Monday, April 26, 2010


I'm not sure what to make of ANZAC day commemorations. I have been to a number over the years, as a way of paying my posthumous respects to old guys I have met in New Zealand who fought and suffered in WWII. I also go to pay respects to my own family members who died, fighting on the other side, and to pay respects to all those women and men who have suffered in war and reflect on the terrible things they have seen and done and had done to them. I pray I never have to experience such things.

I guess my ambivalence about the public ceremonies is because I am not sure what the message of ANZAC day is. I like the idea that we are all getting together to say “never again”, but I am not sure that is true. I would be happy with “only in the direst of need” but I'm not even sure I can rely on that. Many of the VIPS at these events look like they would be only too happy to send soldiers off to kill if it would enhance their vote

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against the New Zealand Army. I think our armed forces are pretty good, as far as armies go. I've been told that New Zealand has a reputation for being able to get the job done with the minimum of fuss and without the need for excessive amounts of expensive gear. I've been told we have a reputation for developing good community relations, and that our soldiers are noted for being as quick to whip out a guitar as a gun (maybe the New Zealand Police could learn something here). Having a high proportion of Maori is probably helpful in Pacific peace keeping operations, where most of our army's work is done. My problem is with the ambiguous symbolism of ANZAC Day.

I heard someone from the RSA commenting on National Radio that one of the reasons for the increasing attendance at ANZAC Day events is the coverage it gets from Maori TV. MTS has led the way in giving in-depth and extensive coverage to events of national importance such as ANZAC Day and Waitangi Day. I guess it's no surprise that Maori have a particular regard for ANZAC Day – the 28th (Maori) Battalion was internationally reknowned for its fierce bravery and the number of its soldiers who were decorated. Fighting in war, said Apirana Ngata, was the price of citizenship. As if the loss of lands and political independence was not price enough.

Even so, many young Maori came home from war, sometimes physically maimed, often psychologically scarred, to find their lands under the ownership of Pakeha farmers and their people still being treated as second class citizens. Perhaps that broken promise is one reason why it is so important for many Maori communities to remember and reaffirm that sacrifice, and why the mean-spirited racism that remains so wide spread in New Zealand society rankles so.

ANZAC Day is important for us all though, not just for Maori. In particular it is a day to reflect on the sacrifices of those who go to war on our behalf, and those they kill and maim in our name. This seems particularly important today, when New Zealand has soldiers serving in two imperial wars – in Iraq and in Afghanistan. It is vitally important that we continue to ask why they are there. We owe it to the soldiers who serve there, and to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan who may be dying as you read this.

In particular we cannot allow the claim of security to prevent us from continuing to ask what our troops are up to. The Prime Minister, and the Army, are happy to trot out Willie Apiata as propaganda but they continue to stonewall on the real questions about what our troops are up to over there. We know that US troops have been involved in numerous cases of atrocities in Iraq, from prison torture to the murder of civilians. We know of these because the stories have been leaked. I am not saying that New Zealand troops have ever been involved in such atrocities, but simply that we would probably never know if they had.

Western armies learned a huge lesson from the invasion of Vietnam: that controlling the media needs to be made a high priority in any military operation. That the lesson has been learned is readily apparent in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the media has been bought off with the trinkets that come from collaboration. Here in Aotearoa , for example, the media seems largely content as long as it is fed with nice photos every once in a while. It has become a domesticated dog.

Apart from the most obvious one, however, the lesson that has NOT been learned from Vietnam is the self-defeating nature of working with drug-funded war lords. Professor Peter Dale Scott has written an excellent analysis of CIA involvement with the Afghani opium trade – a trade almost destroyed by the Taliban but enjoying a massive resurgence under the Northern Alliance (Hat tip Rob Ueberfeldt). As in Vietnam and South America, the CIA has not been actively involved in the drug trade so much as protecting the shipments of key allies in order to secure their cooperation. It is a dangerous game and fuels further instability in the region.

In the end, I think ANZAC Day is important for us as a nation. I hope it is a way to avoid the kind of militaristic jingoism that seems so apparent in the USA. Whether people chose to attend or not attend the public ceremonies, let us make it a day for us all to remember those who fought, to reflect on the terrible things that people do to each other in war and to reaffirm our commitment as a nation to working to decrease its likelihood.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Legal bestiality

I don't usually comment on people's sexual activities. I don't really care what people do for their jollies, as long as they are all consenting adults. There are, in my opinion, more pressing matters to concern ourselves with. Bestiality, on the other hand, is almost by definition non-consensual. When I read that a young man had appeared in the Christchurch Youth Court accused of having sex with a donkey I was sure, if he was actually fornicating with it, that the donkey didn't give informed consent.

Still, as distasteful as I find the idea, I could not help reflecting on the imbalance in our legal system that prosecuted a young man for rogering a donkey on the Friday, and then gave legal sanction to the insertion of human DNA into goats, sheep and cows the following week. It seems that bestiality is illegal if you do it for fun, but not if you do it for profit. At least the donkey in Summervale Reserve was not being impregnated.

