Tuesday, June 15, 2010

GE clover like pulling a Cat out of a Hat

When I heard AgResearch today announcing a breakthrough in the genetic engineering of white clover I was reminded of Dr Seuss. Not his explicitly environmental classic 'The Lorax' so much as 'The Cat in the Hat Comes Back'.

I still remember the sense of panic in the book as a pink stain in the bathtub grows bigger and badder from the grotesque attempts by various cats to clean it up, until it has turned into a major disaster.

The attempt to fix greenhouse gas emissions by genetically engineering clover for pasture fills me with a similar sense of alarm.

There is no doubt that something needs to be done to address New Zealand's agricultural emissions. New Zealand has the 11th highest per capita emissions in the world and around half of that comes from agriculture, in the form of methane and nitrous oxide.

The massive growth and intensification of dairy farming is pushing that contribution up, both by cutting down forest carbon sinks to grow pasture and by converting relatively low intensity sheep and beef farms into high intensity dairy farms.

On the face of it, then, genetically engineering white clover to reduce greenhouse gas emissions seems a good idea. By identifying and then manipulating a genetic 'switch' which allows clover to concentrate condensed tannins in its leaves and stems; AgResearch hopes to be able to reduce methane from stock.

This has enormous commercial potential for AgResearch both here in New Zealand and in the international market. The recent Global Research Alliance meeting in Wellington (see http://www.3news.co.nz/Feeding-the-world/tabid/1341/articleID/150090/Default.aspx) is testament to that.

There are a range of other potential benefits from this work. AgResearch claims that it will mean less bloat in stock.

This is good from an animal welfare and economic point of view, since bloat can be both painful and fatal. In addition the animals will produce more meat and milk, presumably as a result of the reduced methane production.

Conventional clover makes stock more productive anyway, but farmers tend to keep clover cover limited since it can cause bloat. If genetically engineered clover does not cause bloat then farmers can have a higher proportional of pasture in clover.

This is likely to lead to less nitrogen fertiliser being used as well, since clover is leguminous and fixes (or rather hosts a bacteria which fixes) nitrogen in soils.

From an ethical point of view the fact that this is intragenic genetic engineering rather than trangenic may comfort some people. The insertion of human genes into sheep is highly offensive to many.

The manipulation of clover genes and reinsertion of clover genes into clover does not lead to the same level of abhorrence. The genetic engineering industry has been playing on this, with international apologists such as Caius Rommens arguing that intragenic genetic engineering should face less stringent risk assessment procedures than is usual.

New Zealand's own Tony Connor similarly argues that intragenic genetic engineering is not really genetic engineering at all and so is not, or should not be, covered by the legislation.

Since AgResearch says that this new clover is at least 10 15 years away from commercial release, expect to see them lobbying heavily around this issue over the next few years.

This approach only makes sense, however, if all concerns about genetic engineering are irrational by which term I do not mean spurious. If the concern is solely about inappropriate boundary crossing then intragenic genetic engineering must be acceptable. However the genetic engineering debate was never just about emotion versus science.

While I do not for one minute seek to belittle the emotional response of many people that genetic engineering 'just doesn't seem right', I also know that a number of scientists, geneticists even, have grave concerns about the way that genetic engineering is developing.

Those concerns are not blunted by whether the source material comes from the same species or another.

Professor Jack Heineman likens the process of genetic engineering to cutting a few sentences out of a magazine and inserting them randomly into a book. Most of the time the resulting pages makes no sense.

Occasionally they do, but we don't always know all of the resulting changes. Similarly the organisms created by genetic engineering are usually not viable, but occasionally they are.

It doesn't matter whether the inserted words are from the same book or a magazine; the context of the words has changes sufficiently to make the results uncertain. For that reason he rejects any notion that intragenic genetic engineering be treated any differently from transgenic.

New Zealand should be particularly careful about the commercial release of a pollinated pasture plant. Should this clover be released it is almost certain to spread across the country very rapidly and affect surrounding non-genetically engineered varieties and species.

In addition, as the Royal Commission on Genetic Engineering pointed out, we know very little about the effects of genetic engineered organisms on living soils.

AgResearch's solution to methane emissions run the risk, like the cats in the Dr Seuss story, of creating even bigger problems than what we started with. Just as importantly, though, it falls prey to the problem of reductionist thinking that is a significant cause of the ecological crisis we are in and I don't just mean climate change.

By attempting to fix methane emissions by genetically engineering pasture AgResearch is likely to exacerbate the many other environmental problems associated with dairy farming in this country.

The unwillingness to accept any limits to dairy expansion has become a national psychosis and has already led to a government sponsored coup against Environment Canterbury.

