Agenda also in the news this month
Small bites... Cow genes on toast Scientists have launched trial crops of genetically modified (GM) wheat, adjusted to repel aphids. Researchers at the Rothamsted Research station in Hertfordshire, England, have billed the strain as ‘eco-friendly GM’, but sceptics are unconvinced.
‘This GM wheat contains the first synthetic copy of an animal gene,’ says Anna Thompson of the Community Food Growers Network. ‘Scientists describe it as “most similar to one found in cows”. We believe genes like these should not be used in a food crop without a full public consultation.’
Thompson is part of a campaigning group arguing that the crop trial employs technology that is haphazard and poorly understood. Organizing under the banner ‘Take the Flour Back!’ they are planning a mass action for 27 May.
Meanwhile, campaigners GM Freeze have labelled the experimental crop of GM wheat ‘a step backwards for farming’. They say that consumers’ unwillingness to touch GM foods makes the test a waste of time and public money (at a cost of over $1.5 million).
GM foods were seen off by vigorous campaigning back in the 1990s. But everrising food prices and tightening food security worldwide have helped to revive the debate. The idea of a technological fix to feed the one billion who go hungry has never sounded so seductive.
But Thompson insists that GM foods will not feed the world. ‘We need solutions that work with nature rather than against it, such as predator strips and companion planting – all of which have been used for generations.’
She warns that if GM is allowed to flower, it may be here to stay, adding that contamination of non GM-crops would destroy Britain’s valuable wheat export market. ‘Successive consultations and polls have shown that people simply do not want to eat GM foods,’ she concludes.
Trickle-up austerity If swingeing cuts fail to stimulate economic growth, as is widely predicted, it may be time to apply austerity upwards, argues New Internationalist author and academic Danny Dorling. He has documented how in Britain today, income and wealth gaps are greater than at any point in living memory. In his paper ‘The case for austerity among the rich’, he calculates that almost $3.18 billion a year would be saved by society returning to 1970 inequality levels. The economic losers in such a scheme would be a small number of expensive boarding schools, luxury cars and Michelin-starred restaurants (as opposed to, say, hospitals, libraries and universities). Read Dorling’s complete paper, published by the Institute for Public Policy Research here: nin.tl/ GZd7sT or, for a fuller exploration of Dorling’s ideas, read his No-Nonsense Guide to Equality, published by New Internationalist.
German farmer gives meat a face The owner of an organic pig farm now publishes the picture of the animals he kills to fill his jars of brawn and make his sausages. ‘As a meat eater, you should accept that animals die for your meat,’ says Dennis Buchman, a journalist and biologist who came up with the upsetting but honest marketing ploy. ‘By looking your meat in the face, you stumble and think about eating meat. Give meat a little more respect than a carrot, for example.’ meinekleinefarm.org/ sierraclub.org
Open window In collaboration with cartoonmovement.com – a global network of political cartoonists – each month this slot will feature a different cartoonist from around the world.
This month: Mohamed Sabra, from Egypt, with ‘Hidden Relations’. Mohamed Sabra is an Egyptian cartoonist currently residing in Saudi Arabia. In addition to his cartooning, Mohamed is a physician currently working as an anaesthetist at the King Saud Hospital in Riyadh.
12 ● N ew I n t e r nat i o nal i s t ● MAY 2 012 Coal? No thanks
For decades now, the economy has been the buzzword in China – development at all costs, and that includes the environment. But as living standards and awareness increase, the Chinese public are showing signs that they are no longer prepared to put up with pollution.
Large-scale protests have tended to target factories and public waste incinerators. But now coal has come into the line of fire. This comes as no surprise. Putrid, grey ash coats the fields, homes and clothes of people living in the vicinity of power stations across China. Communities are suffering the effects of this toxic sludge – which contains arsenic, mercury, lead and over a dozen other toxic heavy metals – and the accompanying health risks: cancer, heart and lung disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and birth defects, to name but a few.
In early 2012, in the southern island province of Hainan, locals decided they had had enough. Around 20,000 people from seaside township Yinggehai clashed with riot police and attacked government buildings to protect their fishing grounds and farmland from a new coalfired power station.
The Hainan rebellion followed in the footsteps of an action by citizens in Guangdong province in southern China last December. Here, some 30,000 people fought off police to block the highway and successfully halted the construction of a second coal power plant being built near the town of Haimen.
‘People have long been aware of the benefits of economic development, but now they are also considering the health impacts of fossil-fuel based development,’ says Alvin Lin, China Climate and Energy Policy Director at the US-based National Resources Defence Council. He puts the upsurge in protest down to media coverage and the work of green NGOs, which has brought about ‘greater public disclosure of pollution information’. The recent media focus on urban air pollution, for example, has helped prompt the Chinese government to start monitoring and reporting on the levels of dangerous particles in city air.
‘People know more about environmental health problems and are also better connected via internet and social networking tools,’ says Wen Bo, senior fellow at Pacific Environment in Beijing, who believes we are likely to see more protests. ‘Communities which are immediately affected by coal, incineration or nuclear power plants are likely to be the most radical.’
Wen adds that the government has displayed more tolerance for these kinds of protests, compared to those of a more overtly political nature. This may inspire other affected communities to take action, especially with the example of Haimen’s victory splashed over the internet.
However, the issue of coal in China – the world’s largest consumer – is still a sensitive one. Coal makes up roughly 70 per cent of the mainland’s energy mix, and the government has earmarked it as the dominant energy source for many years to come. They may be investing in renewables and energy efficiency, but coal power is still expanding at roughly 1.5 new plants a week, says Lin. ■
Reasons to be cheerful
India challenges Coca-Cola pollution The state of Kerala in south India has passed a radical ‘polluters pay’ bill, which will allow communities to sue Coca-Cola for damages. The law paves the way for actions from communities such as Plachimada, where a bottling plant allegedly leaked a sludge containing toxic chemicals such as cadmium and lead, groundwater levels dropped and land lost productivity. The legislation represents a breakthrough victory for anti-pollution activists in India and their supporters in the West. ‘This should serve as a powerful reminder to corporations across India that there are severe repercussions for operating recklessly,’ says Amit Srivastava of the India Resource Center. Two other campaigns – in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh – are also seeking closure of local Coca-Cola bottling plants. grassrootsonline.org
Move over polystyrene, it’s fungus time If, after devouring late-night chips, a small part of you dies as you add to the load of an overflowing bin with a ketchupsmeared polystyrene tray, bound for the oceans and landfill, take heart: Vermont entrepreneur Eben Bayer has invented a way to grow packaging using mushroom spores. Forged from agricultural waste and a fungus that works like glue, this fireproof, waterproof ‘rapid renewable’ takes just seven days to grow, and can be composted at the end of its useful life. Evocative Designs is an ambitious enterprise that plans to scale up to an industrial level and wipe petroleumbased plastics from the face of packaging. wired.co.uk/ecovativedesign.com i c e n c e
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Clicktivists unite Avaaz, the world’s ‘largest political web movement’, has hit 13 million members. A small – but growing – staff team marshals supporters in 193 countries to sign petitions, send emails and pull off media stunts. This co-ordinated push to supercharge campaigns is chalking up victories and mediawins at breakneck speed. ‘It’s thrilling, even a little scary, especially when we see that the pace is still accelerating,’ Avaaz write on their site. So far this year, the group has mobilized five million signatures against internet censorship bills ACTA and SOPA, helping to freeze SOPA and putting ACTA on shaky ground. Entirely funded by its members, Avaaz has also helped smuggle $1.8 million-worth of medical supplies into Syria. avaaz.org
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