children becoming blind each year, and half of them dying within a year, this rice would indisputably be meeting a very urgent need which other methods are clearly not meeting. To claim otherwise is “just noise.”

Genetic engineering does have significant advantages over traditional breeding methods- new blight resistant varieties can be turned around in just one growing season as opposed to 10-15 years, keeping ahead of the blight’s own evolution. Either way, we are on a tread-mill, always striving to keep at least one step ahead of Nature who would starve us as soon as look at us. Moreover, a wider choice of tools surely leads to more resilience- just as the permaculture principle of “multiple sources” would advise.

You may as well say we don’t “need” computers since the postal service does an admiral job, or we don’t need buses and trains since the humble horse can carry us to Tipperary just as well. On the face of it is just seems like an excuse to undermine a technology which is somewhat arbitrarily the subject of a vitriolic environmentalist campaign. The clue comes in the last paragraph of the linked article:

Ultimately, the array of techniques currently in practice among commercial growers to prevent potato blight makes the need for a GM solution appear redundant and potentially reckless, especially when considering the broader implications of resistance, pesticide-use, and corporate ownership of our food systems.

Ah yes, playing the “corporate ownership of the food system” card- which rather conveniently serves to cover up the absence of any actual argument against GMOs in the article, even if some growers do find Sarpos preferable.

I challenged Patrick that his opposition was ideological, and he didn’t really have any argument. He disputed this- “For me this is not a matter of ideology but of practicality, of weighing pros and cons.”- and went on to make a point:

Again, this seems an odd argument- as if a solution cannot be used if it works really well, because if it works too well it won’t work very well. If you get my drift… In my view, this is just a concealed concession to fears of Pandora’s Box: we should not trust technology. We are too clever for our own good. No good in fact will come of this, since we just shouldn’t be meddlin’ in what we don’t really understand. That is what I mean by ideology- the misanthropy that underpins much environmentalism, including permaculture, that basically would shake its head in dismay at the Knowing Ape and say: People just ain’t no good.

In the real world there are actual farmers who know about these things, and have well known techniques to help slow the evolution of pest resistance, for example by planting corn refuges. As with so many issues raised in objection to GMOs, this is a farm management issue, not a plant breeding issue.

In fact, although resistance is an inevitable result of any kind of pest control method- that ol’ treadmill again- the reality is far more interesting. It turns out that the unintended consequences of for example of Bt corn in the US are of the beneficial kind- is so successful that it can actually provide a refuge for non-transgenic varieties. The halo effect is best known in the Rainbow Papaya in Hawaii, credited with saving the Organic Papaya industry which was being devastated by ringspot virus- again, traditional methods had proved unable to solve the problem, so there an indisputable (but not undisputed) need:

In the case of the Hawaiian papaya, scientists planted an “island” of nontransgenic variety in an “ocean” of transgenic papaya as a means of securing the nontransgenic variety. The specially modified traits of GM crops helped to kill off pests, control water intake and provide a sort of refuge for non-modified crops in nearby acres.

Patrick responded to this:

Open-mindedness is a very welcome quality in this highly politicized and ideological issue. For Patrick Whitefield to even claim this is big bananas in permaculture world, since he is one of the top writers for the UK Permaculture Magazine, which has taken an overtly activist position against GMOs, and regularly fetes Indian ideologue Vandana Shiva .

(For an must-read in-depth look at what Vandana Shiva really stands for see this article by Marco Rosaire Conrad-Rossi.)

Most bizarrly though, Patrick ended the exchange by saying that it was me who is closed-minded!

I suggested to Patrick that he write an article on GMOs for the magazine, arguing for an open-minded approach. This I think would be rather a stretch- but one can live in hope.

We don’t need GE crops but Africa does

Another book review from the archives of my previous blog Zone5.
Paalberg’s book is as relevant as ever- although there has been some movement on GE crops since I wrote the review, by and large they are still slow to take off in most of the continent. The only thing I would change is in the post’s title- we in the developed world also need GE to help improve  the efficiency and environmental resilience of farming practices.
Starved for Science stands as a damning indictment of the environmental movement’s ideological campaign against genetic engineering, which has made the task of solving hunger and poverty in rural Africa much more difficult by keeping it from those who need it the most.