The decision by the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) to approve AgResearch's application was predictable. Since the massive uproar over genetic engineering (GE) around the beginning of the century there has been a relentless grinding away at public concern by Government, Crown research institutions and the biotech companies. It began with the Royal Commission on Genetic Engineering, which received over 10,000 submissions, mostly from ordinary New Zealanders, 92 percent of which were opposed to the use of GE. Nevertheless, the Commission chose to side with the commercial interests and recommend that we “proceed with caution”.

“Proceed with caution” is doublespeak for 'start slow to lull people into a false sense of security'. Governments use a similar tactic when they give offensive legislation a delayed start date, or use a staged roll-out. It relies on frog psychology. I've never actually put a frog into boiling water to check if it's true, but the urban myth says that a frog placed in boiling water will try to jump out, but put one into cold water and heat it until it's boiling and it will sit there until it becomes soup.

The Labour government followed the recommendation of the Royal Commission to give risk assessment of GE applications to ERMA. Bureaucratic quasi-legal bodies like ERMA have an unerring drive towards easy compromises – its the most risk-free stance to take. When confronted with an application in a highly polarised area like GE, they will always go for adding a few token conditions to placate the community while permitting the development to proceed. The RMA consent process tends to work in a very similar way. It is a good process for dealing with technical issues, but is incapable of dealing with matters of principle or ethics. The fact is most people just don't think scientists should be doing transgenic genetic engineering.

So when AgResearch put in an application that, in the words of Dr Judy Carman, of the Institute of Health and Environmental Research in her submsission to ERMA, was “asking for Carte Blanche to join almost every known DNA sequence known to man (and some that are not yet known) in almost any combination and to insert them into animals to produce any number of inadequately specified proteins” ERMA did not do the obvious thing and reject it outright. It is impossible to assess the risk of such a vague application. Instead ERMA took the only path it knows and approved the application with a few added conditions.

Although they claim that these conditions are stringent, this is somewhat of an exaggeration. They say they have limited the range of modifications and types of organisms, but the list of expressions, organisms and cell lines runs to 732 pages. None of their conditions inhibit what AgResearch is doing, but they do specify where the research must take place and what kinds of things that should have been in the application in the first place. ERMA also, bizarrely, seeks to placate tangata whenua by specifying that any human genes should not be from Maori or Polynesia people while failing to acknowledge the equally strong ethical, cultural and spiritual objections of Pakeha against crossing human and animal whakapapa.

Any resulting organisms can not be used for commercial purposes, but this is little comfort. When it comes to this kind of 'biopharming' research, many of the medical promises are purely speculative at this stage, although good propaganda. But it is all about softening us up. Pharmaceutical cows milk may not yet ready for the shop shelves, but it looks like PGG Wrightson and also Fonterra with AgResearch are getting ready to commercially launch genetically engineered pasture grasses. Otago University genetics researcher Jack Heinemann has consistently warned about the lack of good risk assessment with genetic engineering because, partly due to intellectual property rights issues, it is largely the profiteering company that does the safety checking. This has obvious disadvantages. It is of particular concern with pasture grasses because of their wide pollen dispersion and the potential for gene transfer to other species.

New Zealand farmers have up until now showed a high level of suspicion of GE and the promises made on its behalf. New Zealand citizens have also shown very clearly that we would be a GE free country if it was up to the people to decide. Since the official channels are so unresponsive to democracy, I have to wonder how long before someone tries to shoot those cows?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Hungarian green political success

Is a different kind of politics possible? One where cynicism is not the norm? One where the interests of ordinary people and of the environment have greater weight than those of big money? One where long term thinking is more persuasive than short term populism? A growing number of people around the world seem to think so.

In Hungary the LMP has just become the first green political party to achieve parliamentary representation by making it over the 5 percent threshold. LMP stands for Lehet Mas Politika meaning 'another kind of politics is possible'. It is a significant success. Since the end of the Soviet bloc Hungarian politics has swung from 'right' to 'left' and back in a destabilising pendulum motion (nb this is different to New Zealand, where we tend to amble from 'mildly right' to 'more right' and back). While the election in Hungary has just been resoundingly won by Fidesz, a right wing party led by the controversial Viktor Orban, the election of LMP members has the potential to be a catalyst for a deeper political/cultural shift in Hungary and beyond.

In Western Europe Green Parties have been very successful, including participating in a number of coalition governments, but this has been less true in Central and Eastern Europe. This is surprising, given the terrible ecological and social legacies of Marxist-Leninist communism. Marx, like mainstream capitalist thinkers, saw the environment as essentially without value until transformed by human activity. The drive for industrialisation in what was then a technologically backward Russia and in its occupied zones meant that the environment was brutally sacrificed for the revolution. Environmental standards were often even more lax than under capitalism.