It is time to accept that the best all round solution to the problem of unsustainable dairy farming is to de-intensify, and even better, to go organic.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Gooder fish

“What do you think about this?” he asked, waving a letter under my nose. I was in Poppa's Takeaways on behalf of the extended family and had just finished placing a complex order in two parts when Dave bounced over. I squizzed at it, surprised. Forest and Bird must have written to every takeway in the country for one to have come to Waingaro Road, Ngaruawahia. It was their latest 'best fish guide' with an explanation of how the shop could improve their fish buying choices.

I go to Poppa's because it ranks among the best fish and chip shops in the country, IMHO, so I was happy to see that Dave didn't take the easy route and throw it in the bin. We talked about why some of his best selling fish rank so badly on the sustainability stakes. I knew that a lot of hoki is still caught by bottom trawling (see my column 'fishing stories') and that there are questions about the quota levels. It seems that there are similar concerns around snapper and other popular fish. We talked about what he could do as a fish seller and he decided that he would put a large photocopy of the guide on his shop wall and encourage customers to move towards more sustainable choices, such as kingfish instead of snapper, or gurnard and tarakihi rather than lemonfish. It would be hard to wean the locals off their favourite fry, but he thought he should at least give it a go.

Now I'm not one of those people who think that green consumerism can save the planet. As a general strategy it is doomed to failure, as John Barrett of the Stockholm Environment Institute demonstrates in relation to greenhouse gas emissions. The reason partly comes down to the Jevons Paradox which says that increasing efficiency leads to increased net resource use. For example, more efficient car engines make it cheaper to drive, so people drive more. Conscious consumerism may be preferable to unconscious consumerism but will be inadequate unless it challenges the dynamics of the growth economy. As a tactic, however, green consumerism can be a powerful lever by opening up markets for sustainable products and by shrinking down markets for unsustainable ones. Put simply, if you're going to buy fish then the 'good fish guide' is a useful thing to have in your wallet or purse.

Or even better, to see on the wall of the local chip shop. No one expects shop keepers to put themselves out of business but we should expect them to provide their customers with this kind of information. Of course many takeaways only stock one kind of fish, in which case customers should be asking them to make sure it is one of the more sustainably harvested kinds, as Burger Wisconsin is doing. Its the kind of action that is easy, non threatening and potentially catalytic. There's no need to be rude or aggressive. When you next go to a place that sells cooked fish, ask if they received a guide from Forest and Bird and how they intend to respond to it. This week is a good week to do that, since yesterday was World Oceans Day.

The world's oceans need a bit of a birthday treat right now, what with BP spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico and anti whaling activists in the Japanese courts. New Zealanders have been understandably preoccupied with Peter Bethune, who faces a potential 15 years in jail for attempting a citizens arrest on board a Japanese whaling boat and has just been cut off by Sea Shepherd in a very strangely timed decision. We have been less conscious of the Japanese Greenpeace activists who also face jail terms for exposing corruption in Japanese whaling. May Tangaroa protect them all.

(from 3news.co.nz/environmentsci/monkeywrenching)

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Crafar farms and our strategic advantage

Most dairy farmers must hate the Crafars. I know that, like the Police, they've got that 'closed ranks' thing going on, but in private they must be cursing that family. They've probably done more to destroy the carefully constructed image of the New Zealand dairy farmer than all the tree-huggers put together. The Crafars were, after all, the epitomy of farming success. Once New Zealand's largest privately owned dairy operation, they have been reduced to fighting eviction from their farm (a court date has just been set) while their assets are liquidated. Their holdings were so enormous that who will buy them is causing handwringing in the highest places.

Now I don't actually hug trees but I do like them a lot, so I was surprised to find myself agreeing with a range of people opposed to a sale to Hong Kong listed (and Cayman's registered) Natural Dairy (NZ) Holdings. These include Federated Farmers' Lachlan McKenzie, Fonterra's Henry van der Heyden (although the position does seem hypocritical from an industry that is buying up land in South America and opening farms in China as fast as it can) and ex-ACT MP Deborah Coddington, .

To me it just seems stupid to sell-off large swathes of productive land to overseas interests,whether they are Chinese, American or Australian. Unlike Treasury secretary John Whitehead I don't see overseas investment as fundamentally beneficial for New Zealand. I see a dimunition of sovereignty, expatriation of profits to other countries and the maintenance of artificially high land prices. The servicing of the resulting gargantuan farm debts is driving the intensification of dairy farming, with associated over-extraction of water and increased run-off pollution. It is also what is driving the corporatisation of farming, with young farmers increasingly incapable of buying their own farm.

No one seems quite sure what Natural Dairy (NZ)'s game is. Fiona Rotherham in The Independent has questioned the murky financial backing and the 'patchy' business backgrounds of the two front people, Jack Chen and May Wang. She puts this in the context of a Hong Kong propensity for 'pump and dump' stock manipulation schemes, where people talk up a company through grand public announcements and then exit the stock when the price soars. No one is saying that this is what Natural Dairy (NZ) is doing, just that there are some questions that need answering.