We don’t need GE crops but Africa Does

First posted on 10 September 2010 on


Starved for science: How Biotechnology is being kept out of Africa

Robert Paalberg
Harvard University Press 2009 Pbck 235pp

Harvard Professor Robert Paalberg has written a book that makes essential reading for anyone interested in global food politics and why Africa still fails to feed many of its people.
Africa remains the only region on earth with increasing poverty and hunger. The number of Africans living on less than a dollar a day increased 50% since the early 90s; Between 1991 and 2002 the number of malnourished people in Africa increased from 169 to 206 million, with nearly a third of sub-Saharan Africa malnourished, compared with just 17% in the developing world as a whole.

Paalberg accounts for this as a result of policies that since the 1970s have resulted in a massive decline in investment in agricultural science in Africa. While in Asia and South America, farmers benefited from the new science of the green Revolution, and have been able to both feed their growing population- confounding the predictions of neo-Malthusians- and bring many out of poverty as well. India started planting new Green Revolution short-straw varieties in 1964; by 1970 production had doubled, averting fears of famine.

Why did Africa get left behind? Paalberg argues that while in Asia and South America had strong enough institutions and science to continue with their own scientific developments with little further outside assistance, Africa was became influenced by a change in the political and cultural climate in Europe from the 1980s onwards. In particular, this has seriously slowed the uptake of Genetic Engineering in Africa, which Paalberg argues is a result in part of the ideological position of many NGOs working in Africa.

In order to examine what lies behind this ideological position, Paalberg gives a detailed account of the rise of the Organic movement in the west, and a strong consumer movement demanding more natural food:
“This reification of what is “natural” is in part a cultural reaction to the hegemonic expansion of modern science. Advances in modern science tend to diminish both unspoiled nature and unquestioned faith, prompting those with a strong romantic or spiritual side to register their objections by seeking foods that incorporate less modern science. “
This view had already emerged in the US as early as 1892 when a clergyman called Sylvester Graham invented the “Graham Cracker” as a reaction against additives used to whiten bread. Paalberg points out Graham was a “patriarch and a prude; he thought women should go back to milling their own flour and believed in vegetarianism as a means to control sexual passions.”

In Europe, Rudolph Steiner founded the vitalist school of philosophy called Anthroposophy.
“‘Vitalism’” explains Paalberg “was the once-dominant view that living things had a chemical composition different from non-living things”- a view known to be untrue by science since 1780, yet one that still underpins much of the organic movement even today. Steiner’s “Biodynamic” techniques- a mixture of sympathetic magic, astrology and animal sacrifice- seem to have been growing in popularity in recent years.
Sir Albert Howard’s 1940 publication “An Agricultural Testament” was also influential in this reaction against science in farming: “Artificial manures lead inevitably to artificial nutrition, artificial food, artificial animals and finally to artificial men and women.”

Lady Eve Balfour was next in 1943 with her book “The Living Soil” which inspired the formation of the Soil Association in 1946, “still the institutional guardian of organic farming traditions in Great Britain.” The SA’s leading patron is HRH Prince Charles, “the most prominent exemplar of this blue-blood attachment in England to pre-industrial, chemical-free farming”.
In the US, J.I Rodale coined the term “Organic farming” and founded the “Organic Farming and Gardening” magazine in 1942. Rodale was also a big fan of alternative health care and supplements.
Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” perhaps did more than any other book to warn of the dangers of chemical pollution from farming. The environmental movement had come of age and began to have a real influence over public policy.

The movement grew rapidly with the rise of an alternative youth culture in the 1960s and 70s, getting a major boost in the US in 1990 with the creation of a single national standard for organic produce.
However, even today in the US the organic sector makes up only 2% of total food purchases and using only 0.4% of cropland. The claims of the organic movement of safer, more nutritious food, and of being more beneficial to nature, are not in general supported by scientific evidence. Paalberg argues that the per capita amount of land need to feed people has declined by more than 50% in the US since 1920; a switch now to organics would require far more land, threatening much of the remaining forest and wild areas.

Carsonain environmentalists cannot refute this logic, but they resist accepting it because it requires them to endorse a larger rather than a smaller role for modern science.

More science had already reduced some of the harm from chemical farming highlighted by Carson; bringing in more science to farming now is still the best way to address the environmental impacts by making farming more efficient. The Organic movement has proved to be still wedded to its ideological roots.
The prevalence of the “nature knows best” ideology has been possible because the west has already seen so much improvement in agricultural productivity, as a result of science and technology, that it is well-fed and unwilling to take on yet more in this sector, switching its concerns to reducing the impact on the environment of farming.