The end of communism has brought its own problems. Some of the more foresighted communist chiefs reinvented themselves as capitalists and proceeded to buy up at a bargain price the national resources that were being privatised under the advice of people like our own Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. Those people now exert considerable influence in a number of post-communist countries, which itself fosters a sense of cynicism and despair among ordinary people. The desperate economic circumstances that a number of them face are also helping to foster a growing neo-fascist movement in some places.

So it is surprising that in ex-Iron Curtain states, until now Greens have only achieved parliamentary representation in the Czech Republic, Latvian and Estonian. Green politics tends to be a politics of hope and action, an antidote to fatalism. The slogan of the Australian Greens of a few years ago expresses it nicely: Clean Air, Clean Water, Clean Politics. I would have thought it an attractive message under the circumstances.

Some people say that green politics is the politics of the wealthy and that poor people have no time for protecting the environment. However this does not explain the growing movement around the 'environmentalism of the poor', in which the 'global south' is becoming the site of many of the most crucial environmental battles. Poor people and especially indigenous communities are struggling to defend their local communities and local ecologies in the face of highly profitable 'development' because they understand that it is the poor who usually bear the brunt of ecological degradation, poor decision-making and political corruption.

The election of LMP suggests that things may be changing. However, just as it has been difficult for the NZ Greens to put a brake on the unsustainable follies of both Labour and National governments, with only a few MP's it will be difficult in the short term for LMP to have a big impact on the Hungarian Government. Their job is bigger than that though. Their real task is to build a better understanding of green thinking - what a sustainable economy would look like and how people's lives would be improved by it. They have to build a green constituency.

In the context of Central Europe, this also means helping to build a regional green movement. The cyanide spill into the Tisza River in 2000 by a Romanian / Australian mining consortium demonstrated that environmental problems respect no national boundaries. Central Europeans have a history of fighting for each other during their uprisings and revolutions. Now they have to work together on an equally important task, to demonstrate that regardless of national differences and circumstances, another kind of politics is possible.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Feeding the world

I'm constantly amazed at people's ability to spend vast amounts of money to arrive at increasingly more complicated ways of doing pointless things. Genetic engineering springs immediately to mind, but what got me thinking about it recently is the Global Research Alliance, which met for the first time yesterday.

The Global Research Alliance is a New Zealand Government-led initiative that aims to reduce farm emissions while ensuring food production meets the demands of a growing world population, according to Associate Climate Change Minister Tim Groser. It was proposed by John Key last September at the United Nations General Assembly and is backed by a number of countries, including the USA. Officials and scientists from 28 countries are getting together in Wellington to start nutting out questions like who will lead the different workstreams and who will own any intellectual property rights that come out of it.

All very interesting, but it begs the rather large question of when are we going to do something about the need to REDUCE the demands of a growing world population? Humans are stretching natural ecosystems to breaking point as a result of both our growing population and our per capita consumption, at least in rich countries like ours. It's time to tackle the problem instead of just wondering how we can make money from it.

The global demand for meat and dairy products is growing rapidly, not primarily from population growth but as a result of the emergence of large middle classes in places like China and India. The aggressive promotion of dairy products in East Asia by Fonterra (anyone remember their chocolate cheese?) is an attempt to get into their wallets, and is good business practise. However, when you consider that the livestock sector is the single biggest anthropogenic user of land on Earth, contributing 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions worldwide (more than transportation) and is probably the biggest cause of deforestation on the planet, it seems obvious that promoting more meat and dairy consumption is not in our long term collective interests as a species. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation report 'Livestock's Long Shadow' outlines the problems well.

A couple of years ago the world faced a serious food crisis. The media largely blamed it on the use of croplands to grow biofuels and it is true that this was a contributing factor. What made it worse was the fact that some biofuels used more energy to produce than they yielded. In reality, though, biofuels were only part of the story. The widespread feeding of food crops to livestock is a far more significant factor, with a protein conversion efficiency of between about five and twenty percent, depending on the animal. In 2002 around 670 million tonnes of cereal were fed to animals, including more than 60 percent of the maize and barley grown in the world and more than 90 percent of the soymeal.

One of the saving graces of New Zealand pastoral farming is that our animals actually eat pasture, although high stocking rates is leading to a growing reliance on imported feedstocks such as palm kernel. New Zealand is the major importer of palm kernel and while Fonterra argues that this is a byproduct, not a food crop, tropical deforestation to grow palm oil plantations is made more attractive by this additional market for the kernel. In addition, even with pasture fed animals, in most cases the amount of protein per hectare is much smaller than if the same land was used to grow plant foods.

So if we were really interested in how to feed the world while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we would simply sack the scientists and officials and use the research money to promote veganism. We'd probably all be healthier and there would be more food to go around. Such an elegant solution, however, is unlikely to find much favour at this week’s discussions.

The other side of the problem is the growing population. The real challenge is not how we are going to feed (and clothe, house and provision) the projected 8.9 billion people by 2050 , but how we are going to reduce that figure. The answers to that are not at all simple, but a fairer distribution of resources and access to education and birth control, especially for women, seem to be key factors. Perhaps Mr Key should get Durex to underwrite his next talk fest.

(from Monkeywrenching @