Other opponents see a different motive. Henry van der Heyden and Greens co-leader Russel Norman have mentioned food security and there is no doubt that is something that the Chinese Government takes very seriously. According to China’s Ministry of Land and Resources China lost 8 million hectares or 6.6 percent of its arable land in the last decade through soil erosion and salinization. Which is why in 2008 China was drafting a policy to encourage agricultural companies to purchase farmland abroad. Much of this has been in Africa, where the practise of 'land grabbing' is seen as a form of neo-colonialism,since the intent is not to assist local economies to develop but simply to secure resources.

Whether a 'pump and dump' or a 'land grab', New Zealand needs to look very carefully at this proposed sale. Which is why I was pleased to read that Landcorp is considering entering a bid. Given the poor environmental practises of the Crafar's, however, it would be good to see something more regenerative on that land than intensive dairying. Landcorp did some research a few years ago that indicated that organic dairy farming has similar profitability to conventional, although they didn't look at organic sheep and beef, which is where the biggest premiums are. Even without increased profit, the case for conversion is compelling given the environmental gains from organic farming. After the Crafars, it would be poetic to see Landcorp turn the properties into organic R&D dairy farms, and it would be of much greater strategic advantage to New Zealand.

(from my Waikato Times column 4 June 2010)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Pirates in Club Med

Once again the Israeli Government and the Israeli Defence Force have shown their utter contempt for (non-Israeli) human life and for international law by boarding an aid ship in international waters and killing between ten and twenty of its passengers. The bitter reality, though, is that condemnation from the non-Islamic world will be token and short lived. If Israel can get away with invading Lebanon, killing at least 1,500 people, mostly civilians, and bombing identified UN peacekeepers what do a few hippies on a boat matter?

Well, not quite hippies. The ship was part of a flotilla ferrying about 700 people, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire, a number of European legislators and an elderly Holocaust survivor. It was organised by a broad coalition of groups and although many of the ships were Turkish registered, the activists came mostly from around Europe. The number of casualties is still, at the time of writing, unclear although some reports indicate that most are Turks.

Turkey's relationship with Israel, strategically and historically important, has been under strain for some time. This latest event may be a killer blow. Turkey's Foreign Ministry has said this “breach of international law may lead to irreparable consequences in our bilateral relations” and an unnamed source has indicated that Turkey is looking at its rights under international law.

Amos Harel suggests in Haaretz that the more significant fall-out will be with Palestinians, those with Israeli citizenship and those denied it. If it is confirmed that Raed Salah, the head of the Islamic Movement's northern branch is one of the dead he predicts riots and the real possibility of a third intifada.

The response from Europe has, in contrast, been predicably inconsequential. The EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton has called for a "full inquiry". Greece summoned Israel's ambassador to demand a report on the safety of any of its citizens on board and has cancelled a join military exercise with Israel. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he was “deeply concerned”. The French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was the most outspoken. “I am deeply shocked.... we do not understand the still provisional human toll of such an operation against a humanitarian initiative that has been known for several days" he said.

But ultimately such words mean nothing. The Israeli Government acts with belligerent distain for the niceties of diplomatic signalling. It knows that it acts as an agent for Western interests in the Middle East. Under such conditions the world can say what it likes but Israel will continue to act with impunity. Who else could get away with slapping the President of the USA in the face TWICE with the same trick and still be told that the US had "no better friend than Israel"? If I didn't know better I'd think that Netanyahu was having a laugh at Obama's expense.

As far as the dead humanitarians go, Israel claims that its soldiers were shot at when they boarded the boat. That is not what the video indicates or what journalists on board the Mavi Marmara report. Even if it were true, people have a right to protect themselves against piracy in international waters.

Israel says that the flotilla was a stunt. Well, of course it was. It is meant to draw attention to the terrible nature and effects of the blockade of Gaza, which Israel and Egypt imposed when the people of Gaza exercised their democratic rights to elect a Hamas government. If the blockade was meant to dislodge Hamas, however, it has been a complete failure. What it has done instead, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, is destroy the economy of Gaza and prevent reconstruction of the badly damaged area.

The Israeli government says it allows 15,000 tonnes of aid a week into Gaza but this is a fraction of what is needed according to the UN, which describes the situation in Gaza as “increasingly desperate”. In addition Israel places heavy restriction on reconstruction materials such cement and building materials. South African judge Richard Goldstone, on a UN fact-finding mission has suggested that the blockade of Gaza be considered a crime against humanity.

It would be nice to think that the deaths of the flotilla activists are not in vain and that this terrible incident acts as a catalyst to break the blockade of Gaza and allow the Palestinian people to breathe a bit more freely. Somehow, however, I doubt it. Geopolitics will prove once again to be more important to Western Governments than the lives of Arabs – or indeed of their own people.