Paalberg accepts that this stance makes sense in the west with its excesses of CAFOs, and a subsidy system that encourages over-application of Nitrogen fertiliser, and problems of obesity rather than starvation.
In addition, the modern world seemed to feel an acute sense of loss of community and connection with the natural world and began to harbor romantic notions of returning to an agrarian past.
What might be understandable if misguided at home has become disastrous in Africa, where essentially farmers are poor- and therefore sometimes hungry- because of too little science, rather than too much. African farmers mostly own their own land (unlike in South America) and so would be well placed to benefit from improvements in crop technology for example, but a combination of powerful western NGOs and corrupt African governments discouraged investment in this area.

{Correction 16-09-10: Paalberg does not say most African farmers own their own land but emphasises that there is far more access to in Africa than in, say Latin America, with only 15 landless landless people in the countryside to every 100 smallholders: “This greater prevalence of land-secure smallholder farmers among the poor in rural Africa increases the chance they will benefit from a farm-technology upgrade. Yet not just any upgrade will do. A new farming technology will be pro-poor as well as pro-growth only if it raises the the total factor productivity of small as well as large farms.”}

This opposition to science is most strongly expressed when it comes to genetically engineered crops. This technology was first being developed at a time when public science funding in agriculture was declining, leaving private corporations like Monsanto to step in and lead the way. The organic movement has banned the use of GE crops; Europe has kept GE food crops out altogether so far. Paalberg sees the ideology behind this as going beyond the simple environmental and health concerns, extending to issues of carrying capacity and population:

Carsonian environmentalists were offended because gene transfer was so clearly an attempt to engineer and dominate nature rather than live within nature’s normal reproductive constraints.

Perversely, the environmental concerns of the rich world became transplanted into Africa, where people struggle to feed themseleves still.
“Farming in Africa is a world apart from farming in Europe or North America” writes Paalberg, and goes onto say:

In Africa…farmers today are not involved in specialized factory farming. They are planting heirloom varieties in polycultures rather than scientifically improved varieties in monoculture. They have a food system that is traditional, local, nonindustrial, and very slow. Using few purchased inputs, they are de facto organic. And as a consequence they remain poor and poorly fed.

Yields of maize in Malawi for example are less than one tenth of yields in the US.
Many NGOs working in Africa seem motivated to keep them this way. Doug Parr, chief scientist of Greenpeace places a great emphasis on safeguarding the “traditional knowledge” of the Africans. The International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) is the most prominent amongst NGOs promoting organics in developing countries; their mission in Africa is not to increase productivity but to enlist farmers there into the organic movement. Since so few farmers use synthetic chemicals it will be easy to get them certified. “Poor and nonproductive” Paalberg notes ruefully , “but certified organic.”

Paalberg is scathing about some of the approaches by NGOs. The German organisation Networking for Ecofarming in Africa has partners in 13 African countries to warn them of the dangers of “Western agricvulture” supplanting indigenous knowledge, yet promotes biodynamic farming in its workshops.

German trainers at one NECOFA session in Kenya in 2005 took the time to introduce local participants the importance of light rhythms from the planets and to instruct them in developing manure preparations that included essential bits of stinging nettle, chamomile, and cow horn (NECOFA 2005). Such knowledge is neither farmer-derived nor indigenous to Africa. Nor is it even knowledge.

Pedalling pseudo-science to hungry people is akin to quack therapists promoting homeopathy for AIDS or malaria.
Paalberg details the political process used by NGOs, aided and abetted by the UN and supported by a complacent governments in the west and corrupt urban-based officials in Africa, to block the use of science to improve the farmers lot there.
How much of this is to support lifestyle choices of the rich in western countries? Paalberg sees it as neo-colonial in its effects: nearly all certified organic produce in Africa is specialty crops destined for the west, not food for the locals. “Organic farming advocates from IFOAM nonetheless like to assert that organic agriculture in developing countries is not a luxury but somehow a precondition for attaining food security.”

What could GE crops do for African farmers? The most obvious is drought-tolerance (DT). Monsanto has played a big role in developing DT corn in the US, but African will have to wait before they can try it. Only South Africa is an exception to the red tape and stiffing restrictions that all other African governments have place don GE technology, following the European model.
In any case, the big companies are not developing DT varieties suitable for Africa because they see little commercial gain there; African farmers are simply too poor. If GE gets into Africa, it will be through philanthropic organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has formed a partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation called Alliance for a Green Revolution In Africa (AGRA). Monsanto is working with AGRA however to donate some of its technology to develop DT crops there. There remain many political obstacles, and Africa which needs this new technology more than anyone, seems destined to be the last to get it.
Friends of the Earth have been opposed to DT crops in Africa since 1999, citing the danger of them growing in areas currently unavailable to other crops as one of its main objections to GE.

“How strange that agricultural crops with new growth potential would be seen as a threat by the NGO community” notes Paalberg, “but such was the new political reality.”

A new generation of GE crops may help shift attitudes in the Europe. So far, the technology has been used to benefit farmers, with little apparent benefit to the consumer; new crops may have tangible benefits to those who eat them, and as with GE in medicine- which has not met with the same opposition- may then come to be more accepted.

Paalberg makes a tightly argued case for the unnecessary prolonging of hunger in Africa being at least partly fueled by ideological and even religiously motivated western NGOs. While there is an understandable attraction to the simple life of living from the land in the west- something that I have shared- those of us who choose this life are wealthy enough to afford everything from tools and polytunnels to the best seeds we can get, and we do not have to worry about going hungry if the rains dont come.

GE and other scientific advances would farmers here, and the environment also, but we are wealthy enough -because of the benefits technology has brought us so far- to have the choice. To actively campaign to keep these benefits from the poor is not just anti-science, but anti-humanity.

Whole Earth Discipline

As mentioned in my last post for GMO-Skeptics Forum, one of the major influences in my journey from Dark Green Chicken-Little to pragmatic techno-optimist was Stewart Brand’s seminal Whole Earth Discipline.
This makes interesting reading for me four years later, as I was on the cusp of a new understanding on some key environmental issues: I was still in the grip of peak oil paranoia; I had not yet grasped what is really happening with population or even how fundamental the issue has been for environmentalism; and I would also be much more skeptical these days of apocalyptic climate predictions.

In particular, this book started me questioning the assumptions of my environmentalist tribe on GMOs, which I have since learned a lot more about and written many more posts on.
The review comes over to me now as wordy and long-winded, but this reflects partly the inner struggle I was going through as some of my core beliefs began to be re-aligned, so it serves as a testimony to that process as well as a hopefully useful review of a still important book.

From the Archives: First published on Zone5 March 22nd 2010

Book Review:
Whole Earth Discipline -An Ecopragmatist Manifesto
by Stewart Brand
Atlantic Books 2009 316pp


“Civilization is at risk, but civilization is the problem”.

Stewart Brand is one of the iconic founders of the environmental movement, an original old hippy whose influence on the boomer generation should not be understated. With his latest book Whole Earth Discipline he takes that same movement to task for rejecting science and getting sidetracked by ideology at the very time when the practical application of science through engineering and technology may be the only way to save ourselves.
I came across an early copy of The Whole Earth Catalog, founded by Brand in 1968, on an early visit to a small “back to the land” commune about 25 years ago. It was a thrilling introduction to the possibilities of the burgeoning “alternative” lifestyle of organic gardening and renewable energy I was joining at the time.

Over the coming years, I read about his early involvement in LSD in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and currently have a copy of his 1999 book The Clock of the Long Now on my bookshelf.
In a recent interview, I heard Brand take on the environmental movement’s anti-science stance on various issues. I have been grappling with this issue myself for some time now, particularly in the credulous acceptance by most green organisations of “alternative medicine” for which there is no evidence, and the anti-science diatribes that are inevitably summoned up in defense.

More recently I have discovered for myself how little science there is behind the health claims of organic food, and how organisations such as the Soil Association are often pseudo-scientific in their claims and their treatment of evidence.
Whole Earth Discipline challenges the greens on four more holy cows: population, urbanisation, nuclear power and Genetically Engineered crops, and in reading this compelling and fascinating book I have had to do some serious re-thinking around these issues myself. Continue Reading

GMOs and me in 500 words

First published yesterday on GMO Skepti-Forum


I left college 27 years ago with a fairly typical anti-establishment ideology.
Having flirted briefly with CND and the anti-nuclear movement in the early 1980s, I determined that there was no hope for modern civilisation- that it was unsustainable– and resolved to a back-to-the land life of self-sufficiency. I quickly got involved with permaculture which I still teach a version of to this day.
My first encounter with GMOs was at an Earth Day event in Maynooth around 1998. Vandana Shiva was there, and Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, debating with a Monsanto executive. Many of my friends had been involved with direct action against Monsanto trials in Wexford, which put paid to GMOs in Ireland for a long time. I went along unquestioningly with the strongly held views of my tribe, but even then I was vaguely aware that I really didnt know anything about GMOs.
Some years later as I learned more about science and critical thinking I became disillusioned with the permaculture movement, with its New Age religious beliefs and superstitions. Slowly, painfully, I found an effective debunking for one environmentalist myth after another. The turning point on GMOs was reading Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline and Professor Pam Ronald and Raoul Adamchuk’s Tomorrow’s Table. I remember racing through the earlier chapters of Brand’s book to get to the bit on GMOs. It was a revelation- everything everyone I knew was saying turned out to be false.

I became fascinated by both the science and the sociology, politics and psychology. I went on holiday to the US and visited Pam and Raoul at their home in California, and got to see Pam’s lab where I met my first transgenes. I engaged in countless debates on Facebook, Twitter and blog threads. I lost many long-standing friends and to some extent have become estranged from my community. I have been constantly surprised by the viciousness and blatant dishonesty people I previously respected have been willing to engage in in order to defend their irrational beliefs. It turns out that the anti-science of the Greens is not progressive and “left-wing” but rather betrays a deeply conservative, traditionalist and reactionary mindset. GMOs are just a form of advanced plant breeding; historically, new methods of breeding have often been opposed by the status quo.
Activists can only see things in simplistic black-and-white terms and absurd conspiracy theories. Theirs is a darkly narcissistic and negative view of humanity which they seem to despise, in contrast to the assumed purity of Nature which they revere, oblivious to how Nature only seems sublime when you have a full belly.
On the other hand I have also been surprised and delighted at the more open-minded students on my course who have shown it is possible for people to shift their thinking, sometimes dramatically and quite quickly, just from having new information presented in an interesting and engaging fashion.
They are the ones who give me hope and make the battles seem all worthwhile.

Seralini’s anti-GMO paper retracted

Remember those garish photos of rats puffed up with tumors supposedly as a result of eating GMO corn that were widely circulated last year? The paper those photos appeared in, by Gilles Seralni et al, has now been retracted by the journal it was originally published in, Food and Chemical Toxicology. The editor A. Wallace Hayes has sent a letter of to Seralini, telling him that it will be retracted if does not agree to withdraw it himself.

You can read Hayes’ letter here as reported by Retraction Watch.

Scientists’ reaction to the retraction can be read here.

The study was widely criticized at the time with many scientists condemning the journal for publishing such a questionable piece of work. In fact, the Seralini paper was transparently an act of propoganda:

Seralini is a quack, who consults for the homeopathic company Sevene Pharma. He published around the same time as the GMO rat study a book called (in French) “We are all Guinea-pigs!” Seralini’s organisation CRIIGEN has a homeopath as its current president. Seralini is also associated with the faith-healing New Age group Invitation to Life.

The study was fabricated by activist scientists with a political and commercial vested interest in undermining the public’s confidence in genetic engineering.

Claire Robinson, editor of Seralini’s anti-GMO website, attacked Hayes’ decision as “illicit, unscientific and unethical”, but according to Jon Entine writing today for Forbes, these conflicts of interest alone should have been sufficient reason to refuse publication:

Robinson’s rebuke highlights just how badly Hayes and Elsevier has mishandled this entire affair. The original research clearly violated numerous ethical guidelines for animal use, standard media protocol, guidelines for sample size in animal tests and a variety of other standards that should have prevented it from ever being published. Among his many ethical missteps, Séralini also failed to cite pertinent prior studies, claiming his research was original, which it was not, as even Robinson acknowledges. The studies he did not cite were relevant and contradicted his results. None employed such brazen cruelty to animals. Not citing the relevant literature is itself considered scientific misconduct.

Robinson argues that failure to deliver “conclusive” results is not sufficient reason to retract a paper; but in fact the study was so badly designed- trying to test several variables with insufficient sample sizes and inadequate controls- that it would not have been able to generate meaningful results in any case; however, neither the authors, nor the media, anti-GMO websites and prominent food writer Michael Pollen reported the study as “inconclusive” but rather, claimed it raised serious issues about the safety of crops developed using genetic engineering- flying in the face of the hundreds of studies that have proved GMOs to be safe.

I left comments to this effect under Robinson’s post; they were, predictably, deleted.

As it happens, the only meaningful correlation the study showed amongst all its confused groups of rats was that the males fed on water with Roundup lived longer! Funny how that was not the headline that went around the world.

Instead, the sickest part of this whole story is that the “scientists” deliberately left the cancered rats alive much longer than ethics or humanity would permit, until the tumors accounted for 25% of the rats’ body mass, just to get the shocking photos they wanted for maximum impact value. After all, pictures speak louder than words and most people are not going to look beyond to scrutinize methods or motives.

Such is the murky world where you find the nexus of Big Quacka, Big Organic and Big Green.